When learning a foreign language, you would think that at least the numbers would be simple (don’t we all have ten fingers?). We do all have ten fingers, but actually, number-related expressions in Japanese can be confusing.

Learning to Count All Over Again

There are several differences between the way Japanese and Indo-European languages deal with numbers. First of all, in Japanese there are two words for four, seven, and nine, but they’re not interchangeable; you just have to know which one to use in each case. For instance, when counting, you say shi for four, but in phone numbers, you say yon. When referring to the month of April, which is said literally as “4-month”, you again use shi. [For seven, the two words are shichi and nana, and for nine they are ku and kyu].

But that’s only the beginning of the number woes. When referring to numbers of particular objects, there are two systems. One uses a number word, like those mentioned in the above paragraph, plus a “counter,” which indicates what type of object you are talking about. The other system has completely different number words, but forgoes the need for a counter.

First, the “counter” system. This “counter” is like a unit amount of something. If you want four pieces of paper, you say “four sheets”—yon-mai (-mai is the counter). Of course, there are about a zillion different counters. In addition to –mai (which applies only to flat, thin objects), there are counters for long, slender objects; people; animals; books/magazines; clothing; planes; houses; small boats; large ships; and a bunch of other stuff. This is sort of like “group” nouns in English—schools of fish, gaggles of teenage girls—but not quite. It’s as if you have to know the group noun to say any kind of plural. You have to know that it’s a “murder” of crows just to be able to say “two crows.” This adds up to a lot of counters to remember considering how many nouns there are that you might like to pluralize!

Now, there is a second, more generic, number system, in which you don’t need a counter. In this case, “four sheets of paper” is simply said yottsu—“four of those [or these].” You’ll have to specify that you’re talking about paper somewhere else in the sentence. This works OK much of the time, but sometimes it’s awkward and you really will need to know the counter.

Why use counters? Well, we do in a few cases in English. For example, we do say things like “three sheets of paper” rather than “three papers.” Nonetheless, as a general practice for all nouns, it seems unnecessary. But at least I know why it seems unnecessary to my American mind :-).

Many languages classify nouns into various groups. One way to do this is to have counters for different kinds of nouns. Another way is to assign arbitrary “genders” to nouns. Many Asian languages have adopted the first way, and many European languages have gone with the second (such as der/die/das in German). There are no languages that have both counters and gender—if you classify your nouns one way, you don’t classify them the other way.

English is one of the rare languages that has neither counters nor gendered nouns. That’s why it seems so silly to be required to say yon-mai for “four sheets of paper” in Japanese, as well as why it makes no sense that the word “butter” is feminine in German.

But wait—there’s even more about numbers to confuse the Western mind. We have a system of counting that goes by factors of 1,000 once you get to large numbers. That is, we say tens, hundreds, and thousands, but after that, we repeat the tens and the hundreds for each larger unit that is 1,000 times the last unit. Ten thousand, one hundred thousand, then one million, where a million is a thousand thousands. Then we start over with tens and hundreds until we increment to billion, which is one thousand millions.

Not so in Japanese. They’ve got tens (juu), hundreds (hyaku), and thousands (sen) just like us, but they’ve also got a unit for ten thousand—a different word (man). Numbers bigger than 10,000 must be expressed in units of man, tens of man, hundreds of man, and thousands of man. A thousand ten-thousands is ten million (sen-man). Then the next increment—one hundred million—has a new name (oku). You see the pattern? While English increments in units of 1,000, Japanese increments in units of 10,000. So the number ichi man nana sen go hyaku kyu juu ni is 17,592 (which might be written as 1,7592 if Japanese used the same logic behind applying commas as we do. Luckily, they don’t).

This makes it really hard to hear long numbers correctly. I assume the same is true when Japanese people learn English. Oy! Perhaps it is particulary difficult because I am a scientist and have a simple mental map of how all the numbers fit together (the exponents go in groups of three, not four, darnit!). Unfortunately, my map is invalid here.

There are other annoyances, like the fact that certain days of the month have special names (the first through the 10th, plus the 14th, 20th, and 24th). Just memorize it.

Numbers and the Uniqueness of Japanese

When you look at the kun (Japanese) pronunciation of numbers, there is an interesting pattern. Numbers that differ by a factor of two have related words:
one: hitotsu
two: futatsu

three: mittsu
six: muttsu

four: yottsu
eight: yattsu

(For completeness, the others are:
five: itsutsu
seven: nanatsu
nine: kokonotsu)

There are no other known languages that have these factor-of-two relationships among small numbers. This is one of the clues that led linguistics scholars to realize that Japanese has no relatives. If we ever discover a language with this sort of structure, we may finally know the family origins of Japanese.

Feedback onto My Perception of English

Learning Japanese has allowed me to see some of the quirks of English that I hadn’t noticed before. Not that English has any shortage of quirks! But still, it’s amusing to discover that there are even more than I thought.

For instance, take plurals. Japanese doesn’t have them. You don’t add “s” to indicate that there are more than one of an object. At first, this seems weird—how can you tell what you’re talking about? But then I realized that English actually overdoes the plural. Look at this:

one cat
three cats

Here’s a simple question: if you are already saying “three,” why do you need the “s” to indicate plural—the presence of “three” already makes it plural! The “s” is thus redundant.

In Japanese, the same phrase is said “three of cat,” where “three” is the counter for animals (the counter is -piki and “three” is sambiki—never mind the phonetic change. That happens a lot). This is perfectly logical, and not redundant. And if it happens that it doesn’t matter in the sentence you are saying whether there is one cat or several cats, then you just say neko (“cat”) and leave it ambiguous how many there are.

The counters, which seem really confusing and illogical when you first encounter them, are actually kind of elegant. The issue is whether you pluralize nouns with a specific ending (like “s”) or if you leave that job to the numerical indicator (like “three”). Sometimes you want to say “cats” but not indicate how many there are. This is an easy construction in English where we have a separate form for plural nouns. The price we pay for that simplicity is that we have redundant plurals when we do decide to use specific numbers, and we cannot indicate an ambiguous number of cats that might include only one (we have to say “cat or cats”).

Japanese went the other way. It has no pluralized nouns, placing all of that burden on the number words. There is thus no redundancy when saying things like “three cats.” And there is the option of saying an ambiguous number of cat or cats. But it’s a little harder to say just “cats” in general. It seems to me, though, that there aren’t very many cases where you can’t just get away with saying “a few cats,” or “many cats,” which are easy constructions in Japanese. You don’t really have to say just plain “cats” all that often. So both the Japanese and English systems work just fine. It’s fun to discover these little differences that I hadn’t thought of before.