Unnecessary Measure Words

Sticking with the number theme, here’s a little quiz. Now don’t be nervous, and don’t read ahead to the answers (I tired to find an upside-down font for the answers, but you’ll just have to be on your honor).

Anyone who’s studied Chinese for a few weeks or months should be able to do the quiz. The best time to take this quiz is while you’re feeling good after hearing a native speaker not know the measure word for computer.

Questions

1. How do you say, “16 people” in Chinese?

2. How do you say “24 hours” in Chinese?

HINT: There is more than one correct answer to each question.

Do you have your answers? Try not to think about the title of this post when you answer or you’ll anticipate my coup de grace.

Answers

(not bolded to reduce cheating)

1. shíliù gè rén 十六个人 – OR – shíliù wèi rén 十六位人 (polite)*

2. èrshísì gè xiǎoshí 二十四个小时 – OR – èrshísì gè zhōngtóu 二十四个钟头

*There are even more measure words you can use for people, but those are the main ones in everyday speech.

Now, look at these pictures and see if you can see the difference between your answers and the written Chinese (again, try not to think about the post title):

16persons

(elevator max occupancy plate)

24hours

(TV show "24" Season 7 pirated DVD cover)

The hanzi in those two pictures tells us that additional correct answers are:

1. shíliù rén 十六人 (16 as it appears in the picture)

2. èrshísì xiǎoshí 二十四小时 (24小时 as it appears in the picture)

No measure words!

Alright, enough beating around the bush. I’m going to just come out and tell you what I’m getting at:

The Chinese don’t seem to need measure words within written Chinese.

I don’t think it would be acceptable to SAY, when speaking Chinese, either of those no-measure-word utterances that appear in the pictures (at least usually rén and xiǎoshí 小时 need a measure word in front of them).

I count this as an argument supporting theory 3: that measure words came about to help people differentiate all those homonyms when speaking to each other. When dealing with hanzi only (i.e. reading written Chinese), there are no homonyms. Therefore, you can do without measure words.

I guess that means that the main functions of measure words in spoken Chinese are to indicate:

1. What I just said before this measure word was a number.

2. What I’m about to say after this measure word is a noun.

With the huge number of homonyms in Chinese, other words can sound like numbers (especially 1 yī, 10 shí, and 4 sì the way it’s pronounced by many in Southern China as “shì”), and the noun itself can sound like other nouns with only a single tone difference (and sometimes not even that). Measure words give valuable auditory clues that help increase the chances (not always to 100%) that what you’re saying will be understood.

And so, to close on a pedagogical note: when speaking Chinese, the more accurate your measure words are, the more likely it is that you’ll be understood (there’s some help with that here and here).

Anyone else know any examples of a measure word that would usually be there in spoken Chinese that disappears in written Chinese? Do tell.

Comments

  1. The Chinese don’t seem to need measure words within written Chinese.

    Oh dear.

    That’s quite a sweeping statement, and you’ve only looked at two nouns, both of which I’m pretty sure I’ve seen mentioned in textbooks and/or dictionaries as not requiring measure words.

    Written Chinese, especially on signs (just like in English), tends to favor abbreviation.

    However, I don’t think that upon further investigation, you will find that measure words are so disposable.

  2. 1. shíliù gè rén 十六个人 – OR – shíliù wèi rén 十六位人 (polite)*

    Comments: We seldom say “shíliù wèi rén 十六位人”, It’s strange to me, we usually say

    shíliù gè rén 十六个人

    shíliù wèi xiǎo pénɡ yǒu 十六位小朋友

    shíliù wèi lǐnɡ dǎo十六位领导

    2. We use a twenty four hour clock.
    我们采用24小时制。
    We open 24 hours.
    我们二十四小时营业。
    In above sentences, we will not say “24个小时

    2 hourse later.
    两个小时后 or 两小时后 both are correct.

    ———–

    It’s difficult to find out a example of a measure word that would usually be there in spoken Chinese that disappears in written Chinese.

    Let me think about it.

  3. Randy Alexander,
    Yes. I plead guilty to the charge of making an “overly sweeping statement.” I know that measure words are used most frequently in written Chinese. But my question is: do they really NEED them? The sign “16” is understandable, but I don’t think we’re supposed to say “shiliu ren” when speaking, right? I suppose I’m always on a little quest to prove that mafan things in the language are really unnecessary, perhaps unhealthily so (the quest that is).

    大羽,
    Thanks for showing that “24小时” is a frozen form and usually doesn’t have any measure words. When you’re telling someone “two hours later” which way do you usually say it?

  4. My guess is, that measure words in written chinese are being left out for marketing purposes. To create logos, brands, mottos… They may sound better this way. More compact. You can also encounter 你我 instead of 我们 sometimes- I have personally never heard it in spoken chinese.

    I have heard measure words left out in clear contexts: 我把这事忘了, or 情你把这句子写下来. In theory it’s 这件事 and 这句句子. I am talking of spoken language here.

    Measure words sometimes are crucial to determining what someone’s talking about, think of the difference between 一套房子 (an apartement) and 一间房子 (a room).

  5. “With the huge number of homonyms in Chinese, other words can sound like numbers (especially 1 yī, 10 shí, and 4 sì the way it’s pronounced by many in Southern China as “shì”)”

    In my experience, in Southern China it’s actually the other way around. The “h” is often dropped (not just in “sh” but also in “ch” and “zh”). So I agree that 4 (sì) and 10 (shí) can sound similar in parts of Southern China, but it’s because they are pronounced as sì and sí, respectively.

  6. There is a number-related thing that disappears in written English, too:
    30 January vs. thirtieth of January
    This makes it a bit difficult for Chinese learners of English because they have to know ordinal numbers well, whereas 30th would simplify the task.

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