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.
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.
(not bolded to reduce cheating)
*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):
The hanzi in those two pictures tells us that additional correct answers are:
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 人 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.
Anyone else know any examples of a measure word that would usually be there in spoken Chinese that disappears in written Chinese? Do tell.