Thursday, October 21, 2010

Language: Counting

English is routinely called one of the most difficult languages in the world to learn. There is one instance, though, where English is nice and easy: counting. One piece of paper, one rose stem, one person. All of these are the word "one".

In Japanese, "one" varies. Long story short, "ichi" (each-ee) is "one" in general, but needs different add-ons to work in some situations and gets replaced entirely in others.

One piece of paper - ichi-mai (-mai is used with things that are flat) 一枚

One bottle of beer/rose stem/etc. - ippon (hon/pon/bon is used with cylinder shapes) 一本

One person - hitori (counting people uses funky exceptions for one or two people, but evens out to regular numbers plus "nin" from three on: hitori (1 people), futari (2 people), san-nin (3 people), yon-nin (4 people), etc. 一人

The good news in counting is that if you're just starting out in Japanese, there's a default general counting system (-tsu) used with many items and understood even if used improperly with things like the examples above.

Hitotsu (1 thing) 一つ
Futatsu (2 things) 二つ
Mittsu (3 things) 三つ

Remember, these are different than if you're just counting out loud, "1, 2, 3", which would be "Ichi, ni, san". Hitotsu and such are used when counting things.

There are many more specific counters, everything from books to animals, but again, if you're just starting don't be overwhelmed and focus on the "tsu" system first. It's how Japanese kids learn themselves, I've been told. :)

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