Japanese is considered one of the hardest languages to learn for Westerners. The whole subject-object-verb sentence structure tends to make people run for the hills. But honestly, once you get into the SOV state of mind, Japanese becomes incredibly easy. Unfortunately, there are parts of the Japanese language that have no rhyme or reason and just need to be beaten into your head.
Counting, and the rules for relaying how many things you have (counters), are just some of those more difficult memorization tasks. The Japanese language does not have plural forms for most things. A rudimentary way to pluralize living things is to use the noun and attach “tachi” (達) to the end of it. So person, “hito” (人), becomes people, “hito-tachi” (人達). This can be used for us, we, they, those animals, those kids, etc. Outside of that if you want to say there is more than one of something, you generally have to be specific and say how many of that object you are talking about.
They make sense… just don’t think about it
It seems that rote memorization is the only way to grasp counters. As an engineer I despise pure memorization. Most normal brains are not built that way. Our brains work best when we make connections with existing memories. This is where when learning chemistry or history students learn small tricks to retrieve information from their noggins.
Mnemonics like “OIL RIG” and “LEO the lion goes GER” help to memorize what happens during oxidation and reduction; if you studied in an American grade school you probably learned “in 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue” as a rhyme to remember that year for a test. Japanese counters, on the other hand, tend to be tricky.
So, how do we go about articulating quantities in Japan? Well, it depends on what you are counting. Are you counting long objects? Flat objects? Animals with wings? Small animals? Large animals? Songs? There are different counters for different kinds of things. For example, when saying you have two bottles of water in Japanese you refer to the specific shape of the bottles, long and cylindrical, and use the counter for that type of object.
Which counter do I use?
While many things fall under very obvious categories – elephants and horses are large animals so they use “the large animal” counter – some are not so obvious. For example:
When in doubt, it’s best to simply use つ tsu or 個 ko and people will know what you mean.
3, 2, 1… pronunciations are fun
So, when using counters in speech you have to be careful how you pronounce them, because they change based on how many objects you have. While usually pronunciations alternate by odds and evens there is always an exception hiding somewhere in the first three counters. This means more rote memorization of exceptions.
Unfortunately, many dictionaries do not cover this topic and so that means making mistakes and hoping the people around you can correct you and then you learn from that. I’ve listed some common counter pronunciation exceptions below.
本, by itself is pronounced “hon” and is the counter for long objects (mostly used for bottles). The first four ways it is pronounced are “i-ppon”(1), “ni-hon”(2), “san-bon”(3), and “yon-hon”(4). The “hon” itself changes to “pon” and “bon” and then back to “hon”. After that it alternates between “hon” (5,7,9) and “pon” (6,8,10).
匹, by itself is pronounced “hiki” and is the counter for small animals. The first four ways it is pronounced are “i-ppiki”(1), “ni-hiki”(2), “san-biki”(3), and “yon-hiki”. After that it alternates between “hiki” (5,7,9) and “piki” (6,8,10).
人, by itself is pronounced “hito” and is the counter for people. Attached to a number it is read “nin”… except for 1人 and 2人 which are read “hitori” and “futari”. So this is a complete divergence of its normal pronunciation! After that there is no alternating and “nin” is always used.
The days of our lives
Once you get the hang of the patterns for counting objects, using them becomes easy. Dates, however, are a completely different story. Counting days and even saying dates requires a little more studying. Why? Because dates and days have their one unique words. A day? “Ichi-nichi”. 2 days? “Futsuka-kan”. 12 days? “Jyu-ni-nichi-kan”. The number 1, 1 day, and the 1st day of the month all have different pronunciations.
All this really leads one to scratch their head. What is the best way to practice counting if there is no rhyme or reason? As strange as it sounds, memorizing counting may come down to remembering each number independently. If you are a flash card person, make sure to mix some counting in with other words you are studying. And from experience, if you don’t know the correct one to use just try to get close. The Japanese are too polite to correct you outright, but if you ask, someone will help you with the correct word.