That is, are counters (助数詞) an open class of words?

If yes: Is there an example of a counter that was added recently (say, post-Taishō) and is now in current use by a community of speakers (i.e. not a single writer)?

If no: When did new counters stop popping up in the historical record (that is, when was the last period during which counter-words were an open class)? There were precious few counter-words in Nara-period Old Japanese (-chi, -ri, -ka, "pillar" -hashira for gods), and there's an awful lot now; therefore the class must have been open at some period. The standard hypothesis seems to be that the Heian-era influx of Chinese influence expanded usage of counters (by influence of Chinese classifiers/measure-words); but did they stop adding counters soon after, or did they keep expanding the set up until later periods?

For this question, I'm interested in grammatical counter-words like 個、匹、本、羽 etc. A counter-word doesn't just quantify general measures, as in "3 kilos of flour/lettuce/uranium" or "3MB of data/bandwidth/free memory"; it's also bound to specific sets of words, effectively dividing the lexicon into classes, which it counts in natural units (small animals are counted as 匹, except rabbits which are lumped with birds into 羽, while roundish objects are counted as 個, etc.). Counter-words are also distinct from nouns like ダウンロード in 一万ダウンロード、 in that they can be used to count different nouns in syntactically anaphoric constructions like:

  • りんごを食べた。
  • ポケモンは3ゲットした。
  • 4
    Are you excluding Gairaigo words ? -- カートン , イニング, セット, クール, MB, KB, GB, DL, アクセス, etc. ? __ I'd naturally be interested in recent, non-Western-Gairaigo or non-Katakana ones, -- are there any ?
    – HizHa
    Sep 19, 2016 at 22:29
  • I don't include things like MB because they're not true counter-words but run-of-the-mill quantifiers, also occurring in English and other languages. In "3MB of data", "MB" just say how much data there is (3145728 8-bit bytes). But in りんごの3個, the word 個 doesn't just indicate a quantity or unit, but also indicates the general shape, "quality" or "class" of things being counted. (One way of seeing this is that the same data could be counted in MB, KB, bytes, bits, 7-bit ASCII characters, etc.; but apples must be counted as 個, rabbits as 羽, etc.) Sep 20, 2016 at 12:45
  • (cont) I also don't include things like アクセス because they don't occur in counter-word constructions like: 「3のりんご」→ 「*3アクセスの(アクセス?)」; 「ポケモンは3ゲットした」→「*(DL?)は一万DLした」. These are just nouns, being counted "in the plain" without counters. That being said, you're right! Some recent gairaigo do count as true counter-words, and I was totally overlooking them! Thanks for pointing me in this direction. Sep 20, 2016 at 12:54
  • 1
    I think アクセス is a true counter, as in [ 8月は月間233万アクセスを達成! ] ___ Thank you for the interesting info.
    – HizHa
    Sep 20, 2016 at 18:39
  • To be a counter like 個 or 匹, it needs to be able to be used to count something other than accesses. For example, in 3個のりんご, 個 counts りんごs. You're not just counting "個s", you're counting りんごs, and the word "個" refers to "りんご". You can substitute りんご for a whole class of nouns which refer to certain 個-like things (smallish, roundish…). Now try to use アクセス as you would 個: can you build a sentence like 3アクセスのX, where you are counting Xs, not accesses? What class of nouns would you count with it? (Notice 万アクセスのサイト doesn't work, because it means a site with 10000 accesses, not 10000 sites.) Sep 20, 2016 at 18:48

1 Answer 1


Short answer: still an open class, especially for Sino-Japanese (kango) and Western (gairaigo) nouns, which can seamlessly be converted into counters. A “core” set is stable, but rarer, more specialized counters are comparatively fluid.

I was overlooking a large number of gairaigo borrowings used for counting, some of them used as true grammatical counter-words (thanks @H. Ha for pointing this). One important example is セット, when used (among other things) for set meals or sets of products sold together. A few real examples from Twitter:

  • 定食2セットくらい食べて欲しい

  • みそ汁&ご飯も全てがパーフェクトなお味🎶

  • 一人で入ったのに、お冷やとおしぼりを2セット出された(;・∀・)

(Detailed research on the uses and meaning of セット is available on 東条佳奈、『名詞型助数詞の用法 : 準助数詞「セット」と「組」を中心に』.)

Pamela Downing's Numeral Classifier Systems: The Case of Japanese has more information. Downing's research was motivated by two conflicting studies:

  • Sanches, Language acquisition and language change: Japanese numeral classifiers, 1997, found that young people are using fewer counter-words, implying that the system is on its way out in modern culture.
  • But 見坊 Kenbō , 現代の助数詞 (in: 辞書を作る), 1976 found exactly the opposite: that not only existing counters were being adapted for new uses (such as 面 for sports arenas), but also new ones were being devised.

After doing some detailed research on the functions of counters, Downing ends up cautiously siding with Kenbō, criticizing some of Sanches' methods. As shown by the discussion in the comments above, counter-words are surprisingly tricky to define, and are closely related to common nouns. What's more, many counters are infrequent, and catch on to varying levels of acceptability and prescription (as shown by the popularity of 数え方 “how to count” manuals and the like). Because of that, Downing says the class is "permeable", and may at any time recruit nouns to be used as counters. She says there's a "core set" of counters that are very frequent and stable in Japanese, and cross-linguistically frequent in other classifier languages (that is, if a language has counter-words, it probably features this set); the core includes counters for generic inanimate objects (tsu) distinct from people (人 nin), the basic shapes (本、枚、個), and, secondarily, perhaps the most important "kind"-based classifiers (台、匹…). To this basic set, any noun may be added as a counter, depending on cultural considerations.

Kenbō says that native (yamato-kotoba) counters have been stable from the 20th century (at least?); but new Sino-Japanese (kango) and Western (gairaigo) counters are still being added. (Sadly, Downing's report is lacking on concrete examples; if anyone has access to Kenbō, or some kango examples, it would be appreciated).

  • I'm answering my own question because I only found Downing after formulating it. Thanks @H. Ha for the help. Sep 20, 2016 at 14:38
  • Downing cites 車両 "(road) lane" as an example of recent kango counter, but I'm not sure it fulfills her own definition of counter-words (specifically item #2 at p. 16: "it readily co-occurs with a [separate] noun denoting the referent, whose number is indicated by the numeral-classifier construction"). Sep 20, 2016 at 14:41
  • The use of 貫{かん} to count sushi pieces is as late as the 1970s, according to Iida's 数え方の辞典. Jul 28, 2017 at 8:58

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