The Japanese language uses counters to count different kinds of items, animals as well as people such as 一本 to count a long cylindric object or 二枚 two count flat objects (in thi case two flat objects). However, I have been wondering if this system is original to the Japanese language or if it was imported and adopted from Chinese.
Japanese already had counters before Chinese contact, but only a few. After Chinese they increased a lot.
Old Japanese (Nara period, before the Sinification of the language) had a handful of true counters:
-pasira (modern hashira), used to count Deities and Emperors.
pîmê kamï yö-pasira [四柱] nö sumê kamï…
the Princess Deities, the Four Imperial Deities… (2)
-tari/-ri, for counting people (still seen in 一人 hitori, 二人 futari, and in Old Japanese also mitari etc.)
The generic -tu (modern -tsu), used with most numerals (including 10000, yörö-du, but not all numerals; e.g. 100 momo, 10 töwö (> tō) or 500 ipo (>io) were used directly). Maybe this began as a number suffix; but the contrast between e.g. ya-tu, never used for people, and ya-tari, only for people, means that by Old Japanese time it was starting to work as a very general classifier for anything non-human (animals included).
-ka for days, still visible in fossils like 二十日 hatsuka.
It had also had counter-style usage of words like:
-tuka 束 (modern tsuka), for a handful of grain (used in religious liturgies only).
-pê (modern -e), for layers, comparable to English -fold.
ama nö yapê-kumô [八重雲] wo…
the eightfold heavenly clouds…
-maki 巻, for volumes;
This system seems somewhat incipient and limited; yet it provided a syntax for true counters, of the same type seen in other counter-based languages (that is, for expressions of the form "three X of Ys", where X and Y are not the same word, and X is not a quantity measurement, as in 三人の人/三つのりんご). It's true that the system expanded explosively after Chinese contact: both the number and the usage of counters increased dramatically. But Chinese-style counters probably only took so well to Japanese because Japanese already had the infrastructure in place.
- Downing, Numeral classifier systems: The case of Japanese.
- Bentley, A Descriptive Grammar of Early Old Japanese Prose.