Skip to content
Licensed Unlicensed Requires Authentication Published by De Gruyter (A) September 28, 2019

Word order of numeral classifiers and numeral bases

Harmonization by multiplication

  • One-Soon Her , Marc Tang EMAIL logo and Bing-Tsiong Li


In a numeral classifier language, a sortal classifier (C) or a mensural classifier (M) is needed when a noun is quantified by a numeral (Num). Num and C/M are adjacent cross-linguistically, either in a [Num C/M] order or [C/M Num]. Likewise, in a complex numeral with a multiplicative composition, the base may follow the multiplier as in [n×base], e.g., san-bai ‘three hundred’ in Mandarin. However, the base may also precede the multiplier in some languages, thus [base×n]. Interestingly, base and C/M seem to harmonize in word order, i.e., [n×base] numerals appear with a [Num C/M] alignment, and [base×n] numerals, with [C/M Num]. This paper follows up on the explanation of the base-C/M harmonization based on the multiplicative theory of classifiers and verifies it empirically within six language groups in the world’s foremost hotbed of classifier languages: Sinitic, Miao-Yao, Austro-Asiatic, Tai-Kadai, Tibeto-Burman, and Indo-Aryan. Our survey further reveals two interesting facts: base-initial ([base×n]) and C/M-initial ([C/M Num]) orders exist only in Tibeto-Burman (TB) within our dataset. Moreover, the few scarce violations to the base-C/M harmonization are also all in TB and are mostly languages having maintained their original base-initial numerals but borrowed from their base-final and C/M-final neighbors. We thus offer an explanation based on Proto-TB’s base-initial numerals and language contact with neighboring base-final, C/M-final languages.


We thank the anonymous reviewers and the editors for their constructive comments, which led to significant improvements of the paper. All remaining errors are our own. We gratefully acknowledge the financial support by Taiwan’s Ministry of Science and Technology (MOST) via the following grants awarded to O.-S Her: 101-2410-H-004-184-MY3, 104-2633-H-004-001, 104-2410-H-004-164-MY3, and 106-2410-H-004-106-MY3.

Appendix – Classifier languages in SMATTI

DunganMandarin ChinesePu-Xian Chinese
Gan ChineseMin Bei ChineseWu Chinese
Hakka ChineseMin Dong ChineseXiang Chinese
Huizhou ChineseMin Nan ChineseYue Chinese
Jinyu ChineseMin Zhong Chinese
Biao-Jiao MienHmong NjuaPa-Hng
Bu-Nao BunuJiongnai BunuShe
Hmong dawNorthern Qiandong Miao
BlangKhasiParauk Wa
Car NicobareseLyngngamPrai
Central KhmerMae Hong Son LawaRuching Palaung
ChongMah MeriSamre
Eastern BruMan MetSantali
Eastern KatuMangSapuan
Jah HutMonSedang
JehNorthern KhmerSemelai
Baha BuyangLiujiang ZhuangTai Daeng
BiaoLuTai Dam
BouyeiMakTai Don
ChadongMaonanTai Nua
Dai ZhuangNong ZhuangThai
GelaoNorthern DongWhite Gelao
Guibei ZhuangNungYang Zhuang
Guibian ZhuangQabiaoYongbei Zhuang
HlaiRed GelaoYoujiang Zhuang
LachiSaekZuojiang Zhuang
LaoSouthern Dong
AchangHaka ChinRawang
Angami NagaHorpaSgaw Karen
ApataniInpui NagaSimte
AtongJiarongSouthern Bai
AxiJingphoSouthern Pumi
AzheKadoSouthern Qiang
BaimaKarbiSouthern Tujia
BhujelKok BorokTawang Monpa
BisuKonyak NagaThado Chin
CamlingLeinong NagaTiwa
Central BaiLhao VoTshangla
Daai ChinMuyaWambule
DhimalNewarWestern Gurung
DimasaNocte NagaWestern Kayah
DrungNorthern BaiXiandao
DumiNorthern PumiYakha
Eastern KayahNorthern QiangYamphu
ErsuNorthern TujiaYoule Jinuo
Falam ChinNungZaiwa
Galo AdiPaite ChinZauzou
Geba KarenQueyu
Balkan RomaniFiji HindiNepali


Adams, Karen L. 1986. Numeral classifiers in Austroasiatic. In Colette G. Craig (ed.), Noun classes and categorization, 241–262. Amsterdam & Philadelphia: John Benjamins.10.1075/tsl.7.16adaSearch in Google Scholar

Aikhenvald, Alexandra Y. 2000. Classifiers: A typology of noun categorization devices. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Search in Google Scholar

Allan, Keith. 1977. Classifiers. Language 53(2). 285–311.10.1353/lan.1977.0043Search in Google Scholar

Au Yeung, Wai-Hoo B. 2005. An interface program for parameterization of classifiers in Chinese (PhD dissertation). Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, Hong Kong.10.14711/thesis-b922442Search in Google Scholar

Au Yeung, Wai-Hoo B. 2007. Multiplication basis of emergence of classifiers. Language and Linguistics 8(4). 835–861.Search in Google Scholar

Bauer, Christian. 1992. Review of: Adams Karen Lee: Systems of numeral classification in the Mon-Khmer, Nicobarese and Aslian subfamilies of Austroasiatic. Canberra: Australian National University, Research School of Pacific Studies, 1989 [pub.1990]. Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies 55(2). 374–378.10.1017/S0041977X00005188Search in Google Scholar

Beckwith, Christopher I. 2007. Phoronyms: Classifiers, class nouns, and the pseudopartitive construction. New York: Peter Lang.Search in Google Scholar

Benedict, Paul K. 1987. Early MY/TB loan relationships. Linguistics of the Tibeto-Burman Area 10(2). 12–21.Search in Google Scholar

Bhattacharya, Tanmoy. 2001. Numeral/quantifier-classifier as a complex head. In Norbert Corver & Henk C. van Riemsdijk (eds.), Semi-lexical categories: The function of content words and the content of function words, 191–221. Berlin & New York: Mouton de Gruyter.Search in Google Scholar

Bickel, Balthasar. 2014. Linguistic diversity and universals. In N. J. Enfield, Paul Kockelman & Jack Sidnell (eds.), The Cambridge handbook of linguistic anthropology, 101–124. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.10.1017/CBO9781139342872.006Search in Google Scholar

Bisang, Walter. 1999. Classifiers in East and Southeast Asian languages: Counting and beyond. In Jadranka Gvozdanović (ed.), Numeral types and changes worldwide, 113–186. München: Walter de Gruyter.Search in Google Scholar

Biswas, Priyanka. 2013. Plurality in a classifier language: Two types of plurals in Bangla. Proceedings of generative linguists of the Old World in Asia (GLOW in Asia), 1–14.Search in Google Scholar

Burling, Robbins. 2004. The language of the Modhupur Mandi (Garo). Vol. 1: Grammar. New Delhi: Bibliophile South Asia.10.3998/spobooks.bbv9808.0001.001Search in Google Scholar

Chan, Eugene. 2017. Numeral systems of the world languages. Retrieved from in Google Scholar

Comrie, Bernard. 2006. Numbers, language, and culture. Presented at the Jyväskylä Summer School, Jyväskylä.Search in Google Scholar

Comrie, Bernard. 2013. Numeral bases. In Matthew S. Dryer & Martin Haspelmath (eds.), The world atlas of language structures online. Leipzig: Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. (Available online at, Accessed on 2018- 07-13.)Search in Google Scholar

Corbett, Greville G. 2013. Number of genders. In Matthew S. Dryer & Martin Haspelmath (eds.), The world atlas of language structures online. Leipzig: Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. (Available online at, Accessed on 2018- 07-13.)Search in Google Scholar

Dayal, Veneeta. 2014. Bangla plural classifiers. Language and Linguistics 15(1). 47–87.10.1177/1606822X13506151Search in Google Scholar

Dryer, Matthew S. 1998. Why statistical universals are better than absolute universals. Papers from the 33rd Regional Meeting of the Chicago Linguistic Society, 1–23.Search in Google Scholar

Emeneau, Murray B. 1956. India as a linguistic area. Language 32(1). 3–16.10.2307/410649Search in Google Scholar

Fu, Jingqi. 2015. The status of classifiers in Tibeto-Burman languages. In Dan Xu & Jingqi Fu (eds.), Space and quantification in languages of China, 37–54. Dordrecht: Springer.10.1007/978-3-319-10040-1_3Search in Google Scholar

Gil, David. 2013. Numeral classifiers. In Matthew S. Dryer & Martin Haspelmath (eds.), The world atlas of language structures online. Leipzig: Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. (Available online at, Accessed on 2018-07-13.)Search in Google Scholar

Greenberg, Joseph H. 1990 [1972]. Numerical classifiers and substantival number: Problems in the genesis of a linguistic type. In Keith Denning & Suzanne Kemmer (eds.), On language. Selected writings of Joseph H. Greenberg, 166–193. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press. [First published 1972 in Working Papers on Language Universals 9. 1–39.]10.1515/9781503623217-009Search in Google Scholar

Greenberg, Joseph H. 1990 [1978]. Generalizations about numeral systems. In Keith Denning & Suzanne Kemmer (eds.), On language. Selected writings of Joseph H. Greenberg, 271–309. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press. [First published 1978 in Joseph H. Greenberg., Charles A. Ferguson & Edith A. Moravcsik (eds.), Universals of the human language, vol. 3: Word structure, 249–295. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.]Search in Google Scholar

Gvozdanović, Jadranka. 1999. Numeral types and changes worldwide. Berlin & New York: De Gruyter.10.1515/9783110811193Search in Google Scholar

Her, One-Soon. 2012a. Distinguishing classifiers and measure words: A mathematical perspective and implications. Lingua 122(14). 1668–1691.10.1016/j.lingua.2012.08.012Search in Google Scholar

Her, One-Soon. 2012b. Structure of classifiers and measure words: A lexical functional account. Language and Linguistics 13. 1211–1251.Search in Google Scholar

Her, One-Soon. 2017a. Deriving classifier word order typology, or Greenberg’s Universal 20A and Universal 20. Linguistics 55(2). 265–303.10.1515/ling-2016-0044Search in Google Scholar

Her, One-Soon. 2017b. Structure of numerals and classifiers in Chinese: Historical and typological perspectives and cross-linguistic implications. Language and Linguistics 18(1). 26–71.10.1075/lali.18.1.02herSearch in Google Scholar

Her, One-Soon, Ying-Chun Chen & Nia-Shin Yen. 2017. Mathematical values in the processing of Chinese numeral classifiers and measure words. PLOS ONE 12(9). 1–9.10.1371/journal.pone.0185047Search in Google Scholar

Her, One-Soon, & Chen-Tien Hsieh. 2010. On the semantic distinction between classifiers and measure words in Chinese. Language and Linguistics 11(3). 527–551.Search in Google Scholar

Hu, Houxuan. 1983. Jiaguwen heji [The great collection of the oracle inscriptions]. Beijing: China Social Sciences Publishing House.Search in Google Scholar

Jacquesson, François. 2007. Kok-Borok. A short analysis. Hukumu, 10th anniversary volume, 109–122. Agartala: Kokborok Tei Hukumu Mission.Search in Google Scholar

Joseph, Thatil Umbavu V. 2007. Rabha. Leiden: Brill.Search in Google Scholar

Kondakov, Alexander. 2013. A sociolinguistic survey of the Rabha dialects of Meghalaya and Assam. Dallas: SIL international.Search in Google Scholar

Luraghi, Silvia. 2011. The origin of the Proto-Indo-European gender system: Typological considerations. Folia Linguistica 45(2). 435–464.10.1515/flin.2011.016Search in Google Scholar

Matisoff, James A. 1995. Sino-Tibetan numerals and the play of prefixes. Bulleting of the National Museum of Ethnology (Osaka) 20(1). 105–251.Search in Google Scholar

Mazaudon, Martine. 2009. Number-building in Tibeto-Burman languages. In Stephen Morey & Mark W. Post (eds.), North East Indian linguistics, 117–148. Cambridge: Foundation Books.10.1017/UPO9788175968554.009Search in Google Scholar

Morev, Lev N. 2000. Some afterthoughts on classifiers in the Tai languages. Mon-Khmer Studies 30. 75–82.Search in Google Scholar

Mortensen, David R. 2017. Hmong-Mien languages. In Mark Aronoff (ed.), Oxford research encyclopedia of linguistics, 1–25. Oxford: Oxford University Press.10.1093/acrefore/9780199384655.013.341Search in Google Scholar

Nomoto, Hiroki. 2013. Number in classifier languages (PhD dissertation). University of Minnesota, Minneapolis.Search in Google Scholar

Peyraube, Alain. 1991. Some remarks on the history of Chinese classifiers. Santa Barbara Papers in Linguistics 3. 106–126.Search in Google Scholar

Peyraube, Alain. 1998. On the history of classifiers in Archaic and Medieval Chinese. In Benjamin K. T’sou (ed.), Studia Linguistica Serica, 131–145. Hong Kong: City University of Hong Kong.Search in Google Scholar

Piantadosi, Steven T. & Edward Gibson. 2014. Quantitative standards for absolute linguistic universals. Cognitive Science 38(4). 736–756.10.1111/cogs.12088Search in Google Scholar

Seifart, Frank. 2010. Nominal classification. Language and Linguistics Compass 4(8). 719–736.10.1111/j.1749-818X.2010.00194.xSearch in Google Scholar

Senft, Gunter. 1986. Kilivila: The language of the Trobriand Islanders. Berlin & New York: De Gruyter.10.1515/9783110861846Search in Google Scholar

Senft, Gunter. 2000. What do we really know about nominal classification systems. In Gunter Senft (ed.), Systems of nominal classification, 11–49. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Search in Google Scholar

Simons, Gary F. & Charles D. Fennig (eds.). 2018. Ethnologue: Languages of the world(21stedition). Dallas, Tex.: SIL International. ( in Google Scholar

Sinnemäki, Kaius T. K. to appear. On the distribution and complexity of gender and numeral classifiers. In Francesca Di Garbo & Bernhard Wälchli (eds.), Grammatical gender and linguistic complexity. Berlin: Language Science Press.Search in Google Scholar

Sullivan, Gail M. & Richard Feinn. 2012. Using effect size – or why the p value is not enough. Journal of Graduate Medical Education 4(3). 279–282.10.4300/JGME-D-12-00156.1Search in Google Scholar

Tai, James & Lianqing Wang. 1990. A semantic study of the classifier tiao. Journal of the Chinese Language Teachers Association 25(1). 35–56.Search in Google Scholar

Velupillai, Viveka. 2012. An introduction to linguistic typology. Amsterdam & Philadelphia: John Benjamins.10.1075/z.176Search in Google Scholar

Wu, Fuxiang, Feng Shengli & Huang Zhengde. 2006. Hanyu shu+lianhg+ming geshi de laiyuan [On the origin of the construction of numeral+classifier+noun in Chinese]. Zhongguo Yuwen [Studies of the Chinese Language] 5. 387–400.Search in Google Scholar

Xu, Dan 2013. Plurality and classifiers across languages in China. München: Walter de Gruyter.10.1515/9783110293982Search in Google Scholar

Yi, Byeong-Uk. 2009. Chinese classifiers and count nouns. Journal of Cognitive Science 10. 209–225.10.17791/jcs.2009.10.2.209Search in Google Scholar

Yi, Byeong-Uk. 2011. What is a numeral classifier? Philosophical Analysis 23. 195–258.Search in Google Scholar

Zhang, Niina Ning. 2013. Classifier structures in Mandarin Chinese. Berlin & Boston: De Gruyter Mouton.10.1515/9783110304992Search in Google Scholar

Published Online: 2019-09-28
Published in Print: 2019-09-25

© 2019 Walter de Gruyter GmbH, Berlin/Boston

Downloaded on 6.12.2023 from
Scroll to top button