Japanese Counters for Dummies: they’re easier when you know how!

Ippiki, nihiki, sanbiki…

Japanese counters can seem very difficult at first. You can’t just say “two pencils”, “seven cats” or “ten sheets of paper” the way you can in most languages. You need to know the counter for long round things, small animals and thin flat things respectively.

Not only that, but the pronunciation of the counter changes depending on what number it is used with. The counter for small animals is called hiki but in fact:

1 cat is ippiki
2 cats are nihiki
3 cats are sanbiki
4 cats are yonhiki
5 cats are gohiki
6 cats are roppiki
7 cats are shichihiki or nanahiki
8 cats are happiki
9 cats are kyuuhiki
10 cats are juppiki

And then different counters have different patterns of sound-change.

How Counters’ Sound Patterns Transform

It looks crazy, but in fact it is a lot simpler than it seems. Once you learn how it works you will be able to figure out how nearly any counter sounds for any number.

Look at the sub-heading above and commit it to memory. Here, I’ll give it to you again:

How Counters’ Sound Patterns Transform

You need to remember this phrase. Why? Because actually there are only five types of transforming counter (only?… no don’t panic, I’m going to help you). They are counters that start with the consonantal sounds H, K, S, P and T. That is why you should remember that phrase – How Kounters’ Sound Patterns Transform.

Or, if it is easier, you can remember this way: it is the “hard”-consonant counters that transform, not the “soft”-consonant ones like mai, rin, wa and bu. This makes even more sense when you see how they work, since (with a single maverick exception) they always transform by sharpening or doubling the hard sound – you actually can’t double soft consonants in Japanese. You never see a small tsu before m, b, or w.

Now, once you know that, you will be pleased to learn that the transformations are very regular. What throws people, I think, is that single maverick we spoke of before. H-row sounds turn to the B-equivalent when paired with san (as in sanbiki)*. But actually that is the only major irregularity.

Other than that all the HKSPT counters modify in the same way. In a few cases the modification is optional, but you can always use it without fearing to make a mistake.

So, leaving out the H row for a moment, all the other mutating counters  (K,S,P,T) follow the same pattern:

1. They all keep their base value for all numbers other than one, six, eight and ten (jump from one to six, then every alternate number).

2. As for those four numbers, they all do the same thing:

They simply drop the second syllable of the number and double the first consonant of the counter. So ni-ko and san-ko but ikko rather than ichi-ko and jukko rather than juu-ko.

The only regular exception to this is that the S and T counters don’t mutate for 6 (roku) – i.e. no ross- or rott-.

The H-row is really less puzzling than it seems too. It only changes to the sounds that are made with the H-row by adding diacritical marks so, in the case of ひき hiki, it becomes びき biki (for that maverick san only) and っぴき ppiki for the regular doubled-consonant numbers, one, six, eight and ten. Since you couldn’t actually have hhiki, that isn’t very hard to remember.

Now I won’t pretend there aren’t a few other irregularities with counters (hun, the counter for minutes, for example doesn’t get the b-mutation on 3, but is sanpun rather than sanbun). But this pattern will guide you through most of the ones you are going to use. Even Japanese people mostly don’t use the more obscure counters.

The important thing to realize is that it is a pattern that works nearly all the time, not just a set of confusing random sound-changes. And if the counter does not begin with H,K,S,P or T, it will not have sound-changes at all.

Remember that you don’t need counters if you use the native Japanese counting system – hitotsu, futatsu mittsu. However you should know and use the basic counters like hon, hiki, hai, mai, ko, etc

If you work through the explanation on this page (it sounds a bit more complicated in text than it really is), the pattern of the sound changes should fall into place for you and the whole thing will feel much more intuitive.

* There is a sound-logic to the san-b transformation too, but for our practical purpose here it is simpler just to think of it as a maverick.

3 thoughts on “Japanese Counters for Dummies: they’re easier when you know how!

  1. A very useful article, thank you!

    However, it looks like not all the exceptions are listed here. For example, counters starting with W- can also mutate on 1-3-6-8-10: 羽 (wa) – birds – san-ba/san-wa, rop-pa/roku-wa, hap-pa/hachi-wa, jip-pa/juu-wa.

    Also, counters starting with K- can sometimes mutate on 3: 階 (kai) – floors – san-gai/san-kai; 軒 (ken) – houses – san-gen/san-ken. It is interesting that different grammar books list different combinations as possible here, some say that only san-gai, but both san-gen/san-ken are possible, others say that both san-gai/san-kai, but only san-gen is possible. I have a feeling that professional linguists are as much confused about Japanese counters as we are!

    BTW, the counter for minutes is fun (分), not hun as you wrote in the article, right? In any case, it is ni-fun (二分), go-fun (五分), etc. I think all grammar books agree on this. If we say that 分 is pronounced hun, then pronunciation of numbers like ni-fun (二分), etc. would be confusing. And if this is so, we need to add F- to the five letter rule in the article as well.

    So the final list will look like this: H, F, P, K, S, T, W. (I reordered it so that the letters H, F, and P go together for an obvious reason, the rest of them are listed alphabetically. I don’t know if a “helper” phrase for remembering them exists now.) Wikipedia seems to agree here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Japanese_counter_word#Euphonic_changes

    And finally, there are some occasional mutations on the number 4: yo-nin (四人, four people), yon-pun (四分, four minutes), yo-ji (四時, four hours).

    In any case, I’m not criticizing your article here (I must admit, it was a very useful revelation to me), but rather trying to sort things out for myself in the first place. Before today I always thought there was no system in Japanese counters at all…

    1. Thank you for your detailed comment and please forgive us for not approving it earlier. It got hidden in the spam filter!

      I suspect some of the variants are local which may be why different sources list different ones. The thing to bear in mind is that it isn’t really necessary to learn all variations. So long as what you are saying is correct it doesn’t matter if you haven’t memorized all other possible variations. They will be understandable when you hear others using them.

      I am a little unsure what you mean by the letter f in Japanese. ふ is transliterated as fu in the Hepburn system and hu in some other systems. The actual sound in Japanese is between the two and does not exist in English. It is caused by the position of the lips when pronouncing Japanese u, which makes the h more f-like in ふ than in the rest of the は-row. There is no other “f” in Japanese.

      When you say that the counter for minutes is fun not hun, I am not sure where the distinction lies. In hiragana it is ふん which can be transliterated either as hun or fun. I thought it easier on the memory to treat it along with the rest of its row, since it acts similarly and use the hun transliteration to keep the family similarity clear.

      This really is the problem with using Romaji (I do it on this site because people find it easier. Perhaps I shouldn’t). We should not in fact be saying either hun or fun. We should be saying ふん.

      You are right about W. Indeed w-mutations appear in well-known expressions like senba dzuru (1000 cranes). However, also notice that the standard “wa” is always possible. One won’t ever be wrong for saying wa (as a counter), so we don’t actually need to learn it and can safely stay with the information in the article. Really the purpose of the article is that we can learn enough to use counters correctly, not that we should learn every variation we may encounter.

      Incidentally when my Japanese host mother was sick she asked me to fetch her eldest son. I was actually living in a separate apartment and didn’t know where all the family’s rooms were, so I asked and she said sangai (3rd floor). It was the first time I had heard that usage, and of course the meaning was clear even though I was not previously aware of the variation.

      The same person on another occasion puzzled me by referring to a website called Yafu. I said I had not heard of it and she was astonished. Silly me. Of course Yafu and Yahoo are the same in Japanese (and the pronunciation is not the same as either English sound). This really brought home to me how we need to stop attaching Japanese sounds to Romaji in our minds (and I largely don’t, but traces of the infection remain). However that is a subject for another article (which you’ll find here!).

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