495 - Counting Rabbits

Counting stuff in Japanese sucks.

For reasons unbeknownst to mankind, a simple counting system is not a feature of the Japanese language.

Instead, we have the dreaded "counters," which are different words for numbers depending on what's being counted.

Sure, the first thing you'll learn is counting to ten the standard way:

一(いち // one

二( // two

三(さん // three

四(よん・し // four

五( // five

六(ろく // six

七(なな・しち// seven

八(はち // eight

九(きゅう // nine

十(じゅう // ten

十一(じゅういち // eleven

十二(じゅうに // twelve

十三(じゅうさん // thirteen

...and so on.

But then words and readings suddenly start changing depending on what's being counted.

In this lesson we're looking at...

🐈 🐩 🐘 🐰 🐤
How to Count Animals

When counting animals, a kanji affixes to the end of the number... depending on what type of animal we're counting.

For example, 匹 (ひき) is the counter for small animals.

Let's say we're talking about cats (which are, as far as the Japanese language is concerned, small animals). The word for cat is 猫 (ねこ).

When you want to say "one cat," you DO NOT say 猫一 (ねこいち). Instead, you would say 猫一匹 (ねこいっぴき).

Hold on. I thought you said was pronounced ひき?!

Yeah, one other not-so-nice thing about numbers in Japanese is that there are all kinds of exceptions.

In the case of 匹 (ひき), it becomes 一匹 (いっ) for "one (small animal)." The other irregulars are 三匹 (さん// three [small animals]), 六匹 (ろっ// six [small animals]), 八匹 (はっ// eight [small animals]), and 十匹 (じゅっ // ten [small animals]).

Here's a complete list:

一匹(いっぴき // one [small animal]

二匹(にひき // two [small animals]

三匹(さんびき // three [small animals]

四匹(よんひき // four [small animals]

五匹(ごひき // five [small animals]

六匹(ろっぴき // six [small animals]

七匹(ななひき // seven [small animals]

八匹(はっぴき // eight [small animals]

九匹(きゅうひき // nine [small animals]

十匹(じゅっぴき // ten [small animals]

十一匹(じゅういっぴき // eleven [small animals]

十二匹(じゅうにひき // twelve [small animals]

十三匹(じゅうさんびき // thirteen [small animals]

What I would do is just count the small animals one to thirteen in your head as many times as you need to until you can say them correctly in order. It sounds like a lot of work, but I'm sure you could do it within a day. Just count while you're cooking, driving, lying in bed, etc.

Also, I thought that Puni Puni Japan had a pretty good article on counting small animals, which included images and a video.

Let's look at the greatest part of any lesson, though: Example sentences!

Check out the conversations below about some small animals...

Note: One thing that lists of counters often fail to include is asking "how many (X)."

Question words use counters, too!

For "small animals," we use 何匹, which can be pronounced as either なんびき or なんひき. Looking online, I found more Japanese people using なんびき, but Rei prefers なんひき. As for me, I like なんびき, since it's similar to 三匹 (さんびき // three [small animals]), which is also irregular.

ちょっと まって。 メラニー いぬ なんびき [なんひき] かってる って?
Hold on. How many dogs did you say Melanie has?
Literally: “a little + wait. + Melanie + dog + how many (small animals) + is keeping / is raising / is owning + って (=verbal quotation marker)?”

Literally: “six (little animals).”

ろっぴき? たいへん じゃない?
Six? Wouldn’t that be tough?
Literally: “six (little animals)? + tough / difficult + isn’t it?”

たいへん っていうか、 じごく でしょ。
Tough? More like, hell.
Literally: “tough / difficult + っていうか, + hell + でしょ.”
Note: We saw this casual っていうか at the end of this lesson, and we have seen でしょ(う) in many lessons, such as this one.

ペット かってる?
Do you have any pets?
Literally: “pet + are keeping / are raising / are owning?”

うん、 ねこ にひき と いぬ いっぴき。
Yeah, two cats and one dog.
Literally: “yeah, + cat + two (small animals) + と + dog + one (small animal).”

OK, so what about large animals?

Well, that's a little easier. We use ~頭 (~とう).

Don't ask me why 頭 (あたま // head) is the kanji for counting big animals--I have no idea.

Here's our full list:

一頭(いっとう // one [large animal]

二頭(にとう // two [large animals]

三頭(さんとう // three [large animals]

四頭(よんとう // four [large animals]

五頭(ごとう // five [large animals]

六頭(ろくとう・ろっとう // six [large animals]

七頭(ななとう // seven [large animals]

八頭(はちとう・はっとう // eight [large animals]

九頭(きゅうとう // nine [large animals]

十頭(じゅっとう // ten [large animals]

十一頭(じゅういっとう // eleven [large animals]

十二頭(じゅうにとう // twelve [large animals]

十三頭(じゅうさんとう // thirteen [large animals]

You will have happily noticed that ~頭 is pronounced ~とう in every single one of those. That goes for "how many (large animals), too:"

何頭(なんとう // how many [large animals]


Sentence time:

You simply MUST have your own pet elephant, so you tell your mom...

いっとう だけ でも ぞう かおう よ!
Come on, let’s get an elephant! Even just one.
Literally: “one (large animal) + only + even + elephant + let’s keep / let’s raise / let’s own + よ!”

And you expect her to say...

ダメ に きまってる でしょ!
Absolutely not!
Literally: “not allowed + に + is decided + でしょ!”

But instead, she surprises you by being cool for once, saying...

いっとう だけ じゃ さみしい んじゃない? すくなくとも にとう でしょ。
If we only got one, it’d be lonely. We have to get at least two.
Literally: “one (large animal) + only + じゃ + lonely + んじゃない? + at least + two (large animals) + でしょ.”

Last but not least, we get to the topic that inspired Rei and I to prepare this lesson:

The counter for birds is ~羽 (~わ), but for some reason this is also the counter for ウサギ, "rabbits!"

That picture sums up how I feel about Japanese counters.

Anyway, here's your final list of the day:

一羽(いちわ // one [bird (rabbit)]

二羽(にわ // two [birds (rabbits)]

三羽(さんわ // three [birds (rabbits)]

四羽(よんわ // four [birds (rabbits)]

五羽(ごわ // five [birds (rabbits)]

六羽(ろくわ // six [birds (rabbits)]

七羽(ななわ // seven [birds (rabbits)]

八羽(はちわ // eight [birds (rabbits)]

九羽(ゅうわ // nine [birds (rabbits)]

十羽(じゅうわ // ten [birds (rabbits)]

十一羽(じゅういちわ // eleven [birds (rabbits)]

十二羽(じゅうにわ // twelve [birds (rabbits)]

十三羽(じゅうさんわ // thirteen [birds (rabbits)]

何羽(なんわ // how many [birds (rabbits)]

If you're worrying about forgetting that we use the "bird counter" for rabbits, don't. Technically, we should use ~羽 (~わ), but it still sounds fine if you say ~匹 (ひき).

Actually, it's not even that big of a deal if you use ~匹 (ひき) when you should use ~頭 (とう)...unless you're taking a test or something. ~匹 (ひき) is commonly used for animals of all types and sizes. So if you're feeling overwhelmed by all of this counter stuff, just learn ~匹 (ひき), and you'll be good to go... unless you have to please your teacher or something.

And our last conversation:

みて、 ウサギ が いる。 おっ、 さんわ も いる!
Look, there’s a rabbit. Oh, there are three of them!
Literally: “look, + rabbit + が + there is. + ah, + three (rabbits) + も + there are!”

えっ、 どこ どこ?
Huh? Where?
Literally: “huh? + where + where?”

そこ そこ。 みえない の? あっ、 よんわ だ。
Right there. Can’t you see them? Oh, there’s a fourth one.
Literally: “there + there. + can’t see + の? + ah, + four (rabbits) + だ.”

あっ! いちわ みえた!
Oh! I see one!
Literally: “ah! + one (rabbit) + was visible.”

Counters (or lists of any kind, really) make my head spin.

But reading conversations always cheers me up again. Ah, I think, there's the language I know and love.

Happy studies, fellow student.

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