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Some languages, such as Japanese, mark number words with suffixes denoting size, shape, and other qualities (e.g., ichi (one) becomes ippon for one book). Why would such a linguistic practice develop?

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    These are actually combinations of the number words with special words called Classifiers. Classifiers are common in many languages, and not just for counting; in some languages (like Navajo) they inflect verbs to indicate the nature of the direct object. As to why such a practice would develop, that's mostly speculation; certainly the practice is useful, but so are most linguistic practices like subject-verb agreement or extraposition, but origins are right out. – jlawler Dec 23 '17 at 22:18
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    @jlawler, your comment can be a good basis for a full-featured answer if expanded. The "why such a practice would develop" section can be easily salvaged if changed from motivational aspect (e.g. why has it ever appeared) to functional (what function it serves). – bytebuster Dec 24 '17 at 2:08
  • And I reckon the function it serves is very similar to the function that pronouns serve. – OmarL Dec 26 '17 at 6:25
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The pon in 'ippon' is not actually a suffix (well, at least not according to the academic tradition of Russian japonology). It is [hon], a calque from Chinese classifier (aka a measure word) 本 [běn].

Anyone of the classifiers is a grammatical entity opposite, in a sense of partialness, to a term of venery and/or any collective noun.

The classifiers borrowed from Chinese also exist in Burmese, Korean and, presumably, Vietnamese languages.

Because hon is more likely a specific stem than an affix, the stricter term would be agglutination, which by itself is not a specific language practice at all. The examples of agglutination can be shown by such English nouns as Batman, pineapple, hedgehog, etc.

The change [h] makes turning itself into [p] or [b] after [n] / [m] is assimilation, so a proper name for the phenomenon would be assimilative agglutination.

Why does this phenomenon occur?

I guess, because of combination of causes and effects, just like any existing phenomenon, like a coulour of grass or a human brain.

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  • I think by "name for the phenomenon" he means "classifier". – Draconis Dec 27 '17 at 2:42
  • I think by 'name for the phenomenon' I mean 'such a linguistic practice' in the source question. – Manjusri Dec 27 '17 at 13:27
  • As for "Why?" -- assimilation is normal, in fact unstoppable. It's to be expected wherever it's possible in frequent use. Agglutinative morphology is extremely common -- roughly half the languages are standard SOV, which features agglutination. Both of these phenomena are time-tested strategies for phonology and grammar. Why numeric classifiers exist is another matter; they're not infrequent, but the easiest way to view a language with a classifier system is to simply think of all nouns as mass nouns. If you want a count noun, you use a classifier; that's all. – jlawler Dec 27 '17 at 21:03
  • -hon is not a calque (a literal translation) but an actual loanword/foreign root, like mono- in English. It's from Middle Chinese *pənᴮ, the ancestor of modern běn. The entire classifier system was borrowed wholesale from Chinese. /h/ "becoming" /p/ isn't assimilation in this case; it's the other way around, the original Japanese pronunciation of *pən is /pon/ (ほ used to be /po/ generally) and Japanese /p/ underwent lenition except in protected position. /b/ is assimilation, due to voicing (from the original /p/, not from the modern /h/). – melissa_boiko Dec 28 '17 at 23:17
  • @leoboiko Your comment is just an elaboration of my statement where you are contradicting yourself first stating [h] becoming [p] isn't assimilation and then saying '[b] is assimilation. I wouldn't state so surely that '...the entire classifier system was borrowed', see e. g. here about the 'indigeneous Japanese classifiers' books.google.ru/… – Manjusri Dec 29 '17 at 8:09

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