I couldn't find how in general sortal classifiers work in compound words but I notice the following myself. By sortal classifiers I mean those that actualize shape boundaries, in contrast with mensural classifiers that create shape boundaries.

Some specific and originally exclusive classifiers can be used to compose compound words. This is probably because in ancient Chinese the structure is N+NUM+CL. With the number deleted the structure is reanalyzed as a compound noun. For example,

书 + 一 + 本 → 书本

马 + 一 + 匹 → 马匹; 布 + 一 + 匹 → 布匹

花 + 一 + 朵 → 花朵; 云 + 一 + 朵 → 云朵

人 + 一 + 口 → 人口

枪 + 一 + 支 → 枪支; 箭 + 一 + 支 → 箭支

Some classifiers with strong implication of shapes or features can also work in this way.

纸 + 一 + 张 → 纸张

米 + 一 + 粒 → 米粒; 沙 + 一 + 粒 → 沙粒

叶 + 一 + 片 → 叶片; 肉 + 一 + 片 → 肉片; 药 + 一 + 片 → 药一片

房 + 一 + 间 → 房间

土 + 一 + 块 → 土块; 肉 + 一 + 块 → 肉块

The above compounding doesn't change the lexical meaning, but generally the compound words are used collectively; they refer to a collective concept or type and most of them can be used with + 一 + 些 (some). They rarely can be individualized, exceptions are notably 一个房间、一把枪支、一个土块.

However, some compound words have altered meaning.


These are generally individualizable. For example, 一个信封、一把扫把.

These seem a bit ad hoc. 1) Is there any systematic view on the ability of sortal classifiers to form compound words in Chinese and its usage?

This is not a feature exclusive to Chinese. For example, in Nuosu Yi, ꄮ (te) is the pine tree. ꁧ (bbo) is a tree. ꄮꁧ refers to the pine tree. Like Chinese, ancient Yi is also primarily monosyllabic. I guess it was originally

ꄮ + (ꋍ) + ꁧ → ꄮꁧ

ꋍ (one) usually omitted. Then it's reanalyzed as ꄮꁧ, which is a binome. It seems that the resulted compound words is used more individually than collectively. One pine tree is


But my knowledge of Yi doesn't allow me to dig deeper. Also, it could be diachronically wrong since ꁧ being used as a classifier could be later than the appearance of the binome ꄮꁧ.

Another Nuosu Yi example

ꁱꂷ bbur ma (文字, writing/characters)

ꁱ is the verb of to write, while ꂷ is the universal classifier corresponding to the Chinese 个.

ꁶꂷ nbit ma: n. (装饰品上錾刻出来的)花纹 decorative lines and drawings put on on clothes or dishes

ꁶ nbit: v. 錾(石头)chisel (rock)

The structure seems different though, probably a V+O lexicalized as a noun.

2) How is the ability of sortal classifiers to form compound words other Sino-Tibetan languages (like Yi and Tibetan)? Is it generally present? If present, is it active or inactive? How does it change the word meaning and usage?


`Thanks to Michaelyus, I now know it's called an auto-classifier. I found the following references 拷贝型量词及其在汉藏语系量词发展中的地位, 彝语拷贝型量词探析——以东部方言黔西北次方言乌撒土语为例,

It turned out to be quite common in the Lolo-Burmese languages, e.g. Loloish (Jino, Lisu, Lahu, Hani, Naxi, Nusu), Nungish (Derung), Burmish (Zaiwa, Achang), and also Kra–Dai languages, though less prevalent, e.g. Thai, Lao and Be.

e.g. Naxi: ndʑy³¹ (mountain) dɯ³³ (one) ndʑy³¹ (mountain)

Interesting it also existed in Chinese Oracle bone scripts and bronze inscriptions, and completely disappeared from the Han Dynasty.

人(people) 十有六(16) 人(people)。 (Oracle bone scripts)

In Oracle bone scripts, this structure is only used for 人、羌、骨. In bronze inscriptions, it expanded to 牛、羊、聝、旅、田.

From the Chinese classics, it seems that the grammaticalisation of classifiers and word disyllabification have happened at the same pace (汉语量词语法化动因研究). Instead of viewing classifiers as morphemes in compound words, I would agree that the fact that classifiers have a noun/verb origin contributes to the formation of both classifiers and noun-classifier compounds.

  • Most of your second group feels different from the first one. 米粒/沙粒,叶片/肉片,土块/肉块 in particular feel more like regular (from an English viewpoint) determinative compounds: they represent a type of the head (粒,片,块). Potentially 房间 too (it is a kind of space, a ‘house-space’, even though it doesn’t feel as transparently determinative as the others). This is in opposition to the true classifier compounds like 书本,纸张,马匹,花朵/云朵, which are all types of the modifier (书,纸,马,花/云) – or perhaps rather extensions, since they’re not really semantically separate from them. Feb 4, 2022 at 7:46
  • I felt some difference of the two types when writing the questions but failed to realize it exactly. Thanks for pointing that out. I've rearranged them according to this logic and added several more examples.
    – lilysirius
    Feb 4, 2022 at 9:14

1 Answer 1


Modern Standard Mandarin Chinese does indeed have a propensity for "noun-classifier" compounds (名量式复合词 míngliàng-shì fùhécí). This is a subject with some active research going on. According to Cui (2019)'s The Study of Chinese Noun-Classifier Compounds, quoting an earlier 2018 paper, such compounds have existed since the Northern and Southern Dynasties (南北朝 Nán-Běi Cháo) period, but have subsequently become more abundant. This is consistent with the general picture that sortal classifiers ("true classifiers") emerged during the later part of the Han dynasty.

Your distinction between the semantics of those noun-classifier compounds comes down to, according to the above papers, the grammaticalisation of the classifier from mensural ("measure word") to sortal ("true") classifier, particularly in the case where the numeral is 一 , thus liable to be deleted, creating the compound: hence the link to whether the compound can be 'individuated' or not, as outlined by Zhang (2011). This will also touch on whether the compound can be modified by an adjective in a delimitive reading, e.g. *大树种 *dà shùzhǒng vs 大花朵 dà huāduǒ.

I think it would be interesting to probe the interactions of these constraints; Zhang's 2013 monograph does analyse quite a few of these syntactic behaviours. But the semantic implications may not be so straightforward, as there are plenty of derived semantics happening here.

As for such noun-classifier compounds in the rest of Sino-Tibetan:

  • Cantonese, having a different distribution of sortal classifiers (especially in its use of classifiers to mark association or possession), would be expected to have fewer noun-classifier compounds. Although this is borne out by what I see, I haven't come across any research that specifically addresses this yet. There is however a greater range of adjective-classifier lexical compounds reported in the literature (Au Yeung 2005), viz:

唔該俾間細間嘅房我。m4goi1 bei2 gaan1 sai3gaan1 ge3 fong4*2 ngo5

Please give CL small-CL GE room me.

Please give me a small room.

  • Burmese has a classifier system which lends itself quite well to forming noun-classifier compounds, to the extent that it seems (to my non-native perception) as though it's more a question of grammatical syntax, the "semi-repeater construction", than lexical derivation. For example:

စမ်းမေးပွဲတစ်ပွဲ /sa-me:-pwɛ: tə pwɛ:/

question-meeting one meeting[CL]

a test

Interestingly, it is stated that:

There does not seem to be in this language any clear grammatical (or morpho-syntactic) criterion to distinguish among classifiers or to corroborate a division into two semantic subcategories, the sortal and the mensural [classifiers].

  • Nuosu seems to share this syntax, although the examples of such are noted as auto-classifiers in Gerner's seminal 2013 grammar (section 5.2.1, p.83) and do not appear to be very productive. However, there are quite a few examples of noun-classifier and verb-classifier compounds listed (section 4.4.3). A few more usage examples can be found in this 2021 paper on the related Northern Yi dialect of Niesu, where these are glossed as auto-classifiers.

  • Tibetan ... has no classifiers, or at least not in the Standard Central Ü-Tsang Tibetan of Lhasa. From Tournadre (2014):

Classifiers are not found in Literary Tibetan and none of the modern languages have developed a system of classifiers, although a few rare classifiers do exist in a marginal way.

The "marginal existence" referred to is probably the way certain varieties of Kham Tibetan (e.g. in Lhagang [塔公, in Sichuan]) change the form of /ˉhtɕiʔ/ "one" to /^ɦdoʔ htɕiʔ/ "one single" when post-modifying certain nouns. The consensus at the moment is that this does not constitute sortal classifier behaviour.

In summary, it can be seen that there is a quite considerable diversity in the use of classifiers in compounds across Sino-Tibetan. The details of their semantic nuances, their productivity in the modern language, and the history of their emergence, as of early 2022, are still being worked out. I would posit that there are similar noun-classifier compounding processes going on in the Tai-Kadai and Hmong-Mien/Miao-Yao language families.

  • Thanks for very much for such an excellent answer. I've started to read the references you mentioned. They're quite interesting. But the link that underlies "whether the compound" is forbidden. Could you please give me a name of the article/book? I also update what I found about auto-classifers and development of classifiers and disyllabification in Chinese in my question.
    – lilysirius
    Feb 6, 2022 at 11:10
  • Btw, the ADJ+CL structure also exist widely in Chinese dialects. In standard Mandarin it's less common, but I can also think of expressions like 大个.
    – lilysirius
    Feb 6, 2022 at 11:12
  • @lilysirius Have added the paper with a reference: it's basically the earlier {and non-paywalled} version of Zhang's 2013 monograph. Also, nice spot on the ADJ+CL compounds.
    – Michaelyus
    Feb 7, 2022 at 17:36

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