Before the beta I would've thought questions like this one would be such basic concepts that most contributors would be familiar with them. But after a few questions on gender and animacy it seems that some people do confuse the two even here.

So are classifiers different to noun classes? What's the best way to sum up the differences?


Noun classes and classifiers are similar in one respect: certain lexical roots (like woman, man, tree, etc) will belong to/appear with certain noun classes and not others, and similarly, such roots in other languages will appear with certain classifiers and not others. The operative difference seems to be in the semantic import of the two types of classes. As the discussion here suggested, grammatical gender (or grammatical noun class) is not always systematically tied to language-external properties (like "feminine gender" or "animate class" necessarily picking out things we would ordinarily think of as "feminine" or "animate" respectively), but it is generally not (compositionally) important whether it does or not. Classifiers, on the other hand, are related to the semantics of quantity, be it to specify a type of portion or measure, or the cardinal count of a given nominal, etc. See Borer's work theorizing on the relation between the Chinese classifier system and the semantics of quantity in languages like English. Representations of quantity are quite important to natural language semantics: some of the most important results in this field concern the mathematical properties of natural language quantifiers. I've focused on a semantic difference; the wiki page on classifiers gives more of a morpho-syntactic list of differences.

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    For me the salient point always seemed to be that classifiers are not as fixed as noun classes. It's more common to be able to use two classifiers for a thing that for a word to have two genders, and you can fall back to a generic classifier like "ge" in Mandarin and Korean if you don't know the correct one but you can't really do that with genders. – hippietrail Sep 26 '11 at 5:27
  • @hippietrail Isn't the use of generic classifiers somewhat comparable to (e.g.) the use of masculine as a "default" gender by speakers of Romance languages, when the gender of a noun is otherwise ambiguous? The neuter gender may also be likely to fill this role in languages that have it. – user8017 Aug 11 '15 at 5:58
  • @user8017: Possibly but I never got fluent enough in a Romance language to learn or hear about such a phenomenon. – hippietrail Aug 11 '15 at 10:58
  • @hippietrail For example, there is a tendency to assign masculine gender to more recently adopted words in Spanish that don't contain the distinctive feminine ending -a: words from Nahuatl such as chile, hule, camote, and zopilote are masculine even though there is no default association of final -e with masculine gender (e.g. parte, llave, ave and nave are all feminine). – user8017 Aug 17 '15 at 5:28
  • I would assume that most languages with three-way gender distinctions use neuter as default too. But I wonder what languages with two-way common vs neuter tend to do? – hippietrail Aug 17 '15 at 5:39

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