While counters may seem tricky, they are really useful for saying something quickly. 三本ちょだい (sanbon chodai), for example, tells the listener that you want to be given three chopsticks without the word chopsticks (割り箸, waribashi) actually needing to be said.

However, observant readers will notice something strange about that pattern. Usually the counter for chopsticks is 本, which is pronounced ‘hon’; however, when you talk about three chopsticks, the counter is pronounced as ‘bon’ instead of ‘hon’. So what is going on?

The grammar of counters

Before we look at the pronunciation, it is worthwhile mentioning the grammar of counters. Although there are other patterns, the most common pattern in Japanese is: OBJECT plus NUMBER plus COUNTER with the object occasionally being dropped, as in the chopsticks example, if it is understood by the context.

As with many things between the two languages, this pattern is the more or less the opposite to English, so, for example, we might reply to our host that we want three slices of bread with our soup in English, in Japanese this would be pan (bread) san (three) mai (slices).

Counting with counters

As a general rule, to make most counters, it is simply a case of taking a number and adding the counter to the end. Therefore, ichi (one) plus en (Japanese yen) creates 一円 (ichien) and this is the name given to the one-yen coins.

Easy, right?

It would be except that numbers, as we saw in the chopsticks example, can take different readings depending on which counters are attached to them.

A common challenge for learners is the counter for 10, which is commonly changed from 十 (jyuu)to じゅっ (jyu with a small tsu). This means that the sound following the small tsu has a stronger sound. 十冊 (Jyussatsu, 10 books) is a good example to practice …continue reading