Specifiers are a class of words which modify a noun,
giving details as to which particular object or objects are being referred
to. In English specifiers are a sub-class of a part of speech called
"determiners." these includes "a",
"an", "the", "this", "that",
"these", "those", all the number words, and possessive
pronouns. Cantonese uses almost the exact same divisions as English.
In addition to those listed above, specifiers include all numbers and
arguably all nouns and pronouns.
Measure words are a Cantonese part of speech. They are
also referred to as "classifiers" because they classify nouns
into various groupings. Measure words are always used when counting or
specifying nouns. Each measure word refers to a particular class of
objects- from such broad categories as people, animals, and flat surfaced
objects to such specific things as gold fish.
English has similar words used with prepositions to measure things.
"A cup of water", "two boxes of
chocolates", "that flock of sheep", "every set
of clothes" are examples. In Cantonese, however, all nouns must have
a measure word when they are being specified or counted. A good English
word that can be used to describe measure words is "unit."
"go" could be thought
of as "a unit of people", "jek"
can be "an animal unit of cats", "\jeung\"
can be "a flat surface object unit of tables", etc.
Thinking of measure words this way is useful, but is not a precise
description. In English the main noun of the phrase would be the unit word
("cup", "flock", "unit") and the thing being
measured would describe the unit. In Cantonese, however, the thing
being measured is the main noun and the measure and determiner modify the
The most obvious use of measure words is in counting or
specifying nouns. Where in English we only need a specifier to say
"a car", "3 cars", "that car",
"each car", etc., Cantonese requires a specifier and a
measure word. Additionally, Cantonese can use reduplication with
measure words to refer to a class of items.
Note that if no specifier is given, it is assumed that
there is only one. Also, when the number yih
二 "2" would be the specifier, it
is always d by /leuhng/
兩 "a couple".
Also note that the plural marker -di-
啲/D is used to specify an unknown quantity.
It generally cannot be used with a specific number or with /muih/
每 since it specifies "each and all."
The exception of -yat-
"1", which is a special case where the contrast is used no mean
"one or more."
Reduplication can refer to all existing objects of a type,
or to all objects in a particular context.
Notes and Additional Uses
There are many more measure words than those listed here. This
is not intended to be a comprehensive list. Some measure words
are only used for one or two nouns. It is suggested that you
learn the proper measure word for an object when first learning that
object as a new vocabulary word.
If an object is already understood by speaker and hearer it can be
replaced by a specifier and measure word. The measure word acts
much like a pronoun. For example, if two people are using
different colored pens one could say to the other "/bei//go/\ji\/ngoh/" ("give
me that") instead of "/bei//go/\ji\-bat-/ngoh/"
("give me that pen") and it would be grammatically
Measure words can be used to show fractional numbers.
Generally this is used with go
個 when working with money and time as most other measure words are
not used with objects that are readily divisible. (see Skills
Some measure words act as both nouns and measure words. In
such cases they can usually be measured in turn by the general measure
word "go", although
it is not required. For example, the command "give me
that cup" can be expressed either "/bei//go/go-bui-/ngoh/"
Many items have more than one measure word (example: \che\
車 can be measured by bouh
部, ga 架, or /leuhng/
輛), and many measure words can be applied to almost any object (e.g.
gauh, and any of the
The "default" measure word is go
個. Many words that have a more specific classifier can still
use, go. Often times
native speakers will be casual/lazy and use go
instead of the correct classifier for less frequently used items, but
that is not license to indiscriminately use go
in place of correct measure words. A non-native may perceived to
be making an error in places where a native is just using a more
casual register. One should only imitate native short-cuts if
they appear to be consistent.
While you can generally state that a measure words has a certain
description, it does not mean that all objects fitting that
description can be measured by that measure word. For example,
"snake" and "dragon" are both animals, but they
are not measured by the measure word for animals (jek
隻), instead they are measured by the measure word for "long,
skinny objects" (\tiuh\
-bin-, and -di-
are Cantonese specific words which have Cantonese dialectal
characters. (The character for -bin-
is shown since it is a common character in standard Chinese.)
These characters have the written equivalents of je
這, /nah/ 那, \nah\
哪, and \se\ 些