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Review of  Classifiers: A Typology of Noun Categorization Devices

Reviewer: Christopher I. Beckwith
Book Title: Classifiers: A Typology of Noun Categorization Devices
Book Author: Chia-jung Pan
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Morphology
Issue Number: 14.2952

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Although a number of monographs have been published on specific types
of noun classification or categorization, particularly gender (e.g.,
Corbett 1991), or on specific languages, such as Japanese (Downing
1996), this book, originally published in hard cover in 2000, is the
first thorough worldwide survey of such systems. Despite the title,
therefore, it is not restricted to what are generally known in the
literature as 'classifiers' (usually, 'noun classifiers' and 'numeral
classifiers', two subtypes in her usage). In the book the ''term
'classifier system' refers to a grammatical system of noun
categorization device(s) in a particular language'' (vii). A's
approach is traditional comparative typology, and she has aimed at
comprehensive coverage: she includes examples from all relevant
languages known to her from the literature or her own fieldwork. The
book is intended to be ''an up-to-date introduction to the field'' for
linguists, anthropologists, psychologists, and others, and can be used
''both as a sourcebook for future typological studies, and as a
textbook'' (vii). As it also includes copious new data and insights
from A's extensive fieldwork on American and Australian languages, the
book is a major contribution to linguistics in general.


The introductory first chapter, ''Preliminaries,'' gives an overview
of the book's coverage and introduces the author's theoretical
framework-general linguistic theory--and her approach to the study of
noun categorization systems, which will henceforth, following the
author's usage, be called 'classifiers'. She explains that the
distinctions she makes among subtypes are based largely on ''the
morphosyntactic loci (or environments) of classifier morphemes''
ranging from ''the highly grammaticalized gender agreement classes of
Indo- European languages'' to ''the lexical numeral classifiers of
Southeast Asia'' (2-3). Her classifier subtypes ''correspond to
prototypes, or focal instances, which display all the definitional and
most of the contingent properties of a type'' (14).

Chapter 2 covers ''noun class and gender systems,'' such as those of
Romance or Bantu languages, which ''correlate--at least in part--with
certain semantic characteristics (particularly in the domain of human
and animate referents)'' and ''are sometimes called concordial
classes'' (19). Chapter 3 covers ''noun classifiers,'' which co-occur
in the same noun phrase with the nouns they classify
semantically. They are best known from American and Australian
languages. Chapter 4 covers ''numeral classifiers,'' the most
well-known type of classifier and the most widely represented among
some of the more populous languages of the world, including Chinese,
Japanese, and many Southeast Asian languages. Chapter 5, ''Classifiers
in possessive constructions,'' covers a relatively rare type found
mainly in Austronesian and American languages. Chapter 6 covers
''verbal classifiers,'' including three subtypes: ''classificatory
noun incorporation, whereby a noun is incorporated into a verb to
categorize an extra-predicate argument,'' ''verbal classifiers affixed
to the verb,'' and ''suppletive 'classificatory' verbs''
(149). Chapter 7 covers ''locative and deictic classifiers.'' A
considers this type, which is based almost exclusively on data from
Palikur (North Arawak), mainly from her own fieldwork, to be rare and
therefore not firmly established (172). Chapter 8 covers the problem
of ''different classifier types in one language.'' Interest in this
topic was piqued by Dixon's theory of the typological distribution of
noun classification types (Dixon 1986), which--though now considered
to be disproven (10)-- stimulated a great deal of interesting work on

A's proposal to base a new typology ''on the morphosyntactic locus of
coding of noun categorization devices (together with their scope of
categorization, principles of assignment, and the kind of surface
realization)'' is supported in this chapter by her discussion of the
distribution of different classifier types within the same
language. Among the many interesting examples given in this chapter
are some from Minangkabau (Western Austronesian), about which A notes,
''A few morphemes can be used both as numeral classifiers and as noun
classifiers, with a difference in meaning. Batang, when used as a noun
classifier, means 'trees as a class'. As a numeral classifier, it is
used to refer to long vertical objects, e.g. trees. As an independent
noun, it means 'tree trunk''' (190). Numeral classifiers and noun
classifiers can be used in the same noun phrase, but have different

Example (1), quoted from A (190) but slightly modified for clarity
here, has both. (N.B.: NUM.CL = numeral classifier; NOUN.CL = noun

(1) sa-batang batang pisang
one-NUM.CL[+long vertical] NOUN.CL[+tree] banana
'one banana tree'

This example is of course nearly identical to one of the famous,
supposedly stereotypical examples of classifier phrases invented by
John Lyons, *three fruit banana = 'three bananas' and *three tree
banana = 'three banana trees' (Lyons 1968: 288). A strong point of
this chapter is its discussion of Palikur (North Arawak), which has at
least five noun classification systems, including genders and several
kinds of classifiers (192-198). Chapter 9, on ''multiple classifier
languages,'' covers those in which ''the same, or almost the same, set
of morphemes can be used in more than one classifier environment''
(204). The above example from Minangkabau also illustrates this
situation, but some of the languages discussed in this chapter,
especially Baniwa and Tariana (both North Arawak languages), are
extremely complex (230-241). Chapter 10 covers the interaction of
classifiers with other grammatical categories, including number (243-
252), person (252-255), grammatical function, i.e., ''nominal case (in
dependent marking languages)'' or ''verbal cross- referencing (in
head-marking languages)'' (255-257), possession (257-259), politeness,
where very brief reference is made to distinctions in first and second
person pronouns (260-262), declensional classes (262-263), verbal
categories (263-265), deictic categories (266), and derivation and the
lexicon (266-268).

Chapter 11, ''Semantics of noun categorization devices,'' and Chapter
12, ''Semantic organization and functions of noun categorization,''
cover one of the main topics of classifier studies in general, well
known from the title of George Lakoff's book _Women, fire and other
dangerous things_ (1987), which refers to the semantics of one noun
class. As A says, ''Semantic features encoded in noun categorization
reflect principles of human cognition and world perception. This is
why it has often been argued that classifiers offer 'a unique window'
into studying how humans construct representations of the world and
encode them into their languages'' (307). Chapter 13, on the ''Origin
and development of noun categorization devices,'' analyzes the birth,
development, and death of classifiers and classifier systems. Chapter
14, ''Noun categorization devices in language acquisition and
dissolution,'' focuses on child speakers. Chapter 15,
''Conclusions,'' summarizes the themes and findings of the book. There
are three appendices: ''Noun categorization by means other than
classifiers''; ''From noun to classifiers: further examples of
semantic change'', including (a) body part terms as sources for
classifiers and (b) sources for configurational (''shape-based'')
numeral classifiers; and a ''Fieldworker's guide to classifier


Since the publication of _Noun Classes and Categorization_ (Craig
1986), classifiers in usual parlance (i.e., excluding some of the
types A includes under the term) have become a fairly well-known type
of linguistic category. One of A's stated purposes in the book is to
clarify terminological usage in the field of noun classification
studies, because ''there exists a pervasive terminological confusion
in the literature'' (1). She also states that the terminology she uses
''for each classifier type relies as much as possible on currently
accepted terminology'' (13). However, while an umbrella term for all
grammatical noun categorization devices might be convenient, her
choice of the term 'numeral classifier' for the 'classifier' of usual
parlance, and extension of the term 'classifier' to virtually all noun
categorization devices--including even measures, which she calls
''mensural'' classifiers, even though she very thoroughly explains why
they are _not_ classifiers (114-120)--would seem to increase, rather
than decrease, the confusion in the field.

Instances of such confusion actually occur in the book, such as in her
discussion of the previous literature, where she says, ''it is not
always clear what is a classifier and what is a concordial noun class
in each particular case'' (10). Significantly, she uses the terms
'noun class' and 'gender' (rather than 'classifier') throughout
chapter 2, which is devoted specifically to the concordial type of
class marking. This is a fortunate distinction (19) that I wish she
had extended to the introductory material and (even) the title of the

The author discusses pronominal classification, such as with the
English personal pronouns (which in third person singular distinguish
three noun classes) in her discussion of gender in Chapter 2. She
divides her discussion of 'noun classes' into two types of system, one
which ''is used with personal, demonstrative, and other pronouns, and
for verbal cross- referencing; this is called 'pronominal gender/noun
class','' and one which ''is used with adjectives (and sometimes other
modifiers, such as numerals); this is called 'nominal'
gender/noun/class''' (68). There is a rather sharp distinction between
these two types and their distribution--for example, gender is usually
concordially marked, whereas pronominal classification, as in English,
usually is not--as she points out in some detail (68). She also notes
the existence of a ''rare'' type of classifier, ''locative and deictic
classifiers'' (12), to which she devotes much of Chapter 7. It is
difficult to understand why she does not include 'pronoun classifiers'
together with locative and deictic classifiers in one category;
''deictic classifiers'' would not then be so rare.

In keeping, perhaps, with her emphasis on American and Australian
languages, her coverage of numeral classifiers-- which are generally
considered to be stereotypical 'classifiers' par excellence, and which
are the subject of the majority of published typological and
theoretical studies of classifiers--is not as thorough as other parts
of the book. Though she has cited many studies of this type of
classifier, including typological surveys such as that in Pamela
Downing's book on Japanese classifiers (1996), she overlooks some
important points. For example, in the discussion of numeral classifier
semantics in Chapter 12, the fairly well-understood distinctions among
configurational (or 'shape') classifiers, heterogeneous classifiers,
and taxonomic (or 'kind') classifiers, which are generally described
as segments on a continuum of types, are largely ignored. As for the
analysis of classifier semantics, she says ''a taxonomic approach to
classifiers may be useful, but only in limited circumstances''
(317). However, her primary approach, prototype theory, is not
applicable to the vast majority of classifiers in Japanese (Downing
1996), so it is hardly better than the taxonomic approach. Since the
same difficulty applies to most other languages with similar numeral
classifier systems, it would appear that semantic analysis of
classifier 'classes' remains problematic. The chapter also suffers
from the nearly total omission of group classifiers, which tend to
occur in languages that have few if any other classifiers, such as
English (among other languages such as Russian), where they are
generally referred to, misleadingly, as 'collective nouns'. She says
of them only, ''quantifier constructions in English _three heads of
cattle_ are in fact a subtype of genitive constructions'' [sic--CIB]
(116), but the example is wrong (read _three head of cattle_; _head_
is well-known as perhaps the only true unit classifier in English),
and so is the analysis.

Although A includes some discussion of the parameters of classifier
choice, she does not stress the importance of the fact--for
typological analysis, at least--that classifier choice per se is
possible at all. In concordial gender languages such as Latin,
agreement marking is generally obligatory due to the portmanteau
nature of the bound fusional morphemes that mark gender. Changing a
morpheme to reflect the speaker's views about the noun referent would
more often than not also change the case or number marking as
well--though it is not true that ''in a noun class system, every noun
has to be assigned to a class'' (334), as there are indeclinables in
Arabic, Latin, and most, if not all, other 'noun class' or 'gender'
languages. In isolating languages, by contrast, classifiers are
relatively free morphemes, and speaker choice is inherently
possible. It has also been widely noted (but is not mentioned by A)
that a speaker's use of different classifiers--or of a wide variety of
classifiers--in such languages is generally considered by other
speakers to be a sign of linguistic and cultural expertise, and use of
too limited a number of classifiers a sign of a lack of such

Cases of multiple classification systems in individual languages occur
in complementary distribution (in different environments), as she
shows amply in the book. This is a major contribution to the
field. The many arguments in the earlier literature about multiple
classification systems somehow disproving the existence of clear
typological distinctions in noun classification systems would now seem
to be moot. On the other hand, she also gives examples of languages in
which classification systems seem to overlap in the same language, so
that ''two noun classes can be marked within one morphological word''
(76). One little-known language, Paumar� (Araw�), is given as the
only example of conflicting overlap within a language. She devotes
considerable discussion to it (71-75), but it is far from clear from
her presentation (which in this instance happens to be far from clear)
that there is any significant overlap or conflict among the various
systems noted or implied by her presentation, including the
examples. Since none of the Paumar� examples she gives mark two noun
classes within one morphological word, it would appear that even
Paumar� is not an example of the putative phenomenon.

In her discussion of multiple classifier languages in Chapter 9 the
author mistakenly states that in Mandarin Chinese the so-called
''generic classifier'' _ge_ ''is written as a separate word in
[''_s�n ge_ three CL 'three'''], where it is used as a numeral
classifier, but in [ ''_n�i-ge_ that-CL 'that'''] it is written as a
suffix to the demonstrative. This reflects the intuition of speakers;
they have a 'feeling' that a classifier forms a closer unit with a
demonstrative than it does with a numeral'' (208). In fact, _ge_ is
actually written in _pinyin_ (the official Chinese transcription
system used in her examples) as part of the same word with a numeral
or a demonstrative, e.g., _s�nge_ and _n�ige_. There are several
reasons for this, the most salient one being the fact that when _ge_
is used in the classifier slot of a classifier phrase in normal speech
it loses its tone, marking it as a clitic.

The book includes several maps showing distribution of various
phenomena, but more care should have been taken with their
preparation. In the case of Map 1, ''Distribution of noun classes and
genders in the languages of the world'' (78), ''noun classes and
genders'' are shown not only in most of the Indian subcontinent west
of Bengal but also across Tibet into Eastern Turkistan
(Xinjiang). However, Tibetan should have been marked as having
''fossilized gender markers'' (one of the three categories marked on
the map), while its Himalayan relative Limbu has functional adjectival
gender markers, and by contrast Uighur (the native language of most of
East Turkistan) has no grammaticized noun class or gender marking at
all. On the other hand, Ket, the last remaining member of a Siberian
language family, has three genders, as A notes in the text (77), but
it is not marked on the map.

With regard to Map 2, showing world distribution of ''noun
classifiers'', despite the author's statement in the text that Taic
languages and Tibetan have noun classifiers (82, 97), only the area of
Thailand is so marked on the map. Similarly, on Map 3, showing world
distribution of ''numeral classifiers'' (122), Japanese is unmarked
for such classifiers, despite extensive discussion of them throughout
the book. Also, the text refers (121) to the classifiers of Hungarian
(Uralic) and ''many Turkic languages'' (though so far only Uzbek has
been noted to have a grammaticized noun classification system), but
these languages are not marked on the map as ''isolated instances of
numeral classifiers.'' Map 5, showing distribution of ''verbal
classifiers,'' does not include Ojibway (Algonquian) and the
Tibeto-Burman languages discussed in the text (154-156, 297); the text
accompanying the map unfortunately reinforces these two oversights
with the omission of Algonquian (169) and with the flat statement,
''There are no verbal classifiers in the languages of Africa or
Eurasia or in the Austronesian family.''

Generally speaking, due to the choices of things to mark on them, the
maps give the false impression that most languages of the world have
no noun classification systems, though the text, by contrast,
correctly notes that very few languages lack noun
classification. Historical implications are also made, probably
unconsciously, by the maps. For example, Russian, a gender language
frequently mentioned in the book, was spread in all directions by late
medieval Muscovy, so that Russian is now the dominant or sole language
spoken in most of the vast Russian Republic. Yet Map 1 shows noun
classes and genders extending northward from Africa through the area
of Turkey (which has none), western Russia, and Finland (though
colloquial Finnish has no noun classification whatsoever, as the
author notes in the text), to the Arctic Ocean; the majority of Russia
is blank. By contrast, the area of Manchuria is included in the
''numeral classifier'' language area of East Asia on Map 3, but it has
been Chinese speaking for only about a century. Since graphic devices
are especially vivid communicators of information, I hope that if this
edition of the book is reprinted the maps will be revised to at least
reflect the data in the text.

The volume has been attractively produced and is relatively well
edited. I recommend A's book to linguists in general, and especially
anyone interested in language typology or cognition.


Beckwith, Christopher I. 1997. Toward a comprehensive theory of noun
categorization, with special attention to Thai. In U.
Warotamasikkhadit, ed. _Proceedings of the fourth annual meeting of
the Southeast Asian Linguistics Society (1994)_. Tempe: Arizona State
University, Program for Southeast Asian Studies, 73-82.

Corbett, Greville 1991. _Gender_. Cambridge: Cambridge University

Craig, Colette G., ed. 1986. _Noun classes and
categorization_. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Dixon, R.M.W. 1986. _Noun classes and noun classification in
typological perspective_. In Craig 1986: 105-112.

Downing, Pamela 1996. _Numeral classifier systems: The case of
Japanese_. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Lakoff, George 1987. _Women, fire and other dangerous things: What
classifier categories reveal about the mind_. Chicago: University of
Chicago Press.

Lyons, John 1968. _Introduction to theoretical linguistics_.
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


Christopher I. Beckwith is a professor in the Department of Central
Eurasian Studies (formerly the Department of Uralic and Altaic
Studies) and the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures at
Indiana University. His interests are in classifiers, phonology, and
comparative-historical linguistics. Most recently he has worked on
Japanese classifier partitions, the extinct Koguryo language and its
relationship to Japanese (Japanese-Koguryoic), Old Tibetan syllable
margins, and the reconstruction of Early Old Chinese.
Christopher I. Beckwith is a professor in the Department of
Central Eurasian Studies (formerly the Department of Uralic
and Altaic Studies) and the Department of Near Eastern
Languages and Cultures at Indiana University. His interests
are in classifiers, phonology, and comparative-historical
linguistics. Most recently he has worked on Japanese
classifier partitions, the extinct Koguryo language and its
relationship to Japanese (Japanese-Koguryoic), Old Tibetan
syllable margins, and the reconstruction of Early Old Chinese.