Another blog post headed by a flashback to my LING101 class: Apparently the words “perfume” and “fragrance” have been rising and falling on syncopated peaks. The rich will prefer “perfume” and then the lower classes will copy them, and then the rich will switch to “frangrance” to stay ahead. …And then the lower classes will copy them again and use “fragrance”, forcing the rich to switch back to “perfume”. And this flip-flipping has been going on for a few hundred years now. Unfortunately, I forget which one is currently ahead in England, but I’m going to stake a guess with “fragrance”.

This entire process is fascinating to me, even though it clearly doesn’t occur within a generation. For one thing, it’s yet another counter-example to the “golden age” fallacy of language perception (the idea that our current use of language is corrupted from some earlier pristine state). But for another, it also demonstrates that pro- and prescriptive efforts in language use aren’t always entirely effective. English, however, does not have a sole claim to this phenomenon.

But before I get into the specific Japanese example, I feel I should explain the specific grammatical phenomenon. Unlike in English, most nouns in Japanese require a special “counter” to delineate what’s being counted. Of course, there are a few examples of this in English (e.g. 1/2/x slice(s) of bread; never just 1/2/x bread(s)), but for the most part, we can treat English nouns as countable (2 rabbits, 12 meters, 16 boxes, 3.5 books, etc). But like the “slices of bread” example, all Japanese nouns require counters. And there are quite a few counters in Japanese. Happily, however, most of these counters are mapped to broad mental categories. For example, the counter –mai (枚) is used for flat discrete objects, like sheets of paper, T-shirts, and any other kind of mostly-2D objects.  And for small animals/insects, it’d be -hiki (匹), and for birds -wa (羽), and for large animals -toh (頭).

However, two exceptions exist for the zoological categories. It seems that despite being clearly a small mammal, rabbits are counted with wa, and butterflies are counted with toh. But that’s only true if the speaker is impeccably educated. From my own non-clinical research, most of the Japanese people I’ve spoken to (under the age of 30), have generally counted rabbits with hiki, conforming to the regular mental category of “small, non-avian animals”. And it seems, if you dig back far enough, the ancient (literate) Japanese also counted rabbits with hiki. It’s only the weird middle period where they were counted with wa, and it seems, only because of a small conspiracy involving vege-meat-arian monks.

The story goes, monks were allowed to eat any kind of vegetation (which in those days included fungi), and birds and fish, but no kind of mammal. However, being greedy and desperate, they euphemistically decided to categorize rabbits (hiki) as kinds of birds (wa). Of course, the depth of their deceit went further, and they philosophized that the rabbit ears were really vestigial non-functional wings. Some accounts also claim that only two legs are ever on the ground, as they hop the way that birds hop (instead of the regular textbook quadruped locomotion). So, for a time, rabbits were slotted as wa. And in fact, that is generally still true in Japanese textbooks for foreigners like us English-speakers. But evidently, not so true for modern Japanese speakers. The jig is up, you dishonest monks! Rabbits are now free to rejoin their mammalian brethren.

The second example is even weirder. Again, like most small animals and insects, the regular counter is hiki. But when it comes to butterflies, the counter is toh, which as mentioned above, is used for large animals, like cows, horses, and elephants. So what exactly do butterflies share with elephants and horses, that they don’t share with locusts, lemurs, and lizards?

Allegedly (and I say this with the heaviest skepticism) toh was an act of direct translation from English missionary/zoologists. Supposedly (again, based on Japanese sources), it was translated from the English counter “one head, two heads” for counting cattle, which somehow got extended to butterflies, because of their use of specimen-collection/anthologies.

The reason why I doubt the explanation very much, is that English, unlike Japanese, doesn’t really have a need for counters; most English nouns are countable already. Butterfly -> butterflies. One butterfly -> twelve butterflies. There is no need to create a periphrastic candidate “a head of butterfly -> thirteen heads of butterfly”. (And indeed, such a historical phrase does not exist.)

But, as similar to the first example, modern Japanese speakers express doubt when asked what the counter for butterflies is. Of course, the top two candidates are hiki and wa, which again hints at a return to form (or at the very least, a rejection of the prescribed linguistic incision).

I also found one established (not exactly famous… …in the way that Gower isn’t famous) example:


安西冬衛作、『春』 (emphasis added)

Unfortunately, this is a line from a poem, and the poet lived 1898 – 1965, comfortably within the period when butterflies were already being counted with toh. Moreover, poems are always liable for being ungrammatical for the sake of imagery and artistry, so this example is a little moot. But assuming that such a famous poet wasn’t ill-educated, we can at least infer that perhaps hiki is a safer historical candidate for butterflies.

I also found this Japanese-language website, which seems to index the counters for Japanese nouns. According to it, butterflies can take all three candidates: toh, hiki, and wa. Moreover, Butterflies aren’t alone in the toh category; insects in general are counted with toh, and specifically cicadas, dragonflies, moths, stag- and J.rhino beetles can all take either toh or hiki.

But, like in English, these are all sources written by non-linguists, who operate under the idea that there is such a thing as “absolute correctness”, and less interested in the historical aspects of language. Now, had I the resources, there are two things I would investigate:

1. Was toh applied around the same time as a counter for large animals, or was it a case of convergent coincidence?

2. What counter was used for butterflies/insects before the use of toh? And as a corollary to (1), what counter was used for large animals (cows, horses, elephants) before the use of toh for butterflies?

Incidentally, Japanese isn’t alone in the ambiguity of its counters. Chinese also has “blurred” categories. Like Japanese, Chinese uses general counters for broad categories, but like Japanese, also apply more than one counter to the more “exotic” nouns.

For example, the general counter for animals is zhi(隻), and the general counter for large animals is tóu (頭, cogante to Japanese toh), and while tóu is unequivocally applied for animals like cows, bigger animals like elephants and bears can be both tóu and zhi. Also, sea creatures are all generally tiáo (條 – “stripe; sliver”) but non-slivery sea creatures can be both tiáo and zhi (such as octopuses, squids, and sea urchins).

I’d love to know what other languages take counters (particularly Korean), and whether ambiguities or historical “corruptions” also exist in those languages.