Sheli Noun Classifiers

One thing that really intrigued me about Chinese, Japanese and ASL was their noun classifiers. For the longest time, I didn't understand what they were for or why they existed. I still don't know. What I do know, though, is why Sheli has noun classifiers: Because I want it to. This page is devoted to the explanation of their use, their history, and their forms. If you want to skip the introductory information and go directly to the table of Sheli noun classifiers, click here. If you want to skip directly to the verbal classifier table, click here. If you'd like to skip directly to the group classifier table, click here.


What Are Classifiers?

Others could probably explain better, but, as far as I know, I'm the only one writing right now, so you're stuck with me. Noun classifiers (as they're used in Sheli) are little words that link a noun (or verb) to its modifier(s). While the words are small, the contain a lot of information. They're a bit like the noun classes of Zhyler, in that a classifier is tied to a particular word based on that words physical (or functional) characteristics. It can also be based on how the word is perceived; how it fits in with the world at large. Perhaps an example will help to explain things a bit more clearly. Take the following word for example:

ef3

This word ef3 doesn't really mean anything (well, that's not true. It actually means "long", but that's not relevant right now. We'll discuss that in a little bit). As a classifier, it has no meaning, because classifiers don't have meaning in the way, say, a noun or a verb has meaning. Nevertheless, it performs a very real function. Remember how I said classifiers are used to link a noun (or verb) to its modifier(s)? Well, this is what that looks like. If you want to say, "The blanket is on fire", no problem: Just a noun plus a verb. However, if you want to say, "The blue blanket is on fire", you have to use a noun classifier. Anyway, first, to give us something concrete, here's the first sentence, "The blanket is on fire":

Zwa6 ved1.

That sentence is pretty easily analyzable: The first word, zwa6, means "blanket", and the second word, ved1, means "to be on fire". Put them together, and you have a hairdresser on fi—I mean, a blanket on fire.

Now, if you want to say that the blue blanket is on fire, you need a classifier construction. Your basic classifier construction works like this:

  1. First comes the modifier (or modifiers).
  2. Next comes the classifier.
  3. Finally comes the modified word (either noun or verb) in the genitive.

That's all there is to it. Of course, the tough part is choosing the right classifier, but I'll get to that in a second.

So, back to our sentence, if we look at the formula above, you get the following:

3 ef3 zwas6 ved1.

Word for word, the above would be "blue (classifier) blanket-GEN. on-fire". Notice that to form the genitive of "blanket" you just add -s with no tone change. [Note: For more information on how the genitive is formed and what its function is, click here.] So that's your basic classifier construction. But the question remains: What are classifiers? For example, given that I've been talking about classifiers, you've probably guessed that there's more than one. How did I choose to use one and not the other? Perhaps this will help explain. Take a look at the noun phrases below, all of which show the noun classifier ef3 in use:

  • 3 ef3 zwas6, "a blue blanket".
  • 6 ef3 wen6, "green grass".
  • Ken3 ef3 làng1, "this skin".
  • Žun2 ef3 žap3, "a large sheet".

One thing you might notice is that the nouns that take the ef3 classifer all have something in common. It's not specific, but generally nouns that are long, flat, kind of expansive, and cover things all take the classifier ef3 (classifier 52). This is a good example of how a kind of loose set of physically- or experientially-based criteria help to define which nouns take which classifier.


How/When Does One Use Classifiers?

Part of this question has already been answered (the "how"), though incompletely, and the other part needs further explanation.

To address the "how", I'd first like to repost (just for the sake of repetition) how to use classifiers when a noun is being modified:

  1. First comes the modifier (or modifiers).
  2. Next comes the classifier.
  3. Finally comes the modified noun in the genitive.

Thus, to say "the blue blanket", you say 3 ef3 zwas6, [blue CL.52 blanket-GEN.].

That's pretty much all there is to the "how" of classifiers in nominal constructions. Classifiers can also, however, be used with verbs. This strategy is slightly more complex, though, on the surface, it's identical to the strategy of classifiers in nominal constructions. Here's the list for classifiers in verbal constructions:

  1. First comes the carrier expression.
  2. Next comes the classifier.
  3. Finally comes the modified verb in the genitive.

The first question that might occur to you is, "What's a carrier expression?" That question can't be answered until you know a little bit more about verbal classifiers, and how they're used.

Nominal classifiers bear little or no semantic burden at all. The same is not true of verbal classifiers. Verbal classifiers actually do things. So, first, let's take a verb. The verb xów5 means "to win", as in, "I win!". Now, you can win once, you can win twice, you can three times, etc. No more than five, assuredly, but you can win a given number of times that's more than one. One particular verbal classifier allows you to specify exactly how many times you've done something (in this case, won). This classifier is pas3 (classifier 67). So, if you want to say "I win" or "I won", you simply say, Kol1 xów5 (where the first person pronoun is in the reflexive). If you want to say, "I won twice", though, you have to use a classifier construction. Referring to our formula above, the carrier phrase (in this case) is a number: the number two, kan2. The classifier, as I've stated, is pas3, classifier 67. Then you put the verb xów5, "to win", in the genitive: xóws6. Now you combine it all to get:

Kol1 kan2 pas3 xóws6!

And there you get, "I won twice!"

For other verbal classifiers, it's not quite the same, however. Consider the classifier ğum1 (classifier 73). This classifier is used to indicate that action was done choppily or poorly—clunkily. Inexpertly, you might say. With the leastest of ease. Now say I'm swimming poorly. This would call for classifier 73. In order to use it, I'd need to put the verb šòm3, "swim", in the genitive: šòm3 (the genitive is identical to the non-genitive for words that have a 3 tone). Next, I need a carrier phrase. But what should it be? Numbers won't do here. Well, for most verbs, if the verb is modified by a verbal classifier, they take a set carrier phrase. For most verbs, this set carrier phrase is an2, which means something like "to do". Thus, for "I swim badly", you get:

Ko4 an2 ğùm1 šòm3.

So that answers the question of "how". Now as to the question of "when".

You've already seen most instances of when you use a classifier. Nevertheless, a couple of lists would serve to summarize the situation rather neatly. First, I'll make a list of when to use a nominal classifier. You use a nominal classifier...

  • When a noun is modified by one or more attributive adjectives.
  • When a noun is modified by a number.
  • When a noun is modified by a demonstrative.
  • When the plural of a noun is specifically desired (i.e., use an appropriate group classifier).
  • When a noun is first introduced in the discourse (in such cases, nouns take some sort of modifier that kind of acts like a verbal carrier phrase).

That does it for nouns. Now for verbs. You use a verbal classifier...

  • When a verb is modified by a number.
  • When a particular adverbial mode is desired (see verbal classifiers).
  • In certain cases where a verb is being used like a noun (see nominal classifiers).

That's about it for the "how" and the "when" ("where", too, now that I think of it). Now we can move on to some other WH questions.


Who Can Use Classifiers?

ANYONE AND EVERYONE!!! Yes, come one, come all, and get your classifiers! Buy 'em buy the dozen; buy 'em while they're hot!

Actually, the question of "who" gets to the question of "why". As I see it, there are two reasons: One, historical, the other, modern. The historical reason as to why classifiers like these arose in natural languages is that they help the listener discern exactly what type of thing is being modified/quantified. So, in Chinese, for example, where these classifiers are used with numbers, it might be important, in a trading context, to know whether the things wanted can be stacked or bundled or if they have to be put in a cart. So, for example, you can stack a bunch of papers; bundle stalks of bamboo or flowers that have long stems (like roses); but with pumpkins, you're going to have to put them in some kind of cart to transport them.

Now, sticking with papers, for the moment, imagine that you have one word for "paper", but two classifiers that can be used: One for flat things, and one for things which can be bundled. The first might refer to sheets of paper that lay flat. The second might refer to papers that are rolled up like scrolls. Depending on which one you want, you'd use two different classifiers. This can help speed up a business transaction (possibly), or at least avoid ambiguity.

Additionally, let's say you're encountered with a word you've never heard before. If it's accompanied by a classifier that gives you some information about its size and shape and how it can be dealt with, that'll give you some important information about a word even though you have no idea what it means. And, in certain contexts, you might not need to know what it means. So, let's say someone says to me (I'm an employee of some kind), "Grab me twenty (classifier for round objects) biffs". I don't know what a biff is. I turn to look and there are two groups of objects I can't identify. Either could be a biff. But, one group is a collection of flat things, and another is a collection of round things. Without knowing what a biff is, I know exactly what my employer wants. In that way, classifiers can be helpful.

Now, realistically, none of these reasons or relevant any longer in modern day China or Japan, and, if Sheli was a language that lasted as long, they would no longer be relevant in Sheli, either. So why do classifiers persist? This is my theory (and this theory actually pertains to why I think a lot of constructions persist in various languages).

Some things in English probably won't last. Some things are already disappearing. For example, consider the common WH question. The technically correct form is something like, "Where are you going?" Nevertheless, many people (including myself) in most circumstances are fine with, "Where you going?" This is because the "are" in that question is redundant, but that can't be the only reason. After all, the "am" in "What am I doing?" is redundant, but no native speaker of English would ever say, *"What I doing?" Intuitively, if you're a native English speaker, this should sound terrible (unless there's some dialect out there I don't know about, which isn't unlikely). It's probably for phonological reasons, but I can't put my finger on it (specifically, "I" follows a consonant, just as it does in the acceptable, "Wha'm I doing?", so it can't be to break up hiatus). The point of bringing these examples up is to show that some things go, and some things don't, and it's not always predictable what will and what won't go.

Back to my theory. It's my theory that the reason that some language features stay, even if they're redundant or unnecessessary, is because they're comfortable. So "whom", for example, is not really that comfortable for me. It's a dying feature, if not already dead. But you know what is comfortable to me? "The." "The word 'the'?" you ask. "How could that ever be abandoned?!" Well, the word never will, but one of its allomorphs is being lost. It used to be the case that if you used "the" before a word that began with a consonant, the vowel would be a schwa, and would rhyme with "duh". But, before a word that began with a vowel, the vowel of "the" was a high [i], so that the word rhymed with "me". This is a feature of English that's being lost. Many people my age and younger pronounce "the" with schwa in all contexts. I think it's because that words that begin with a vowel are being reanalyzed as beginning with a glottal stop. Whatever the reason, the two pronunciations have become unnecessary. After all, we never needed two pronunciations in the first place. That's why it's going. But to me, "the" that rhymes with "me" is very comfortable. I use it consistently and lovingly. It's part of what makes English fun for me.

I think a similar argument might be evinced for classifiers of the type described here. It's never really necessary to use a classifier in the constructions I've described; you get the idea just fine without the classifier (we do it all the time in English). Nevertheless, the use of a classifier (and the correct classifier) is comforting, in a way. It's one of the things that makes the Sheli language feel like the Sheli language. So, for example, it's perfectly possible to speak/write Sheli using only one of the two generic classifiers. The same is true of Chinese and its generic classifier. But doing so will do two things (for bot languages): (a) It will classify you as non-native; and (b) it will give the language a less familiar feel to those who speak it. Perhaps this is the reason that so many older people are upset that "whom" is dying. Perhaps "whom" is comfortable to them, and the language they grew up speaking no longer sounds like their language. Maybe that will happen to all of us. Maybe. Maybe just some are better at handling change, which (despite what Bush may tell you) is inevitable. Maybe. Who knows?

Anyway, that should round up the WH questions. Now I can move on to the actual classifiers. This ought to be fun. Who likes big tables?


The Noun Classifiers of Sheli: The Table

Below is a table of every noun classifier in Sheli. The classifiers are listed in the official numerical order (there're 76 in all). Thus, when I refer to classifier 34, I will always be referring to the thirty-fourth classifier in the table below. To read the table, all you need to do is find the number of the classifier you desire (first column). From there, you can see the form of the classifier (second column), its original phonological form, or etymology (third column), it's historical origin (fourth column), and the type of nouns it typically occurs with (fifth colum). If you have any questions, consult this paragraph.

# Classifier Original Form Original Meaning Uses
1 sun3 */sun/ (n.) type A generic noun classifier.
2 kod1 */kodu/ (n.) number A generic noun classifier.
3 nom1 */nome/ (n.) the noise of something hitting a hard surface Used to turn a mass noun into a count noun (e.g., grass > blade of grass).
4 ja4 */ja/ (n.) unit of measurement (about half a yard) Used for long, thin objects (e.g., stems of flowers).
5 gen3 */gen/ (n.) plain Used for flat objects (e.g., tables).
6 kwe6 */kue/ (n.) pair Used for things which naturally come in pairs (e.g., eyes).
7 ğòm2 */ğomp/ (n.) trio Used for things which naturally come in threes (e.g., yawns).
8 čü6 */čiu/ (n.) quartet Used for things which naturally come in fours (e.g., legs on a land mammal).
9 ün6 */iğun/ (n.) group A generic classifier used for groups of things.
10 fwa6 */foa/ (n.) rounded side Used for round objects (e.g., balls).
11 vàn2 */vant/ (n.) smile Used for adult humans in informal situations (e.g., a group of relatives).
12 twe6 */tue/ (n.) shoulder Used for adult humans in formal situations (e.g., referring to your boss).
13 bos3 */bos/ (n.) mouth (of a human) Used for children (e.g., children).
14 jam1 */jama/ (v.) to gather together Used for groups of humans.
15 khàn1 */khanda/ (v.) to run (of a human) Used for groups of children, though chidingly (e.g., little squirts).
16 khìñ2 */khinč/ (n.) mouth (of an animal) Used for most non-human mammals (e.g., tigers).
17 xòng1 */xongo/ (n.) beak Used for birds (e.g., sparrow).
18 áy5 */axi/ (v.) to fly Used for groups of flying animals (including insects).
19 5 */zağa/ (n.) hoof Used for horses and other ungulates (e.g., deer).
20 zuk1 */zuki/ (n.) tail (which, when removed, will grow back) Used for most reptiles and amphibians (e.g., frogs).
21 as1 */athe/ (n.) dorsal fin Used for aquatic, fish-shaped creatures (e.g., trout and dolphins).
22 nèm3 */nembas/ (v.) to swim (of an animal) Used for groups of aquatic animals.
23 dog1 */dogi/ (n.) tail (which, when removed, will not grow back) Used for most dogs and cats.
24 pàm1 */pampi/ (n.) horn Used for rhinos, or any other animals with horns.
25 khat1 */khata/ (v.) to run (of an animal) Used for groups of land (i.e., non-flying, non-swimming) animals.
26 ot1 */otu/ (v.) to walk or move slowly (of an animal) Used for groups of slow-moving animals (including insects).
27 dya6 */dea/ (n.) leg (of an animal) Used for slaughtered animals (e.g., mutton).
28 žàñ1 */žanči/ (n.) pearl Used for small, grain-like objects (e.g., seeds).
29 čod1 */čodu/ (v.) to lie down Used for small plants (excluding vines and grass).
30 bàng2 */bank/ (n.) trunk (of a tree) Used for trees (e.g., oaks).
31 khay6 */khai/ (n.) stem Used for flowers (e.g., roses).
32 phig1 */phigo/ (n.) piece of fruit Used for small, handheld fruits (e.g., tangerines).
33 muš3 */mušin/ (n.) armful Used for larger fruits (e.g., watermelons).
34 thúm1 */thumbi/ (n.) piece of vegetable Used for vegetables (e.g., broccoli).
35 feš1 */feša/ (v.) to smell Used for herbs and spices (e.g., cilantro).
36 mul3 */mulan/ (n.) basket Used for groups of plants that can be carried.
37 ës6 */okhes/ (v.) to assemble Used for groups of large plants that can't be carried.
38 im1 */ima/ (n.) wooden instrument for extracting things from an oven Used for baked goods (e.g., bread).
39 gob1 */gobo/ (v.) to drink General classifier for liquids.
40 šòm3 */šombas/ (v.) to swim Used for large bodies of water (excluding rivers).
41 5 */xoğe/ (n.) cup Used for drinkable portions of liquid (e.g., a glass of water).
42 yas6 */ixas/ (v.) to shine Used for celestial bodies (e.g., the sun, the moon, the stars, etc.).
43 žok3 */žokan/ (v.) to shake vigorously Used for meteorological phenomena (e.g., storms).
44 sòm3 */somban/ (n.) darkness Used for nights and soil.
45 čhoy6 */čhoi/ (adj.) soft Used for fluffy things (e.g., clouds, pillows, etc.).
46 nay6 */nae/ (n.) clenched fist Used for objects that can be held in the palm of one's hand (e.g., a fist-shaped rock).
47 luk3 */lukas/ (v.) to lift Used for heavy objects that need to be lifted with both hands (e.g., boulders).
48 pon1 */pona/ (n.) bundle Used for sticks and stick-like objects (e.g., pencils).
49 lön6 */lexon/ (v.) to roll up Used for objects which can be rolled up (e.g., scrolls).
50 ğut1 */ğuta/ (v.) to order Used for objects which one tends to arrange in a particular order (e.g., words).
51 thás6 */thakhas/ (v.) to applaud Used for most musical instruments (e.g., piccolos).
52 ef3 */ephis/ (adj.) long Used for blankets, sheets, towels, cloth, etc.
53 mÿn6 */mukhin/ (n.) spine (of a book) Used for books.
54 on1 */onu/ (v.) to enclose Used for containers (e.g., boxes).
55 bàñ2 */banč/ (n.) pile Used for groups of objects that generally come in piles.
56 us3 */usan/ (n.) row Used for groups of objects that are usually lined up in rows.
57 phim1 */phimo/ (n.) stack Used for groups of objects that are usually stacked.
58 tow6 */tou/ (n.) horizon Used for large immobile objects (e.g., mountains).
59 čháw5 */čhaxu/ (n.) roof Used for buildings (e.g., houses).
60 šìng1 */šinku/ (n.) mast Used for ships and boats.
61 sùn1 */suntu/ (n.) wheel Used for privately owned vehicles (e.g., bicycles).
62 viž1 */vižo/ (v.) to function Used for most electrical and mechanical devices (e.g., can openers).
63 tef1 */tepha/ (v.) to play (a musical instrument or song) Used for songs and language.
64 khop1 */khopa/ (n.) page Used for short written documents (e.g., short stories).
65 phòng2 */phonk/ (v.) to flash Used for bright lights, fire, lightning, etc.
66 šow6 */šou/ (n.) wave Used for emotions, dreams, states, ideas and sounds.
67 pas3 */pathan/ (v.) to occur Used for the number of times an action is performed.
68 zán6 */zakhan/ (adj.) quiet Used for slight actions (diminutive).
69 led1 */ledo/ (adj.) loud Used for large, grand actions (augmentative).
70 xas1 */xasa/ (adj.) quick Used for quick actions.
71 dol3 */dolus/ (adj.) slow Used for slow actions.
72 šen3 */šenus/ (v.) to flow Used for fluid actions.
73 ğùm1 */ğumpo/ (v.) to roll (of a rock) Used for jerky, choppy actions.
74 žef3 */žephan/ (n.) repetition Used for repeated actions.
75 ön6 */eğon/ (adj.) endless Used for continuous actions.
76 kaš3 */kačhon/ (n.) ability Used as the word "can" in English.

Verbal Classifier Table

In case you want to look just at that verbal classifiers, here they are. Though they retain their official number, these classifiers are generally listed in a particular order when grouped together. That number will be listed initially (V#), with the official number following (O#). Here's the table:

V# O# Classifier Original Form Original Meaning Uses
1 67 pas3 */pathan/ (v.) to occur Used for the number of times an action is performed.
2 68 zán6 */zakhan/ (adj.) quiet Used for slight actions (diminutive).
3 69 led1 */ledo/ (adj.) loud Used for large, grand actions (augmentative).
4 70 xas1 */xasa/ (adj.) quick Used for quick actions.
5 71 dol3 */dolus/ (adj.) slow Used for slow actions.
6 72 šen3 */šenus/ (v.) to flow Used for fluid actions.
7 73 ğùm1 */ğumpo/ (v.) to roll (of a rock) Used for jerky, choppy actions.
8 74 žef3 */žephan/ (n.) repetition Used for repeated actions.
9 75 ön6 */eğon/ (adj.) endless Used for continuous actions.
10 76 kaš3 */kačhon/ (n.) ability Used as the word "can" in English.

Group Classifier Table

In case you want to look just at that group classifiers, here they are. Though they retain their official number, these classifiers are generally listed in a particular order when grouped together. That number will be listed initially (G#), with the official number following (O#). Here's the table:

G# O# Classifier Original Form Original Meaning Uses
1 9 ün6 */iğun/ (n.) group A generic classifier used for groups of things.
2 6 kwe6 */kue/ (n.) pair Used for things which naturally come in pairs (e.g., eyes).
3 7 ğòm2 */ğomp/ (n.) trio Used for things which naturally come in threes (e.g., yawns).
4 8 čü6 */čiu/ (n.) quartet Used for things which naturally come in fours (e.g., legs on a land mammal).
5 14 jam1 */jama/ (v.) to gather together Used for groups of humans.
6 15 khàn1 */khanda/ (v.) to run (of a human) Used for groups of children, though chidingly (e.g., little squirts).
7 18 áy5 */axi/ (v.) to fly Used for groups of flying animals (including insects).
8 22 nèm3 */nembas/ (v.) to swim (of an animal) Used for groups of aquatic animals.
9 25 khat1 */khata/ (v.) to run (of an animal) Used for groups of land (i.e., non-flying, non-swimming) animals.
10 26 ot1 */otu/ (v.) to walk or move slowly (of an animal) Used for groups of slow-moving animals (including insects).
11 36 mul3 */mulan/ (n.) basket Used for groups of plants that can be carried.
12 37 ës6 */okhes/ (v.) to assemble Used for groups of large plants that can't be carried.
13 55 bàñ2 */banč/ (n.) pile Used for groups of objects that generally come in piles.
14 56 us3 */usan/ (n.) row Used for groups of objects that are usually lined up in rows.
15 57 phim1 */phimo/ (n.) stack Used for groups of objects that are usually stacked.

Conclusion

This concludes the section on Sheli classifiers. I guess they're not just...noun classifiers... That title up there is kind of misleading. Oh well. I know what I meant, and according to some, that's all that matters. Not me, though.

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