By Will Morgan and Dan Cohen
Ten sheep are a herd but ten wolves are a pack. What gives? What about a parliament of owls, an army of ants, or a pride of lions? English is not alone in using collective nouns and Japanese even takes it a step further. Although in English you can say “three cows” and “three fish,” in Japanese those animals have different counters.
Ushi ga santō, sakana ga sanbiki iru.
There are three cows and three fish.
Before taking you through the jungle of Japanese animal kingdom collective nouns, here is a refresher on Japanese counters.
個 (ko) – Perhaps the most widely applicable counter. Adding a standard number before this counter will allow you to hobble through any situation because although it might be technically wrong, Japanese speakers will certainly know what you mean. (ikko, niko, sanko)
つ (tsu) – Also an excellent general counter, but one that deviates from standard numbers. This one is especially relevant in ordering food at restaurants. (hitotsu, futatsu, mittsu)
台 (dai) – Counter for machines, like computers, cars, and washing machines. (ichidai, nidai, sandai)
本 (hon) – Counter for long, usually cylindrical things like pencils, trains, and tubes of toothpaste. (ippon, nihon, sanbon)
頭 (tō) – Counter for large animals such as cattle, deer, or sheep. (ittō, nitō, santō)
匹 (hiki) – Counter for small animals like cats, fish, and turtles. (ippiki, nihiki, sanbiki)
羽 (wa) – Counter for birds and, strangely enough, rabbits. (Although technically incorrect, hiki is also commonly used for rabbits.) (ichiwa, niwa, sanwa)If you are wondering what the cut-off for large and small animals is, a good benchmark is whether you can pick it up or not. Counters can be as confusing as they are numerous and learning them all is no small feat. Correct usage is highly contextual and even native speakers sometimes slip up. Believe it or not, the counter for a fish in water, hiki, changes to hon when it’s caught, and chō, saku, koro, or kire are used based on how it is sliced up! That said, whether or not you’ve used the correct counter, you will be understood. Our advice is to copy those around you and slowly get used to when you use each counter. Happy counting!