Tag Archives: Japanese numerals

Origin of the Japanese number system

The system of Japanese numerals is the system of number names used in the Japanese language, and its forms evolved as the language evolved.

There are two sets of counter words and two sets of pronunciations for the numerals exist in Japanese: one is based on Sino-Japanese (on’yomi) readings of the Chinese characters and the other on the Japanese yamato kotoba (native words, kun’yomi readings). The older is the native Japanese reading and is appended with “〜つ” when counting things without counters.
From around 1,300 years ago, as an increasingly larger number of Chinese words were adopted and integrated into Japanese, came the Chinese numbers. Their reading is called onyomi (音読み, おんよみ) and they are used for numbering most things, such as time, months, and counting. There are still four numbers where the native kunyomi pops up: ひ, ふ, よん and なな(see Wikipedia entry on Japanese numbers and numerals).
Some insights into the introduction and evolution of the Chinese numeral system are to be found in Bjarke Frellesvig’s “A history of the Japanese language”, at P.289-291

“The native system of numerals is simple and partly based on vowel alterations to show doubling: pito ‘1’~puta ‘2’; mi ‘3’ ~ mu ‘6’; yo ‘4’ ~ ya ‘8’.

However, the system does not provide easily for formation of higher numbers … Some SJ numbers were used in OJ … But the intake of SJ numerals is usually thought not to have taken place until EMJ.

Sino-Japanese loanwords in Late Middle Japanese
During the LMJ period the use of SJ loanwords in the texts increased. This is probably in part related to the genres represented in the sources, including more kanji-kana majjribun, but the establishment of SJ was a major factor… It should have be noted that most SJ loanwords from the EMJ period which were in everyday use derive from the pre-kan-on(that is, go-on) norm of J-Ch (and is often corresponding to the SJ go-on readings), showing the persistence of the J-Ch go-on also after the decrees promoting the use of the kan-on * making use of originally Ch words more freely available in Japanese and thereby facilitating both intake and use of SJ loanwords. …
In addition to the increased intake and use of loanwords taken in from kan-on and go-on SJ, a new layer of J-Ch came to Japan during the first half of the period, used especially in some Zen Buddhist sects. Thus is the To-on variety of J-Ch …which also gave use to loanwords, and also eventually to the to-on SJ… J-Ch to-on is said to be based on Southern Chinese varieties, but the loanwords taken during the LMJ period also include words deriving from contacts between Japanese fishers and traders with their continental colleagues. In that sense, some of the words characterised as To-on are direct loans from Chinese rather than SJ loanwords (which are based on J-Ch or SJ). Also a number of everyday SJ loanwords still in common use today, such as niku …’meat’, netsu…’fever’, or ‘konnichi’ …’today’ are based on go-on, as are the SJ numerals, except kiu(kyuu) ‘9’ numbers.
Most SJ loanwords taken in during the LMJ period on the other hand, are reading loans based SJ go-on and kan-on. The establishment of SJ made vocalization of original Chinese words far more freely available in Japan.”

The Japanese numerals in writing are almost entirely based on the Chinese numerals and the grouping of large numbers follow the Chinese tradition of grouping by 10,000.  For most purposes today, the Chinese number system is used, rather than native numbers. However, native numbers are often used for counting numbers of items up to 10 – as in hitotsu, futatsu, mittsu (one item, two items, three items), notably days on the calendar, and with other Japanese counter words – and for various exceptions (fossils). These exceptions include 20 years old (hatachi), the 20th day of a month (hatsuka), 八百屋 (yaoya, greengrocer, literally “800 store”), and 大晦日 (ōmisoka – last day of the year, literally “big 30th day”)…see The Number System of the Ancient Japanese.

Origin of the number systems

The origin of the earlier ‘native ‘ number system is obscure, scholars attribute it to various Uralic-Altaic/Finno-Ugric/Melanesian sources, but so far clear evidence and proof is lacking. See Stefan Tanaka’s summary of earlier theories on the origins of the native counting system, including Shiratori’s that:

“…placed them within the Ural-Altaic family. the Ainu language, though monosyllabic like the languages of Southeast Asian cultures, provided, he said, objective proof of a Ural Altai affinity, for it exhibited agglutination like some Ural-Altaic affinity, for it exhibited agglutination like some Ural-Altaic languages, particularly Finn-Ugri and Samoyed, and also a similarity in the basic construction of some numbers, especially six through nine.”

“…The original numerical system, he suggested was based on a reduplicative scheme that was in turn reflected in the counting system. ancient Japanese used two hands to count: two (puto) was formed by adding one (pito) finger on one hand to the identical one on the other hand; three (mi) doubled to six (mu); four(yo) doubled to eight (ya); and five (it) doubled to ten(to)..”–Japan’s Orient: Rendering Pasts Into History by Stefan Tanaka

The task of tracing the origin of the Chinese number system, however, is more productive, and strong similarities can be seen in the number system adopted in ancient Japan with those used by the earliest Sino-Tibetan tribes…see the closest cognates charted below:

Japanese   English Proto-Sino-Tibetan         Written Tibetan/ Tibetan /Kannauri

ichi     ONE*ʔit / *kat / *tjak ~g-t(j)ik.                       geig   / cheek.     / id

ni       TWO*g/s-ni-s                                                       gnis   / nyee         / nis

san      THREE*g-sum                                                      gsum/ soom       / sum

yon/shi  FOUR*b-ləj                                                            bzi  / zhee           / pu

go       FIVE*l/b-ŋa                                                         lgna / nga            /ga

roku     SIX*d-(k-)ruk                                                      drug/ drook       / kuk

shichi   SEVEN*s-ni-s                                                         bdun / dun        / stif

hachi    EIGHT*b-r-gjat ~ b-g-rjat                              brgyad / gyay        / rai

ku1/kyū2  NINE*d/s-kəw                                                      dgu / goo         / zgui

1) From Early Middle Chinese Goon, the initial reading when first borrowed into Japanese

2) From Middle Chinese Kan’on, a later reading. Borrowed after palatalisation occurred in Middle Chinese.

juu      TEN*gip / *tsi(j)i(j) ~ tsjaj                                   bcu / choo        / sai

ni-juu   TWENTY*(m-)kul

hyaku    HUNDRED*b-r-gja

sen      THOUSAND*s-toŋ

Further comparative sources and references:

Korean counting system (non-native, Sino-Korean):

1-Il  2-i  3-sam  4-sa  5-o  6-yuk  7-chil  8-pal  9-gu  10-ship

The above system is close to the Hakka counting system (below)

1-jit 2-ngi 3-sam 4-si 5-ng 6-liuk 7-cit  8-bat. 9-giu  10-siip

Ainu counting system:

1-sirep 2-tup 3-rep 4-inep 5-asiknep 6-iwanpe 7-arwampe 8-tupesanpe 9-sinepesanpe 10-wanpe 20-hotnep 100-asikne hotnep
Source: Systems of the world

Mongolian counting system:

1 – neg. 2 – hoyor. 3 – guraw. 4 – doruw. 5 – tav. 6 – zurgaa 7 – doloo. 8 – naym. 9 – yes. 10 – araw

Buryat counting system:

1-Nigen 2-Qoyar 3-rurban 4- Dorben 5 -Tabun 6-Jiryuyan 7-Doloyan 8-Naiman 9-Yisun 10-Arban

Hmong counting system:

1-Ib  2-ob  3-Peb  4-Plaub  5-Tsib  6-Rau  7-Xya  8 – Yim 9-Cuaj  10 – Kaum

Chinese numerals

Wu Chinese numerals


Sino-Tibetan numerals and the play of prefixes

Systems of the world

Japan’s Orient: Rendering Pasts Into History By Stefan Tanaka, P. 164

Kurakichi Shiratori, “The Japanese Numerals”, Memoirs of the Research Department

 “A history of the Japanese language”, by Bjarke Frellesvig, P.289-291

The number system of the Ancient Japanese

Volume 86 1977 > Volume 86, No. 1 > Kapauku numeration: reckoning, racism, scholarship, and Melanesian counting systems, by Nancy Bowers, p 105-116

Indo-European Numerals by Jadranka Gvozdanović