A Tale of Two Numbers

While learning both Japanese and Korean, I have noticed an interesting tendency to have two different number systems: a “native” number system and a Chinese-imported one. In some contexts the native system is used, and in some contexts the Chinese-imported one is used. For example for Japanese, the numbers are like so from 1 to 3:

Sino-Japanese Native Japanese
Ichi いち Hito ひと
Ni に Futa ふた
San さん Mitsu みつ

While in Korean:

Sino-Korean Native Korean
Il 일 Hana 하나
I 이 Dul 둘
Sam 삼 Set 셋

In Japanese, the Sino-Japanese words tend to get used for most things, but you might use the native Japanese numbers for things like counting one or two people (hitori, futari respectively) or counting “generic” things (hitotsu, futatsu, mittsu, etc) up to ten. In Korean, Sino-Korean numbers are used for phone numbers or telling minutes of time, but native Korean numbers are used for things like age, number of people or telling the hour of time. The native Korean numbers are also often attached to counting words.

In other words, there’s no real logic or clear-cut rule about when to use Chinese-imported numbers and when to use native numbers. Sometimes one system is used. Sometimes the other system is used. The Chinese-imported numbers are usually more commonly seen because they tend to be very logical and easy to pick up, while the native counting systems in Japanese and Korean are somewhat harder and less intuitive.1 For example in Japanese, the native Japanese words are often used up to 3 or maybe even 2 and never beyond 10. Meanwhile, in Korean, most young people tell their age with Sino-Korean numbers rather than the native numbers because it’s hard to remember how to say numbers like 40 (maheun, 마흔) and 50 (swin, 쉰). Older Koreans will still use the native numbers for age, but you hear that less and less.

This may sound somewhat strange to have two number systems, but English is vaguely similar. A lot of words in English are imported from Latin and Greek (mostly through medieval French). So, we say “light”, but when used as a compound word, we say “phot-” as in “photography”, “photosynthesis”, etc. English has only one number system, but in other contexts, we do have a combination of “native” words and “imported” words for the same thing. Knowing when to use either one is something you just learn.

Languages in general are messy and dynamic. There’s a lot of history behind words and rules that the average person may not be aware of, and it’s not really necessary for day to day life. But for nerds like me, it is fun. 🙂

1 I think I remember that Vietnamese is the same way, but I can’t quite remember (I studied it 10 years ago). If I recall right, the usual numbers in Vietnamese are of Chinese origin, while the native system is obscure and mostly used in old literature, but I could be wrong.


Author: Doug

A fellow who dwells upon the Pale Blue Dot who spends his days obsessing over things like Buddhism, KPop music, foreign languages, BSD UNIX and science fiction.

21 thoughts on “A Tale of Two Numbers”

  1. I can still cope with the ichi/hito etc distinction. It’s when I have to start adding counters (and have to remember, for example, whether it’s hachi- or hakk- or hass- or hatt- or happ-) that I have a messy brain meltdown. ^^ Frustrating but fun!


    1. Hi Rurosha,

      That part doesn’t bother me too much because those sound-shifts have some logic behind them, but when to use what still confuses me. I even get my wife confused now. :-p


  2. In English we occasionally rely on Latin and Greek numbers too. You usually see this with variants meaning “one”, such as mono- (Greek), uni- (Latin); or “two”, such as di- (Greek), duo- (Latin), bi- (Latin); and even for “three”, as in tri- (both Latin and Greek). You can potentially borrow Latin/Greek numbers indefinitely; I’m specifically thinking of shapes with many sides (triangle, quadrilateral, pentagon, hexagon, …), extremely large numbers (billion, trillion, quadrillion, …) or decades of life (septuagenarian, octogenarian, nonagenarian). There are many more classes these numbers apply to, but it’s a bit of a messy system any way you cut it. Anyone who navigates through Anglophonic upper education (especially in maths and sciences) will almost certainly gain significant exposure to these Latin and Greek number classes. That may be the closest analogy I can think of to compare English numbers to Japanese and Korean numbers.


    1. Hi Arun, yeah I thought of that too, but it seemed much more limited use than what you see in Japanese/Korean as you pointed out. I even took a “Greek and Latin in modern use” college course (I was a Classics-nut in those days). It was pretty interesting but other than a few dozen root words it seemed like the rest was too obscure to be useful in anything other than a scientific context or an English major. I majored in neither. :-p


  3. Very cool. Even “within” Chinese (or rather, the Sinitic languages), there are two different systems at play. For instance in Taiwanese (or Southern Min) there are two sets of numbers – one for everyday counting and one for, say, reciting digits in phone numbers. Of course there are ordinal numbers too… It’s interesting to me that so many of the “Chinese” pronunciations in Japanese and Korean actually sound more similar (to my ears) to Taiwanese than to Mandarin.


    1. Hi Jonathan,

      You got me thinking, so I looked up Taiwanese Hokkien on Wikipedia, and indeed the words do seem to strongly sound like “On-Yomi” (Chinese readings) of Japanese kanji. How do you count to 10 in Taiwanese though? I couldn’t find it online, and now I’m super curious. 🙂


      1. Oh wow, I see what you mean. Yeah the Sino-Korean sounds almost the same! Sino-Japanese sounds pretty similar too. That sure explains a lot.


  4. There are also Sin-Vietnamese numbers, but not nearly as common as in Korean and Japanese. That said, my Vietnamese isn’t nearly as good as my English, so the only time I can think of when these numerals are used consistently is in school grades, where the terms nhất, nhì, tam, tư, ngũ, etc. are used for first grade, second grade, third grade, etc. Otherwise, the Vietnamese numbers tend to be used. An exception (or two) might be the terms thứ nhất for “first” (instead of thứ một) and thứ tư for “fourth” (instead of thứ bốn).


    1. Hi Arun, I really, really the information on Sino-Vietnamese numbers. I knew I had learned it before, and as soon as i saw the words, a light went off on my head. 😉

      I know the words you’re referring to: thứ nhất and thứ tư for example. It’s been 10 years, so my Vietnamese skill are shot, but I appreciate you reminding me again. 🙂 I tried finding information online, but it was all basic Vietnamese, focused on the basic counting (một, hai, nam, etc). I remember the Sino-Vietnamese terms were also used in various Vietnamese proverbs, but again I can’t remember these very well. I’ll have to dig up my old textbooks if I still have them (I think I lent them to someone years ago, and of course they never returned it).


  5. Doug, when it comes to Japanese counters it’s not the logic that’s the problem, it’s the memory! (>_<) It's called middle age …

    Enjoy your week of chanting, and welcome back to Japan next week. I look forward to your posts from Japan.


  6. It’s called middle age …

    It also goes by the name of “parenting”, as I have learned. 🙂

    Thanks for the well-wishes. I hope to have some interesting stuff in the coming weeks, but I don’t have any concrete ideas yet.


  7. sino-Vietnamese
    1. Nhat
    2. Nhi
    3. Tam
    4. Tu
    5 ngu
    6. Luc
    7. That
    8. Bat
    9. Cuu
    10. Thap
    Basically they are pronounced similar to the Cantonese pronunciation and are not very commonly used unless in compound words or in expressions or proverbs eg. Doc nhat vo nhi (literally ultimate one no number two)
    Native Vietnamese is used mostly but in some cases for example “first” is thu nhat and “second” is thu nhi so in those cases the sink one is used


    1. Hi Gg and welcome! Thank you very much for the explanation. I really do appreciate it. The doc nhat vo nhi sounds really familiar, so I think I learned in college when studying Vietnamese.


  8. Độc nhất vô nhị: 單一無二 。 That’s why we are all in Sinosphere 漢字文化圏 (China, Vietnam, Korea, Japan) 。I’m not sure about Korean or Japanese, but basically the concept of Chinese is also in Vietnamese language. Chia tay = 分手 ; Chết cười = 笑死 。 We also have native counting and sino-counting like Japan and Korea。 Just to be specific, Vietnamese pronunciation is close to Cantonese in some extend. It’s closer to Ancient Chinese and Middle Chinese. It’s not just Cantonese, but also Hokkien and Teochew. Generally all Southern Chinese pronunciation。 I’m not really agree with the point “they are not very commonly used”. Vietnamese uses Chinese characters as they are Vietnamese. Since we cannot read Chinese characters. We treat them and use them naturally, without thinking they are Chinese.


  9. One example is the reply ” Nhất rồi ” (第一了 ; number one) to express something/someone/self as the best which people use a lot. Another way is “Số một” (一號)


  10. Wow…thanks for this article! I was trying to look up what set of numbers to put on my International Number Blocks, and didn’t know which one to use. I even asked my mom, who learned Korean while she was over there for 18 months, and she couldn’t really describe it. Thanks. 🙂


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