The Noun Classifier in Hmong

Travis GoreGrammar, Uncategorized, VocabLeave a Comment

What is a noun classifier in Hmong? First of all, do you remember what a noun is? It is a person, place, or thing.

Noun classifiers are special grammatical words that go before a noun to add depth of meaning to it, to grammatically make a reference in a sentence more specific, and to differentiate between homonyms (two words that are spelled the same but have different meanings). That is very abstract. Let’s look at some concrete examples to make this concept more easy to understand.

Differentiating Homonyms – Txiv

‘Txiv’ in Hmong has a few meanings. Three meanings are ‘fruit,’ ‘husband,’ and ‘father.’ Noun classifiers can differentiate between those two meanings.

The noun classifier ‘leej’ is used regarding people and sometimes can imply an intimate relationship such as between children and parents. So the expression ‘leej txiv’ leaves no doubt that you are talking about a ‘father.’

While the relationship between husband and wife is also intimate, one would only use the classifier ‘tus’ to refer to a husband. ‘Tus’ is a classifier that is used to refer to living, thinking creatures including people, animals, bugs, and even sicknesses (virus). It will also refer to some other things such as objects of short lengths and of rivers. But in this case, ‘tus txiv’ will definitely mean husband.

Finally the noun classifier ‘lub’ is a general classifier used to refer to abstract nouns such as an idea, or round items, or items that don’t already fall into another category. ‘Lub txiv’ would refer to ‘a fruit’ or ‘the fruit.’

Depth of Meaning – Ntawv

This concept is similar to differentiating homonyms but instead of simply differentiating sometimes a noun classifier will add a deeper or more specific meaning to a noun.

For example, the word ‘ntawv’ by itself means letters or characters (that one might find on a keyboard, for example).

However, adding ‘tsab,’ which is a classifier for postal letters turns ‘tsab ntawv’ into a postal letter.

Adding ‘phau,’ which is a noun classifier for books or volumes turns ‘phau ntawv,’ into ‘book.’

Adding ‘tus,’ which in this case is used for objects of short lengths and inserting the word ‘npe’ creates the idiom ‘tus npe ntawv’ which means a single letter in an alphabet.

In the above way Hmong creates a more specific and meaningful vocabulary without adding new words.

 Specificity – lub

One way to see the meaning of noun classifiers is to remove them and see what the difference is. For example, consider the following comparison. You are speaking with someone who tells you ‘I like cars.’ They aren’t specific, they are just saying they like ‘cars’ in general without referring to a specific one. You can express this thought in Hmong with just three words: ‘Kuv nyiam tsheb.’ So let’s compare this to someone who just got a new car and the two of you are standing there in front of it. They ask you if you like their new car. You respond with ‘Kuv nyiam lub tsheb.’ The only difference from the previous sentence is the word ‘lub.’ But now you are saying, ‘I like the car.’

Noun classifiers actually serve to make a reference more specific in a number of ways. The above example is just one very basic one. Let’s look at some more in the following subheading.

When Should I Use a Noun Classifier?

I would never be so bold as to say one ‘must’ use a noun classifier because it is difficult to set hard fast rules for a complex language. So let’s just use the phrase ‘should.’  Below are some general guidelines as to when it is likely you should use a noun classifier. Much of this is referenced from Jean Motin’s Elements of White Hmong Grammar.

1. For people or things defined in the singular. In English we would do this with the word ‘the.’

lub tsev – the house

tus neeg- the person

zaj lus piv txwv – the illustration

2. With a demonstrative singular.

lub tsev no – this house

lub roob tid – that mountain

3. With a possessive, always in the singular:

Lawv lub tsev – their house

kuv tus pojniam – my wife

Note: The noun classifier can be replaced by the word ‘li’ to express a possessive relationship.

kuv li tsev – my house

4. With a numeral.

ob lub tsev – two houses

plaub tug neeg – four people

5. After a quantifier.

ntau lub tsev – many houses

peb txhua tus – all of us (note: It is a very common mistake for people to say ‘txhua peb.’ However this ignores the grammatical necessity of a noun classifier. Hence the correct wording is ‘peb txhua tus.’)

6. When asking a question where the answer is a numeral or a definite noun.

Pes tsawg leej? / ob leeg – How many people? / 2 people

Rab twg? / rab ko – Which tool? / The tool near you

You can use a noun classifier in place of a noun you already know. In this case it serves as a pronoun.

Lub no / this one

tus ko / the one by you

ntau lub / many

zaj uas… / the poem which…

Noun Classifiers – Exceptions

As with many grammar rules, classifiers often have exceptions. Below are a few examples.

When specificity is not necessary.

Kuv mus tsev – I’m going home. (it is obvious you are going to YOUR house and because it is obvious, it is not necessary to be specific. If you were going to someone else’s house then you would need to specify.)

It is not always necessary to use with ‘txiv.’

As a special rule, see the following phrase:

nws txiv – her father

nws tus txiv – her husband

As ‘tus txiv’ means husband we cannot use ‘tus’ to refer to a father. While, as stated earlier, it is possible to use ‘leej txiv’ to refer to the father it is more common to just say ‘nws txiv.’

Can be omitted with many possessive phrases.

Kuv tsev – my house

kuv poj niam – my wife

kuv tes – my hand

List of Classifiers – Common

Daim – Things that are flat, sheets, plates, areas.

ib daim ntawv – a sheet of paper.

ib daim nplooj – a leaf

ib daim txiag – a board

Leej – Specifically for humans.

leej niam – mother

leej txiv – father

Kuv mus ib leeg xwb. – I will go alone, ‘Lit: I go one person only.’

Muaj coob leej nyob ua ke. – there are many people living together.

Lo / Los – Word or speech, a bite or sip.

ib lo lus – a word

lo lus ntuas – a word of council, criticism.

ib los mov – a mouthful of rice

ib los dej – a sip of water

Lub – Used as a ‘catchall.’ Used for hollow or round objects, some body parts, machines or vehicles, some clothing, buildings, abstract nouns, etc.

Objects that are hollow or round

lub thoob – the bucket

lub vas – the net

lub qhov rooj – the door

lub paj – the flower

Some body parts

lub cev – the body

lub duav – the lower-middle back

lub siab – the liver (figurative heart in English)

Machines or vehicles

lub tsheb – the car

lub nkoj – the boat


lub ris – the pants


lub tsev – the house


lub npe – the name

lub tswv yim – the idea, the wisdom

lub hwj huam – the power, the energetic force

Nkawm – A pair, a couple (not for certain nouns like eyes, arms, legs)

ib nkawm khau – a pair of shoes

ib nkawm niam txiv – a married couple

Phau – Things stacked on on the other, a bundle, a stack.

ib phau ntawv – a book

ib phau nyiaj – a stack of money

ib phau khaub – a pile of clothes

Pluas – Single meals, single dosages.

noj ob pluag – two meals

noj ua ib pluag – take as a single dose

Qhov – A thing, a place, a hole.

qhov chaw no – this place

qhov no – this thing

ib qho khoom – a thing, an object

ntau qhov chaw – many places

Rab  – A tool.

rab riam – the knife

rab diav – the spoon

rab koob – the needle

rab txiab – the scissors

rab rauj – the hammer

rab taus – the axe

rab liag – the sickle

Tus – Living beings, humans or animals, many parts of the body, things closely affecting a person, things in short lengths.

Living Beings, humans or animals

tus neeg – the person

tus dab – the demon

tus tub – the son

tus tsiaj txhu – the animal

tus noog – the bird

Things that closely affect oneself

Tus plig – the soul

tus duab – the shadow

tus mlom – the idol

tus mob – the sickness

tus nqe – the price

River or moving body of water

tus dej – the river

Many parts of the body (when in pairs see ‘txhais’

tus nplaig – the tongue

tus hniav – the tooth

tus tw – the tail

Things in short lengths

tus choj – the bridge

tus mem – the pen

tus yuam sij – the key

tus pas – the stick

tus ceg ntoo – the branch

Thaj – An area of vegetation, a shamanistic service

Area of vegitation

ib thaj chaw – an area of land

ib thaj av – a field

ib thaj nplej – a rice field

a shamanistic service

ib thaj neeb – a single spiritistic service preformed by a ‘txiv neeb’ or a shaman.

Tsab – A letter (mail), a message

ib tsab ntawv – a letter

ib tsab xov – a message

Tsob – A plant

ib tsob ntoo – a tree

ib tsob nplej – a rice plant

ib tsob xyooj – a bamboo plant

ib tsob nroj – a grass plant

ib tsob pos – a clump of thorns

Txoj – Long, thin things, abstract concepts with a begenning and an end, roads or path-like concepts.

Long, thin things

Txoj xov – the string

txoj hlua – the rope

txoj xov hlau – the wire

txoj hmab – the vine


Txoj hauj lwm – the work

txoj sia – life

txoj hmoov – the luck

txoj cai – the law

Roads or path-like concepts

Txoj kev – the road

txoj kev nyuaj siab- the way of depression / sadness

txoj kev thaj yeeb – the way of peace

txoj kev txaj muag – the way of sadness

Txhais – One part of a pair.

ib txhais khau – a shoe

ib txhais tes – a hand

ib txhais npab – an upper arm

ib txhais ceg – a leg

Yam – Any give thing (can be used in the same way as ‘Qhov’)

ib yam khoom – one thing

ib yam hauj lwm – a work

tsis ua ib yam dabtsi – not do anything

Zaj – Story, song, prayer, phrase, paragraph, notice

zaj kwv huam – the story, the parable

zaj dab neeg – the story, the legend

zaj kwv txhiaj – the Hmong style song

zaj tshoob – the wedding song

zaj nkauj – the song

zaj lus thov – the prayer

Please feel free to leave comments below. An article like this is easy to update, too, so if you see any mistakes or have any suggestions I would love to hear them.

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