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.