In English, we use the words “the” and “a” in conjunction with a noun. I might talk about “the book”, “a dog”, or, “the pencil”. In Hmong, classifiers take on numerous forms, not just dictating whether we are speaking in the general or the specific about the noun (as in English) but actually telling us something about what the noun is. While there are strengths and weaknesses to each approach, one notable use of the classifiers in Hmong is to distinguish the meanings of words that might have multiple definitions. For example, the Hmong word txiv means father, but it also means husband (tus txiv) or fruit (lub txiv) depending on the classifier you attach to it! The chart below has some of the most common classifiers along with the general rules for when to use them. However, it’s important to understand that these rules aren’t set in stone and can be flexible, or correspond to a different logic than you might assume. A great example of this is the word umbrella (kaus). Beginning Hmong language learners often believe you should use the classifier tus, which refers to, among other things, objects that are long or stick-like! However, the correct classifier to use is lub, which refers to, among other things, round objects. You can see why the misstep might occur! The learner might think of the umbrella in storage, compact and ready to be taken out and used, while the classifier is assigned based on the umbrella as it is actually used, round and shielding the user from the rain, sun, or snow. Neither thought process is inherently wrong, but only one is linguistically correct, showing the importance of learning the language in context beyond the rules you might find on a website like this one!
Below, you can find a general guideline to some of the most common classifiers in Hmong:
Lub: Refers to round objects and abstract nouns.
Tus: Living things (animals and people), long and solid (stick-like) objects, abstract living things.
Daim: Flat or spread out objects.
Phau: Sheets bound together (like a book or magazine).
Qhov: General objects and abstract ideas not covered by other classifiers.
Txoj: Long, flexible objects. Abstract long and flexible objects.
Zaj: Complete ideas organized to be communicated.
Tsob: Plants and plant-like objects.
Cov: Plural classifiers (replaces the normal classifier).
Ready to practice? Try matching the above classifiers to their appropriate list of nouns below. An answer key will be included at the very bottom, so be sure not spoil it for yourself!
- Blankets, paper, skin, and land use the classifier:
- Space, place, and time use the classifier:
- Flowers, balls, houses, and the sun use the classifier:
- Books, magazines, and dictionaries use the classifier:
- Speeches, songs, plans, and poems use the classifier:
- Bushes, trees, and shrubs use the classifier:
- Three pencils, two rocks, and six cars use the classifier:
- Ghosts, dogs, and spouses use the classifier:
- Hammers, spoons, and guns use the classifier:
- Life, necklaces, and rope us the classifier: