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After a long weekend, here’s a fun Monday lesson to get back into the swing of things.

The standard Mandarin Chinese language does not typically pluralize nouns. Instead, there’s a whole class of counter words which vary according to the type of noun that is to be pluralized. The pattern is basically —

number + counter + noun
三 + 本 + 書 = three [book counter] books
五 + 把 + 椅子 = five [graspable objects counter] chairs
九 + 位 + 老師 = nine [respectful counter for people] teachers
兩 + 頓 + 餐 = two [meal counter] meals

And so on.

For dogs, the counter that one uses can hint at the size of the dog.

Growing up, I only used one counter, 隻 zhī. The same counter is used for birds and other, usually diminutive animals (like cats), one of a pair, certain utensils, etc. As the most generic counter applied to dogs, one might suppose that Chinese speakers are most accustomed to wee pups that eat little more than sparrows, or that pet dogs occupy the same linguistic space as caged birds, another class of pets with a long history in the Chinese archives.

It wasn’t until later that I noticed that the counter 條 tiáo is also used, which automatically brings to mind the larger, skinny dogs such as one might find loping down a village street. This counter is also used for fish, belts, rivers, other long, thin objects, life in the abstract sense (a cat has nine tiao lives) and legal items like clauses or laws.

Perhaps this is a regional preference, as well. The Chinese title for the film Cala, My Dog (set in Beijing) uses this counter, though the dog in question is just a Peke mix. There’s also a sense that the “largeness” of an animal is relative to the amount of energy and effort one feels they are putting into the creature, such that the word almost implies an excess in the relationship — some kind of extra humor, exasperation, or other hidden sentiment. One would never use tiao to count a cat, though a similarly-sized dog who’s been fed and walked and groomed daily only to bite the owner might be scornfully referred to as “that tiao ungrateful dog!”

Meeting an Anatolian shepherd
15 May 2011. The two zhi Bows encounter one tiao Anatolian Shepherd.

And if the dog is REALLY big and powerful, you can use the counter 頭 tóu, literally “head.” Though this counter is typically reserved for pigs and cattle and other large hoofstock, I’ve seen it cropping up a lot in articles about the Tibetan Mastiff.

18 June 2011. This American Akita probably counts as a “head.”