What is a noun classifier in Hmong? First of all, do you remember what a noun is? A noun is a person, place, or thing.
Noun classifiers are special grammatical words placed 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 tsevthe house
tus neegthe person
zaj lus piv txwvthe illustration
2. With a demonstrative singular.
lub tsev nothis house
lub roob tidthat mountain
3. With a possessive, always in the singular:
Lawv lub tsevtheir house
kuv tus pojniammy wife
Note: The noun classifier can be replaced by the word ‘li’ to express a possessive relationship.
kuv li tsevmy house
4. With a numeral.
ob lub tsevtwo houses
plaub tug neegfour people
5. After a quantifier.
ntau lub tsevmany houses
peb txhua tusall 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 koWhich 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 nothis one
tus kothe one by you
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 tsevI’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 txivher father
nws tus txivher 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 (optionally) be omitted with many possessive phrases.
Kuv tsevmy house
kuv poj niammy wife
kuv tesmy hand
List of Classifiers – Common
Daim – Things that are flat, sheets, plates, areas.
ib daim ntawva sheet of paper.
ib daim nplooja leaf
ib daim txiaga board
Leej – Specifically for humans.
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 lusa word
lo lus ntuasa word of council, criticism.
ib los mova mouthful of rice
ib los deja 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 thoobthe bucket
lub vasthe net
lub qhov roojthe door
lub pajthe flower
Some body parts
lub cevthe body
lub duavthe lower-middle back
lub siabthe liver (figurative heart in English)
Machines or vehicles
lub tshebthe car
lub nkojthe boat
lub risthe pants
lub tsevthe house
lub npethe name
lub tswv yimthe idea, the wisdom
lub hwj huamthe power, the energetic force
Nkawm – A pair, a couple (not for certain nouns like eyes, arms, legs)
ib nkawm khaua pair of shoes
ib nkawm niam txiva married couple
Phau – Things stacked on on the other, a bundle, a stack.
ib phau ntawva book
ib phau nyiaja stack of money
ib phau khauba pile of clothes
Pluas – Single meals, single dosages.
noj ob pluagtwo meals
noj ua ib pluagtake as a single dose
Qhov – A thing, a place, a hole.
qhov chaw nothis place
qhov nothis thing
ib qho khooma thing, an object
ntau qhov chawmany places
Rab – A tool.
rab riamthe knife
rab diavthe spoon
rab koobthe needle
rab txiabthe scissors
rab raujthe hammer
rab tausthe axe
rab liagthe 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 neegthe person
tus dabthe demon
tus tubthe son
tus tsiaj txhuthe animal
tus noogthe bird
Things that closely affect oneself
Tus pligthe soul
tus duabthe shadow
tus mlomthe idol
tus mobthe sickness
tus nqethe price
River or moving body of water
tus dejthe river
Many parts of the body (when in pairs see ‘txhais’
tus nplaigthe tongue
tus hniavthe tooth
tus twthe tail
Things in short lengths
tus chojthe bridge
tus mem / tus cwj memthe pen
tus yuam sijthe key
tus pasthe stick
tus ceg ntoothe branch
Thaj – An area of vegetation, a shamanistic service
Area of vegetation
ib thaj chawan area of land
ib thaj ava field
ib thaj npleja rice field
a shamanistic service
ib thaj neeba single spiritistic service preformed by a ‘txiv neeb’ or a shaman.
Tsab – A letter (mail), a message
ib tsab ntawva letter
ib tsab xova message
Tsob – A plant
ib tsob ntooa tree
ib tsob npleja rice plant
ib tsob xyooja bamboo plant
ib tsob nroja grass plant
ib tsob posa clump of thorns
Txoj – Long, thin things, abstract concepts with a begenning and an end, roads or path-like concepts.
Long, thin things
Txoj xovthe string
txoj hluathe rope
txoj xov hlauthe wire
txoj hmabthe vine
Txoj hauj lwmthe work
txoj sia(force of) life
txoj hmoovthe luck
txoj caithe law
Roads or path-like concepts
Txoj kevthe road
txoj kev nyuaj siabthe way of depression / sadness
txoj kev thaj yeebthe way of peace
txoj kev txaj muagthe way of sadness
Txhais – One part of a pair.
ib txhais khaua shoe
ib txhais tesa hand
ib txhais npaban upper arm
ib txhais cega leg
Yam – Any give thing (can be used in the same way as ‘Qhov’)
ib yam khoomone thing
ib yam hauj lwma work
tsis ua ib yam dabtsinot do anything
Zaj – Story, song, prayer, phrase, paragraph, notice
zaj kwv huamthe story, the parable
zaj dab neegthe story, the legend
zaj kwv txhiajthe Hmong style song
zaj tshoobthe wedding song
zaj nkaujthe song
zaj lus thovthe 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.