The Noun Classifier in Hmong

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 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


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 (optionally) 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


leej txiv


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 / tus cwj 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 vegetation

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

(force of) 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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