What Do Sand, Classifiers and Haitian Creole All Have in Common?

I’d like to start this post of with a transcript from the Radiotopia podcast Everything is Alive. For those of you unfamiliar with the show, here’s the premise: an unscripted interview show in which the subject is an inanimate object. As you might imagine, the unscripted nature of the conversation, as well as the unconventional personas taken on by the guests lead to some interesting tangents.

Here’s one such tangent from the show’s 7th episode, featuring a grain of sand:

Chioke – “Sorry, I’m just having trouble with the pronouns. You know we’re doing this interview and I’m a grain of sand, but that’s not really the way that I would think of myself. I think normally I would just say, “We are sand”… Um, so you see that there’s the kind of mass noun thing happening. And it’s weird to talk to you because you don’t have a mass noun thing, or you don’t seem to have a mass noun arrangement. So you say of yourself that you’re a person, right?”

Interviewer – “Right, yeah I would say that I am a person.”

Chioke – “So, like, why aren’t you a grain of person?”

Interview – “Like, why do I not consider myself as like a fraction of all of humanity?”

Chioke – “Yeah, like that makes more sense. It just seems to me like if you recognized the degree to which you owed your existence to other people you might also be nicer to other people.”

In this clip the grain of sand struggles with how to identify itself. In an interesting and surprisingly metalinguistic twist, the root of his consternation is the fact that grains of sand are part of the mass noun sand whereas individual people are more often (or primarily) thought of as individuals, rather than as part of a mass noun (it’s worth noting, of course that this isn’t always the case). This leads him to ask pointedly, “Like, why aren’t you a grain of person?”

What Does This Have To Do With Haitian Creole?

It’s all quite funny, but immediately upon hearing this the first thing that came to mind was Haitian Creole. For sometime now I’ve been obsessed by the fascinating, but in my opinion understudied usage of the word grenn (grain, or seed) in Creole as a classifier, or measure word.

Classifiers and Haitian Creole

For those of you who don’t know what a classifier is (i.e. anybody with a life), it is a concept that exists kind of on the margins of the English-speaking brain, but one that takes center-stage with many of the world’s languages. Basically, a classifier is a word used when measuring something, stating how many of something there are or singling out something in particular.

In English, we essentially do the same thing when we talk about a grain of sand, or two slices of bread. Because sand and bread are thought of as a mass, when we use special words to talk about units of that mass. Other languages use a similar concept, but instead of only applying it to units of a mass, they use these measure words for all kinds of nouns, in all kinds of situations.

“Grains of People”

That brings us back to grenn. In addition to meaning “grain” or “seed”, among other things, grenn is used as a measure word not only for what we would think of as “grains” but also, frankly all sorts of stuff. There’s the expression pa eseye met de pye nan yon grenn soulye which means “don’t try to put two feet into one (grain of) shoe [don’t make things harder than they have to be/don’t attempt the futile]”. When you ask a friend how many of your fries she took while you weren’t looking, they might downplay their theft by saying kèk grenn, or “some grains” (meaning, “just a few measly fries”). And lastly, bringing us back to our clip, in Creole you can even use grenn with the word moun, “person”: yon sèl grenn moun, de grenn moun, or kat grenn moun. So here we’re literally referring to “grains of people”. Just like with slices of bread, it’s as if individuals are being viewed as parts of a whole.

Lovely, right? It’s worth noting though that, for now, this usage is reserved for a special purpose. It is meant to emphasize the fewness of an amount. So just as you only refer to, say, grains of rice when the quantity is small enough that you notice the individual grains (as opposed to a plateful of rice), likewise grenn comes into play whenever there’s is a surprisingly or unexpectedly small amount of something (Note the shoe example from earlier).

To Each Its Own

Some languages have taken a similar system and, well, gotten a bit carried away with it. Take Chinese for example. Here’s a video that shows you how to use different classifiers (in purple) to count the things in the picture:

Not only does Chinese require a measure word every time a noun is counted or used with a word like “that”, it also has a multitude of different words it uses as classifiers. There’s a measure word for small things, a measure word for flat things, a measure word for skinny things, a measure word for fat things. And while it is not practical or necessary or, frankly, possible to know and use all of the classifiers in the language (some being very literary and uncommon), it is a must to use some kind of classifier in the situations that require them.

Low Class Meets High Class

The understandable reaction of most English speakers is to wonder what use this elaborate system of classifiers serves. Why do languages feel the need to explicitly mark units? As we’ve seen, English generally only requires the use of measure words in the most practical of cases. And in most cases the units referenced serve the practical function of telling us how big the individual units are (3 pieces of pie, 2 sheets of paper) and are used with nouns that are generally understood to be one big homogeneous mass.

However, there are cases where a word is shedding its measure word and getting a new lease on life. For example, you might ask for 2 cups of water or 2 bottles of water, but just as often nowadays, you might just ask for 2 waters. In a case like that a word that was generally only a mass noun, is now being forced into the role of a classifierless (unclassified?) count noun. Interestingly, some words are treated differently in dialects that are otherwise not so different. For example, in America units of pizza are variously known as “pizzas”, “boxes of pizza” and “pizza pies”. A house divided. Even though its something we don’t often think about, we brush past this world of mass noun versus countable unit everyday, as alluded to in this clever scene from NBC’s Community:

As this scene illustrates, English is at a crossroads of sorts and has been for a while. Do we eliminate measure words altogether if the unit is obvious? 3 breads, 2 soaps, 5 gums? That’s not impossible to imagine and the aforementioned “2 waters” clearly provides a workable template. Or maybe it will develop increasingly more units to accompany new items. Maybe units will begin to expand their range of application. Why can’t a loaf refer to a 12 inch, sub-shaped unit of bread? If that happens, it’s a slippery slope to a fully developed classifier system like Chinese and so many others.

What’s the Takeaway?

In any event, this just goes to illustrate that as the competing forces of clarity and brevity, introduction and reduction, transparency and redundancy continue to act on spoken language the changes that result are unpredictable and yet somewhat familiar. And by learning more about other languages and other cultures, sometimes we get a better view of ourselves.

At Access Interpreting we value the intricacies of all languages. It is our aim to bridge the often frustrating and many times destructive communication gap that divides multi-lingual communities. Language barriers often separate us not only from information, but from each other. Learn more about how Access Interpreting is making connections that facilitate communication among members of our community or request a free consultation today.