Chinese: where numbers are numbers

In Chinese, numbers are numbers. Yes, I can see you all thinking to yourselves, “Brilliant insight! Now I too can speak Chinese!” But English speakers, work with me here. How many English numbers do we really treat like numbers? If I want to know how many people were at the party, I ask “How many people were at the party?” But here’s a little list of other places we use numbers:

– Age
– Page number
– Telephone number
– Floor in a building
– Time (on a clock)
– Date
– Distance

Now, how would you ask questions about these? The first thing that comes to mind for me:

How old are you?
What page are you on?
What’s your phone number?
What floor do you live on?
What time is it?
What’s the date?
How far is it?

How many ‘how many’s ? None. (For the last one, you could say “How many miles is it?” For the first one, you could ask “how many months is she?” for a baby. For the ‘what’ questions, I don’t think it’s possible. Compare Chinese, where we’re at least 6/7:

– Age: use 几(jǐ) ‘how many–for small numbers’*
– Page number: use 多少(duōshǎo) ‘how many’
– Telephone number: use 多少
– Floor in a building: use 几
– Time (on a clock): use 几*
– Date: use 几
– Distance: use 多(duō)


For age and time, other possibilities exist. You can ask about time with 什么(shénme) ‘what’. For age questions, 几 is for children. You can ask older people with 多大 (duōdà). I’m not quite sure how to translate or classify that one. It’s kind of like ‘how big’. Likewise, I’m not sure how to classify the 多 (duō) for distance, or if ‘how’ is the best translation, hence the 6/7. Is it a coincidence that the 多(duō) and 多大(duōdà) questions in Chinese correspond to the ‘how’ questions in English? They feel more adverbial to me, but of course they do because I’m an English speaker.

There’s one other exception to the “numbers are numbers” principle that I know of in Chinese–if you’re asking which year it is, you use 哪 (nǎ) ‘which’. I suppose this is because 几 is only for small numbers, and 多少 is used with time to ask about duration–how many (多少)months you’ve been in China, for example.

FAQ: Didn’t you bias your results with the examples you chose?

A: Of course I did, with the English at least. For Chinese, I’m sure there are other numbers that aren’t number-like but I don’t happen to know what they are. My point, really, is that this set of questions takes English speakers by surprise, and if you forget you’re talking about a number and use ‘what’, the Chinese person your talking to tends to be rather puzzled.

1 Response to “Chinese: where numbers are numbers”

  1. 1 Dave May 14, 2010 at 7:50 pm

    Good post, these are some things that are important to keep in mind when learning Chinese.

    幾 is also a question word too, for instance: “他幾歲?” – how old is he?.

    Also, I think using 多少 for phone number is 非常口語, 幾號 is the correct way to ask.

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