In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Classifiers

  • Introduction
  • Monographs
  • Edited Collections
  • Genders and Noun Classes
  • General Typological Issues
  • Sign Languages

Linguistics Classifiers
Alexandra Y. Aikhenvald
  • LAST REVIEWED: 18 August 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 June 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199772810-0007


Classifiers and noun classes are basic kinds of noun categorization devices. They fall into several subtypes depending on the morphosyntactic context of their realization; for instance, numeral classifiers appear in numerical expressions, possessive classifiers in possessive constructions, noun classifiers within a noun phrase, verbal classifiers on a verb or a predicate, and locative classifiers within a locative expression. They are restricted to constructions that require the presence of a particular kind of classifier morpheme whose choice is dictated by the semantic characteristics of the referent. The continuum of noun categorization devices is broad: from large sets of lexical numeral classifiers in the languages of Southeast Asia to the highly grammaticalized systems of noun classes in Bantu languages and of genders in Indo-European languages (see Genders and Noun Classes). They have a similar semantic basis, and one can develop from the other. A considerable amount of literature has appeared over the years on individual classifier types, especially numeral classifiers, with a focus on languages of Southeast Asia, and on noun classes, with less attention paid to other types.


Aikhenvald 2003 is the only book-length comprehensive analysis of all types of classifiers worldwide, focusing on their semantics, use, discourse functions, history, acquisition, and dissolution. Corbett 1991 addresses genders and noun classes, focusing on European, Caucasian, and some African languages. Royen 1929 is a pioneering attempt at a cross-linguistic study of noun categorization devices. Kilarski 2013 offers a comprehensive history of studies of classifiers in Western linguistics. Aikhenvald 2016 contains a comprehensive analysis of linguistic gender and its interactions with social gender, in the context of other means of categorizing nouns.

  • Aikhenvald, Alexandra Y. 2003. Classifiers: A typology of noun categorization devices. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    A comprehensive analysis of noun categorization worldwide, covering noun classes, noun classifiers, numeral classifiers and verbal classifiers, and classifiers in possessive constructions. Based on investigation of five hundred languages from every part of the world, it also focuses on several classifier types and multiple-classifier languages (where the same morpheme occurs in several classifier contexts). Originally published in 2000.

  • Aikhenvald, Alexandra Y. 2016. How gender shapes the world. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780198723752.001.0001

    An investigation of gender in its three faces (linguistic, social, and natural) based on a few hundred languages, with special focus on the realization, the meanings and the functions of linguistic gender, its variable choice, history, and the images associated with it. Linguistic gender is comparison with different types of classifiers in terms of meanings and functions. Paperback edition 2018.

  • Corbett, Greville. 1991. Gender. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9781139166119

    A comprehensive investigation of gender and noun class systems, largely limited to languages of Europe, the Caucasus, and Bantu languages of Africa.

  • Kilarski, Marcin. 2013. Nominal classification: A history of its study from the classical period to the present. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

    DOI: 10.1075/sihols.121

    A comprehensive survey of the study of noun categorization devices (covering genders and classifiers of numerous types) throughout the history of Western linguistics, starting with the ancient Greeks. The study addresses types of noun categorization devices in selected language families (such as Algonquian) and the forms and functions of classification devices, drawing on the existing literature.

  • Royen, Gerlach. 1929. Die nominalen Klassifikations-Systeme in den Sprachen der Erde: Historisch-kritische Studie, mit besonderer Berücksichtigung des Indogermanischen. Anthropos Linguistische Bibliothek 4. Vienna: Anthropos.

    A curious, now outdated attempt at a cross-linguistic examination of noun classification, with a bias toward genders and noun classes and largely focusing on Indo-European languages.

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