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The Near-Synonymous Classifiers in Mandarin Chinese: Etymology, Modern Usage, And Possible Problems in L2 Classroom

Many Chinese classifiers are nearly synonymic – they can be used with the same head nouns without changing the meaning of the sentence, in other words, such classifiers can be used interchangeably or almost interchangeably. This poses a challenge for Chinese language learners, especially those who lack such a grammatical category in their own native language. Another complication arises from the ambiguous English translations of many classifiers. In this paper we investigate the collocation behavior of near-synonymous Chinese classifiers, focusing on their semantic nuances and interchangeability. Analyzing 6 pairs of classifiers — 栋 and 幢, 匹 and 头, 批 and 派, 颗 and 粒, 辆 and 台, and 根 and 支— drawn from the HSK exam glossary, the dataset for this study encompasses 1200 samples (100 per each variable) and 416 distinct head nouns. Through a corpus-based approach we analyze collocation behavior of each classifier on its own and as a part of the pair. The results showcase that not all pairs exhibit complete interchangeability. The collocation behavior of 批 and 派 differ significantly, where 批 primarily quantifies batches with a 'first' connotation, while 派 is used more in artistic expressions. The interchangeability of 栋 and 幢 varies with context. 幢 emerges as the least fre¬¬quent morpheme in the corpus, emphasizing its specific contextual usage. While both are used in address lines, 栋 predominantly quantifies standalone buildings, whereas 幢 is more aligned with larger architectural complexes. The analysis of 匹 and 头 highlights their distinctiveness, with 匹 counting horses and wolves and 头 being more versatile with various animals. 颗 and 粒 appear partially interchangeable, particularly with 珠-related head nouns and items associated with plants, fruits, and trees. The research also underscores that 辆 is primarily linked to car-related nouns, while 台 is used more versatile as a classifier for machines and electronic devices, including computers, printers, phones, cameras. 根 and 支 only overlap in the head noun 笔, and their roles diverge, with 根 being a versatile classifier and 支 also appearing as part of medical terms.