The Body

The number of body parts and their boundaries are a matter of linguistic discussion. What for some speakers is the extreme of a member for others is a nominal segment of our anatomy. In this post, we will show the differences across different languages, how the names for the limbs, leg, and arm, might include respectively hand and foot, and that not in every language there are two terms for hand and foot digits. We should be careful to differentiate in all cases the common usage from the medical terminology.

Hand or arm

Etymology map of the words hand and arm compared in several languages
An etymology map with a handful of words

Limbs or extremities are “jointed bodily appendages“, which for humans are four, two lower limbs or legs, and two upper limbs or arms. For animals, who are no bipeds, the technical terms are hindlimbs and forelimbs. The upper limb stretches from the shoulder to the fingers, also known as the arm. In formal usage, the arm only refers to the segment from the shoulder to the elbow, from the elbow to the wrist is the forearm, and finally the hand.

You might notice that on the map two words or more are represented in pairs: a black word on top, hand, and the one below in grey, arm. You might notice, as well, that some are repeated. That is because some language families (Slavic, Turkic, Finnic) and some individual languages (Persian, Chechen) lack the distinction between the whole arm (upper limb) and hand (extreme part). It applies to colloquial speech, usually in medical vocabulary there is a specific term. But still, it is interesting to highlight that often in an everyday conversation you might use other words to distinguish them.

Let’s observe the Slavic example: The main word From Proto-Balto-Slavic *ránkā, which is present in Latvian, Lithuanian & Samogitian as well, meant both arm and hand, and their descendants still do too. Proto-Slavic *ormę meant “shoulder”. In Polish & Slovak is used as a synonym of the upper arm or the whole arm additionally. The same happens with Russian плечо from Proto-Slavic *pleťe. It is quite unique and exceptional in the case of Czech paže & Slovak paža (arm). Proto-Slavic *dolnь meant palm, but it might refer to the whole hand in Polish. šaka is a bit old-fashioned Serbo-Croat word, it used to mean fist, but also hand.

Leg or foot

Etymology map of the words leg and foot compared in several languages
This is the footnote of the foot map

Lower limbs, or the colloquial word legs, are the region extending from the gluteal region to the foot. Observe that in anatomy leg is only the section from the knee to the ankle (also knows as crus or shank too). From the knee to the hip is called the thigh. The foot starts from the ankle. Foot as a differentiated segment of the whole leg is quite common everywhere. In the medical vocabulary, of course, this difference exists, but in common usage, in some languages, people might use the same word for both. That is the case for Czech, Slovak, and Russian, even though the term for foot does exist. In Greek and Albanian, it is basically only one word. In Finnish and Hungarian also, but it is possible to specify foot by referring to it as “leg head”.

Finger or toe

Mapping the languages that have two different words for finger and toe
Mapping the different anatomical terms across many foreign languages, like arm, finger, foot, leg and toe.

In anatomy, the term digit is one of several most distal parts of a limb, such as fingers or toes. But actually, there is only a reduced group of languages that differentiate the digits of the hand from the foot. Spaniards use dedo for both, and so they do Italians with dito. For most of these languages toes are actually “fingers of the foot”. On the map, words for toe are colored in grey.

Germanic languages stand out having two distinct words. Fingraz might have been the Proto-Germanic ancestor of “finger”, which itself might have come from “five” (Proto-Indo-European *pénkʷe). Toe, however, might have meant originally in Proto-Indo-European “to point out” (*deyḱ-). It is possible that it meant also finger and later it became toe.

Many other languages also have very distinct words like Albanian, Irish, Estonian, and Finnish. French should be included, even though colloquially “doigt de pied” is preferred.

Galician uses a very ingenious strategy: gender differentiation. Finger is dedo, masculine word, while deda, feminine, is for toe. Czechs use a different strategy, diminutives: prst is a finger, and prstec (little finger) is a toe.

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  2. Angus Macdonald

    The word for hand in Scottish Gaelic is doubly misspelled. (misspelled -and- has the wrong accent). . The accent used in Scottish Gaelic, according to the current standard orthography, is the grave accent. The correct word and correct spelling is làmh. The map does have the correct word and correct spelling for the word for the arm (gàirdean).

    1. Thanks for the feedback! We¡ve just fixed it.

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