Foot Fingers and Other Body Part Naming Curiosities

In my last post, I gave a brief outline about how different languages classify colors differently. It may come as some surprise that different languages may also provide different classifications of another subject that we may take for granted: body parts.

Slavic languages, for instance, often do not distinguish between arm/hand or leg/foot. In Russian, "ruka" may mean a hand or an arm, while "noga" may refer to a leg or a foot. Similarly, Amharic also considers the leg and foot to be part of the same entity. Lavukaleve, spoken in the Solomon Islands in the Pacific, features the same word for arm, leg, and hand.

Jahai, spoken in the Malay Peninsula in Southeast Asia, has a particularly interesting division of body parts, with different lexical terms for upper arm, lower arm, and hand, but supposedly no specific word for mouth!

While English, German, and Norwegian consider fingers and toes to be entirely separate body parts, other languages, such as Spanish, Portuguese, Japanese, and Russian, label toes as simply "foot fingers." In French, either option is possible, with "orteil" (a word for toe that is separate from "doigt," used for finger) being more formal and literary and "doigt de pied" ("foot finger") being used often in oral language.

Conversely, while English and German refer to a cheekbone as being the "bone of a cheek," in a number of Romance languages, such as French, Spanish, and Italian, the word for cheekbone has nothing to do with the word for cheek. For instance, in French, a cheek is a "joue," while a cheekbone is a "pommette."

(Posted by language fan and friend Silas McCracken.)


QoB said...

Irish also has the same words for arm&hand and leg&foot: "lámh" and "cos" respectively.

this piece also reminds me of one of my favourite German words: "fingerhandschuh" i.e.: glove.

Silas said...

Thanks a lot, QoB, for reading and for your insights. I wonder whether some Irish English speakers also have this issue (sort of a borrowing from the indigenous Celtic influence), since I've heard anecdotally of English speakers who have been raised with an extensive Slavic influence sometimes using the more generalized interpretations of arm/hand and leg/foot even when speaking English.

That's interesting about the German interpretation of a glove as a "hand shoe." As "hand terms" (i.e. "foot fingers" for toes) are used in some languages for feet, the use of analogies obviously goes both ways.

Thanks again!

Unknown said...

That's incredibly curious.

Yes, Japanese also has the same word, 'ashi' (足) for leg/foot.

Also, the word for finger is 'yubi' (指), leaving the term for toe as 'ashi no yubi' (足の指), or, again, "foot finger."

Silas said...

Thanks a lot for your comment, Evan. That's very interesting. I think that these divisions/terms significantly reflect "cultural psychology," how we view body parts. It would be fascinating to know what exactly led to the differences in the way humans view them, and when these divisions took place.