Out on a Limb

Why is it that in English we feel the need to differentiate between “hand” and “arm” or between “foot” and “leg”, whereas in a number of other languages, they tend to prefer words that refer to the whole limb, with no differentiation.

 

Not only are there languages which tend to use fewer words than we do, but there are also languages which use more on a regular, normal basis; take Spanish for example. Besides having the word mano to mean “hand”, and brazo for the “arm”, it is usual to distinguish between brazo and antebrazo, which is the “forearm”. You might be tempted to argue that we also have the word “forearm” in English, and while this is of course true, the fact of the matter is that this word is not in normal, everyday use in the way that it is in Spanish.

 

In modern Greek, the word χέρι (heri) is used to mean both “arm” and “hand”, while πόδι (podi) means both “foot” and “leg”. It seems unlikely that Greek speakers were doing radically different work from their counterparts in Italy, where braccio and mano distinguish between arm and hand respectively, while the difference between foot and leg is expressed with piede and gamba. Or, even closer to home, Greek and Turkish speakers lived side by side, often living very similar lives, but Turkish speakers differentiated between kol (arm) and el (hand). There doesn’t seem to be any practical, logical reason for one language to need the extra words, while the other doesn’t. I suspect that we will never know the answer as to why, but it is an interesting linguistic phenomenon nonetheless!

6 thoughts on “Out on a Limb

  1. In Irish, there is no ‘lámh’ can mean hand or arm, ‘sciathán’ can mean arm or wing (that of a bird) and ‘géag’ can mean a human limb or branch (I realise that tree-limb is sometimes used in English but it’s unusual).

    • That’s very interesting re sciathán. I wonder how many languages have the same word for arm/ wing. It seems quite logical, when you think about it! In Greek you might use “tree-limb” in a very poetic sense, perhaps in a work of literature, but certainly not in ordinary language! Would the same word be used in Irish for a limb of a dog or cat or some other animal too?

  2. When ever you learn that one language doesn’t differentiate such a term that another language renders differently or more specifically it’s always a difficult concept to comprehend? I should imagine that all languages throughout their development have varying degrees of metonymy for a variety of terms in its vocabulary:

    English Arm: (upper arm > elbow > forearm > wrist) > hand > fingers
    Greek χέρι: (βραχίονας > αγκώνας> πήχης > καρπός) > χέρι > δάχτυλα
    chéri: (brachíonas > agkónas > píchis > karpós) > chéri > dáchtyla

    The Brythonic Celtic languages differentiate between arm and hand it doesn’t however, have a specific word like English for ‘upper arm’ and I don’t think Cornish has a separate word for ‘forearm’ although it does have two words for hand, leuv is an open
    hand and dorn is a closed hand or fist (Welsh: dwrn):

    Welsh braich: (? > elin > blaen y fraich > arddwrn) > llaw
    Breton brec’h: (? > ilin > arvrec’h > arzorn) > dorn
    Cornish bregh: (? > elin > ? > konna-bregh) > leuv > dorn

    Welsh, Cornish and Breton also have separate ‘dual’ words for ‘pairs of’ body parts:

    both arms: (Cornish) diwvregh (Breton) divrec’h
    both elbows: (Cornish) dewelin
    both forearms (Breton) divarvrec’h
    both wrists (Cornish) dewgonna-bregh
    both hands (Cornish) dewdhorn diwla/diwleuw (Breton) diwla/daouarn (Welsh) dwylaw/dwylo

    • I do think it is interesting that the Brythonic languages have the dual form. I was looking at instances of duality just recently in Slovenian, too. I wonder if it is the remnants of a much more important linguistic phenomenon than it is today, and what that says about the culture in which it developed. Re Greek: βραχίονας and πήχης do exist, of course, but they are not words that are generally used much, you hardly ever hear them.

      • I should imagine in the case of Welsh which it seems is either losing or just doesn’t use its dual form nouns as much as is evident in Cornish and Breton, it’s the actual word for ‘both’ (y ddau/ddwy) being the same word for ‘two’ that benefits from greater emphasis by having it prefixed to whichever noun it’s qualifying to reduce any ambiguity?

  3. Russian not only has one word for ‘hand/arm’ and one for ‘foot/leg’, but also one for ‘finger/toe’, like technical English digit. They are рука (ruka), нога (noga), палец (pal’ets) respectively.

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