2

This ScienceAlert article, which republishes an article from The Conversation written by Caleb Everett (the son of the linguist Daniel Everett) makes the claim that "hand" is etymologically related to "five" in many world languages.

Proto-Indo-European was decimally oriented because, as in so many cultures, our linguistic ancestors' hands served as the gateway to realisations like "five fingers on this hand is the same as five fingers on that hand".

Such transient thoughts were manifested into words and passed down across generations. This is why the word "five" in many languages is derived from the word for "hand".

However, this does not appear to be the case, at least for the languages I know these two words in, most of which are Indo-European in origin:

English: five, hand (Etymonline doesn't list any relationships between hand and five, with the closest relationship being a "high five".)

German: Fünf, Hand

French: cinq, main

Spanish: cinco, mano

Chinese: 五, 手

Greek: πέντε(pente), χέρι(cheri)

Is there any known etymological relationship between these two words in any other language (Indo-European or not), or is the author's claim incorrect?

2
  • 4
    All your examples but one (Chinese) are from the same language family. The words for "five" in all of them are related (though the words for "hand" are not).
    – Colin Fine
    May 1, 2017 at 23:16
  • I'm the author of that article. So the piece actually says "many", not most. You can check the book for examples. This is even true in some languages I've done field work on. (And btw I'm a Professor of anthropolical/cognitive linguistics--my PhD is in linguistics.) All the best, Caleb
    – Caleb
    May 2, 2017 at 11:31

4 Answers 4

4

As Yellow Sky says in a comment, many Austronesian languages use the same word or close cognates (all ultimately from Proto-Austronesian, *lima):

Language hand, five

  • Cia-Cia lima (을리마), lima (을리마)
  • Hawaiian lima, lima
  • Hiligaynon lima, lima
  • Paiwan lima, lima
  • Tolai lima, lima

  • Rapa Nui rima, rima

  • Tongan nima, nima

  • Ilocano ima, lima
  • Itawit ima, lima
  • Limos Kalinga ima, lima
  • Lubuagan Kalinga ima, lima

5

In Nahuatl macuilli "five" comes from ma- "hand" and cui "to take", and so does makwil in Pipil and similar cognates in Yaqui, Shoshone and other Uto-Aztecan languages.

5

For completeness, I'd like to add that Proto-Indo-European *pénkʷe, the origin of English "five" (and fünf, cinq, cinco, πέντε from the question), may have been derived from a "hand" word.

There's still scholarly disagreement on this, but the Germanic words for "fist" and "finger" suggest a root *penkʷ- having something to do with hands ("hold in the hand" or such). There have been proposals that this root is the origin of all three terms, though evidence for this root outside Germanic is scant—so other linguists explain the "fist" and "finger" words as deriving from "five" (a fist being "all five together" or something like that).

Sihler, on the other hand (no pun intended), derives *pénkʷe from a root for "whole" or "complete", as seen in Latin cūnctus. He proposes that the "five" meaning came from "the entire hand", which would again connect this root with the number of fingers on a human hand.

This wouldn't be the only instance of a number deriving from the hands in PIE. The word *Hoḱtṓw "eight" appears to be the dual of a noun *Hoḱto- "four fingers", which is attested in Avestan ašti "four fingers' width" (so the original meaning would be "two four-finger-spans").

-7

In Tamil five means Ainthu, It can be related to hand as follows,

Ainthu -> hainthu-> handu -> hand.

It is very interesting as Ainthu is Tamil and hand is English

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.