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
    In Malay both words are the same, 'lima'. In other Austonesian languages they are the same, too.
    – Yellow Sky
    May 1 '17 at 19:29
  • 3
    Not "hand", but, quite possibly, "finger". Etymonline suggests: finger (n.) […] probably from PIE root *penkwe- "five."
    – bytebuster
    May 1 '17 at 20:01
  • 2
    Caleb Everett (associate professor of anthropology, University of Miami) has made an inaccurate assertion. He is not a linguist, don't take his words too seriously. May 1 '17 at 20:36
  • 1
    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 '17 at 23:16
  • 6
    Caleb Everett is an anthropological linguist, and happens to work in an anthropology department. And he means what he says. As for 5 and hand, consider the etymology of PIE *penkwe-.
    – jlawler
    May 2 '17 at 14:19

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


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

  • 2
    @Caleb Sorry for mistrusting your preparation as a linguist. Your remark on "many" instead of "most" is also clarifying (indeed, "many" is a totally subjective evaluation that cannot be falsified). May 2 '17 at 20:28
  • 2
    @MarchHo. Basically you are saying that real experts are not welcome in internet chat rooms (like this one). But just for your information: academics in the humanities do not (as a rule) profit from their publications. Only the publishers make money from them.
    – fdb
    May 3 '17 at 11:16
  • 1
    @fdb I'm saying that experts are certainly welcome if they post complete answers that have qualities that are commensurate with the forum that they are posting in. I find that this answer does not fully answer the question posed.
    – March Ho
    May 3 '17 at 11:31
  • 1
    @prash Since this got bumped up, I would like to bring your attention to this Meta post that explains why link-only answers are bad. This is arguably far worse than a link-only answer, since in link-only answers, it is still possible to obtain the correct answer by following a link.
    – March Ho
    Jun 30 '17 at 18:10
  • 1
    @prash I modified the question title as I realised that i had mis-cited the original source. However, it does not substantially change the question, which was clearly asking for examples of languages with such an etymological link. This answer does not provide any.
    – March Ho
    Jul 1 '17 at 10:47

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.

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