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Researching the origins of counting systems, I came across the question I cannot seem to find an answer for: what is the typological distribution of languages that consider thumb a finger (5 fingers on hand) vs. those that do not (4 fingers, thumb is not a finger). English is in the latter category, although since recently, due to its status as a de facto international language, it seems to have become more fluid on this.

Lexically, there seems to be not a clear-cut distinction among even language families. Danish (Germanic) has tommelfinger for the thumb, and Russian (Slavic) has большой палец bol'shoy palec, “great finger”, while Slovenian (also Slavic) uses the same root palec for “thumb,” and has a non-cognate prst for “finger.” Romance languages seem to prefer a separate root for the thumb, after Latin, but again, Romanian has deget mare, “great finger” for the thumb, making it a “thumb-unaware” language. There are signs, such as remnants of the dual declension of Russian numerals for two to four and Latin octo, and the cognacy of nine and new, suggesting that PIE placed more weight on counting in fours and not fives when its counting developed (a relation to the number of fingers seems likely to be a factor), but the modern daughter languages fluctuate between 4 and 5 rather non-systematically.

Of course, having a separate root lexeme for the thumb may be tangential to finger counting. It is possible that of “thumb-aware” languages, some count 5 fingers, despite having a separate root for the thumb, and some do 4. Cf. English has pinky but it is still unquestionably a finger. This is the main, the most interesting question of my research: how many fingers languages count on a hand.

Unfortunately, WALS does not have this category. There are distributions for languages that lexically distinguish hand and finger (topics 130A and B), but this monumental atlas seems shy on semantic topics in general, so this question may be even out of their scope.

Can anyone help with references to the research on the typological classification of languages into “4-finger” and “5-finger” categories? A wide, methodologically consistent review would be the best (WALS is a great example). As I am dealing with the development of counting, references to reconstructed and ancient languages would also be very helpful.

Splitting the latter (5-finger) category into those having and not having a root lexeme for thumb is secondary and less important to me currently, but I believe, for the general nature of SE questions, would also lie in the scope. This should be related in any case.

  • Can you name one recorded language that counts 4/8/16 fingers? – Adam Bittlingmayer Apr 1 '18 at 5:51
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    It's not clear to me that the idea that the thumb is not a finger is totally accurate for any modern speaker with regard to English, and I wonder if it was ever so. (The idea that the more restrictive definition must be "more accurate", which seems to be assumed by the author of that quote, doesn't seem quite right to me.) Consider the established expression "to snap one's fingers": the plural "fingers" here seems like it must include the thumb, unless you argue that the expression can only be used to refer to snapping with both hands. Does that make this an "inaccurate" expression? – ewawe Apr 1 '18 at 6:24
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    The Google Ngram Viewer seems to indicate that "ten fingers" has been more common than "eight fingers" since at least 1800, although "four fingers" is more common than "five fingers" during the same period. The Oxford English Dictionary quotes a source from "a1500" that says "The fifte fynger is the thowmbe", so it seems clear that the inclusive definition has been used at least since the 16th century. – ewawe Apr 1 '18 at 6:25
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    @sumelic I certainly hear you, and even noted English inconsistency on this question. Some speakers have 4 fingers and a thumb, some have 5, and neither sounds weird to me. This is an example why the question is typologically complex. How would a Bushmen linguist classify English? The same argument applies in reverse, only worse, as e.g. Polynesian lexical semantics varies from village to village. And of reconstructed languages we have only indirect evidence, like the PIE counting pattern (8 is dual in number, 9 is “new” something). And try to prove that this has any relation to fingers! – kkm Apr 1 '18 at 6:32
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    It's interesting to note also that the idea that the more restrictive definition is "more accurate" doesn't seem to be present in the OED entry for the word "finger", which gives the first definition as "Each of the five slender jointed parts attached to either hand; (also, in narrower sense) each of the four excluding the thumb." I assume the Oxford Dictionaries' "Random questions" are answered by knowledgeable people, but I still wouldn't expect a post like this to be as trustworthy as an OED dictionary entry. – ewawe Apr 1 '18 at 6:33

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