Chapter 113: 'Finger' and 'toe'

Feature information for this chapter can be found in feature 113.

1. Feature description

This feature concerns the identity or differentiation between ‘finger’ and ‘toe’. While some languages have two separate expressions for ‘finger’ and ‘toe’, there are others where one and the same expression refers to ‘finger’ or to ‘toe’ (‘digit’ or ‘finger/toe’ identity in the following) and in which disambiguation depends on the context. Yet other languages have a general ‘digit’ expression but additional words or phrases with the particularized meanings ‘finger’ and ‘toe’.

It is not always straightforward to distinguish between conventional compound (or phrasal) expressions and ad hoc expressions. For practical reasons, we simply assume that the expressions that were given by the contributors are all conventional expressions. Also, we do not differentiate between words, compounds, or phrases here. That is, the Cavite Chabacano phrase dedo de su pies (lit. ‘finger of his foot’) is treated as an expression meaning ‘toe’ in the same way as is the Berbice Dutch compound bwa fingri (lit. ‘foot finger’) or the Guadeloupean Creole monomorphemic zòtèy ‘toe’. Further, words/phrases referring to ‘finger’ and ‘toe’ are counted as separate expressions even if there is formal overlap between them, as in e.g. Nigerian Pidgin finga ‘finger’ and finga fòr leg ‘toe’. In addition, the fact that a language may have several synonyms referring to ‘finger’ or ‘toe’ is irrelevant for this feature. For example, in Haitian Creole dwèt and dwèt men are synonyms for ‘finger’ and zòtèy or dwèt pye are synonyms for ‘toe’. However, since there is no ‘digit’ expression, Haitian Creole is classified as a differentiating language. In some languages the words meaning ‘finger’ and/or ‘toe’ include larger segments of the limbs, e.g. Gurindji Kriol wartan ‘upper limb below elbow’ is used to refer to ‘finger’ and fut ‘lower limb below the knee’ is used to refer to ‘toe’. In such cases these semantically wider words were taken as a basis for classification (see Chapter 112 for the overlap between ‘hand’ and ‘arm’).

2. The values

Four patterns to refer to ‘finger’ and ‘toe’ are discernible among the contact languages in APiCS:

Identity and differentiation14

Value 1. In ‘finger’-‘toe’ differentiation one word denotes ‘finger’ and another word denotes ‘toe’. As mentioned above, this includes cases of formal overlap like Ambon Malay jari ‘finger’ vs. jari kaki ‘toe’ (lit. ‘finger foot’) because the latter is a compound and as such constitutes a separate word even though it is partially identical with the word for ‘finger’. Differentiation is the most frequent value in our sample, 39 languages (58%) showing this strategy. With the exception of Chinuk Wawa and Fanakalo, all of these are lexified by European languages. Examples are:




dedu ‘finger’

dedu di peo ‘toe’


dwet ‘finger’

zòtey ‘toe’


dédo, dedíto ‘finger’

dedíto del pyés ‘toe’


finggu ‘finger’

tesi ‘toe’

Value 2. In identity and differentiation there are at least three words; one denotes ‘finger’, one denotes ‘toe’, and the third denotes ‘digit’. This pattern is found in 14 languages (21%) of the APiCS sample. Six of these are Portuguese creoles (Angolar, Fa d’Ambô, Guinea-Bissau Kriyol, Korlai, Papiá Kristang, Principense), one is a Spanish creole (Zamboanga Chabacano), one a French creole (Reunion Creole), one an English creole (Early Sranan), and one is an English/Gurindji mixed language (Gurindji Kriol). Of the remaining four, two are lexified by Bantu languages (Kikongo-Kituba, Lingala) and two by Malay (Singapore Bazaar Malay, Sri Lankan Malay):


dedu ‘digit’

dedu omá ‘finger’

dedu opé ‘toe’


nantananta ‘digit’

wartan ‘finger’

fut ‘toe’


musapi ‘digit’

musapi ya diboko ‘finger’

musapi ya dikulu ‘toe’


jirji ‘digit’

tangan jirji ‘finger’

kaki jirji ‘toe’

Value 3 covers cases of semantic overlap, where there are two different words, one of which denotes ‘digit’ and the other one denotes only ‘finger’ or only ‘toe’. All of the 11 languages in APiCS showing overlap (16%) have Romance lexifiers: the three Cape Verdean Creoles, Casamancese Creole, Cavite Chabacano, Mauritian Creole, Palenquero, Papiamentu, Santome, Sri Lanka Portuguese, and Tayo.


dedu ‘digit’

dedu di pe ‘toe’


lelo ‘digit’

lelo ri pie ‘toe’


ndwa ‘digit’

ndwa nde pje ‘toe’

Value 4. In the identity constellation, there is ‘digit’ but there is no word that denotes only ‘finger’ or only ‘toe’. Only three languages (4%) show ‘finger/toe’ identity without separate words for ‘finger’ or ‘toe’ – Juba Arabic (asbá), Mixed Ma’a/Mbugu (kihlatú), and Nengee (finga).

3. Discussion

Of the 62 APiCS languages with a European lexifier, only Nengee is an identity language (value 4). That is, these languages have almost consistently incorporated the European ‘finger’-‘toe’ differentiation in their system. Portuguese-lexified creoles tend to have either overlap (7 of 14 Portuguese-lexified languages) or identity and differentiation (6/14), French-lexified creoles tend to be differentiating (7/10) but there is no clear pattern with regard to Spanish-lexified creoles. On the other hand, there is a very strong tendency for English‑ and Dutch-lexified contact languages to be differentiating (26/29). With regard to languages with a non-European lexifier, there is no language that shows overlap, but there is roughly equal distribution over the other 3 values.

Comments by the APiCS contributors suggest that in contact languages that have a ‘digit’ word (found in values 2-4), the default interpretation tends to be ‘finger’ and that contextual disambiguation is necessary for a ‘toe’ reading. This is probably because fingers are the more salient members, which may also be the reason why the expressions for ‘toe’ are often compounds or phrases involving the word for ‘finger’, formed on the basis of the proportional metaphor “the toes are the fingers of the foot” (Miller 1993: 383) as in e.g. Lingala mosapi ya lokolo ‘toe’ (lit. ‘finger of foot’).

That the majority of the Romance-lexified APiCS languages (24/28) have such a polymorphemic ‘finger (of) foot’ word/phrase is hardly surprising since the lexifiers Portuguese, Spanish, and French provide similar phrasal models (apart from the mixed language Michif, only the French-lexified creoles of Guadeloupe, Martinique, Louisiana and Haiti derive their words for ‘toe’ from French orteil ‘toe’, Haitian Creole in addition to a ‘finger of foot’ phrase). Quite a number of the Romance-lexified contact languages also have ‘finger (of) hand’ expressions, mirroring the dedo da mão, doigt de main, and dedo del mano phrases of their lexifiers: these are Angolar, Fa d’Ambô, Guinea-Bissau Kriyol, Haitian Creole, Korlai, Papiá Kristang, Principense, Reunion Creole, Zamboanga Chabacano, and possibly Sri Lanka Portuguese and Ternate Chabacano.

By comparison, ‘finger (of) hand/foot’ expressions are much less frequent in the 29 English‑ and Dutch-lexified APiCS languages: ‘finger (of) foot’ is found only in Berbice Dutch, Nigerian Pidgin, Saramaccan, Sranan, and Tok Pisin, while ‘finger of hand’ occurs only in Early Sranan.

Polymorphemic expressions for ‘toe’ (7/11) and ‘finger’ (5/11) are found in about half of the non-European lexifier APiCS languages.

The implicational hierarchies in (13) and (14) are true for the APiCS sample:


‘finger (of) hand’ < ‘finger (of) foot’ < ‘digit’/‘finger’

That is, there is no APiCS language that has ‘finger (of) hand’ without also having ‘finger (of) foot’ as well as a monomorphemic word for either ‘digit’ or ‘finger’, and there is no language that has ‘finger (of) foot’ without also having a monomorphemic word for either ‘digit’ or ‘finger’, but not the other way round.


‘toe’ < ‘finger’

That is, there is no APiCS language that has a monomorphemic word for ‘toe’ that does not also have a monomorphemic word for ‘finger’. Monomorphemic ‘toe’ is found only in value 1 (differentiation) languages.