The body of most human beings consist of similar parts such as a head, arms, legs, and so on. Many body parts also occur in animals. The shapes and functions of body parts are universal across cultures, but speakers of various languages choose to categorize the body differently. For example, Vietnamese has a single word (tay) for the concepts HAND and ARM. The universality of the human body and its categorization into different parts have attracted attention across research areas such as lexical typology and cognitive science. Therefore, I present a comprehensive list of human and animal body part terms based on German which were mapped to the concepts in the Concepticon (List et al. 2020). The list is intended for investigations on cross-linugistic naming patterns of body parts.
Body parts as the building blocks of cognition
Humans have bodies and they (often) consist of the same parts. Most of us see, feel, or know that a certain body part exists. I see my legs, feel my back touching the chair and know that I have an appendix although I’ve never noticed it. In addition, many experiences with the world around us are formed through an interaction, perception, or sensation of our body parts. As a German speaker, I pick up my cup of coffee with my hand. But as a Vietnamese speaker, I would pick up the cup with my arm. The movement is the same so the perception should not differ across the two language speakers. Still, the focus seems to shift from the intricate grasp of the hand and the fingers around the cup to the much bigger movement of the whole arm. Thus, the question arises whether speakers of diverse languages experience their interaction with the world differently? Finding the answer to this question is the motivation for the present blog post. Here, I will establish the basis for a comparison of body parts and their denotation across languages.
Researchers in language documentation and lexical typology underwent great efforts to describe and compare names for body parts in various languages. One of the first cross-linguistic studies of body part nomenclature by Andersen (1978) revealed common principles that speakers use to categorize the body: 1) a hierarchical structure, 2) perception of spatial alignment, and 3) visual properties. Furthermore, Andersen (1978) proposed the following body parts to be universal in that all languages should have a word for head, eye, nose, and mouth. However, Enfield et al. (2006) showed in their large-scale project on the cross-linguistic categorization of the body that this assumption does not hold for all languages. Unsurprisingly, Wierzbicka (2007) defends the view of semantic universals within the body part domain in direct response to Enfield et al. (2006). But whether or not words for certain body parts exist in all languages might not be the most intriguing question. As Brown (2013a, 2013b) illustrated, the variation for colexifications of the concepts HAND and ARM as well as FINGER and HAND seems to follow certain patterns. For example, a geographical cluster in Australia and North America can be found where languages tend to have a single term for FINGER and HAND (the data is available in WALS, Dryer & Haspelmath 2013).
Another view of the study of body parts comes can be found in cognitive science. Semantic knowledge of body parts seems to be deeply rooted in our memory (Majid 2010). Although languages vary in which body parts they denote, all speakers may have a mental representation of the body and its parts. Majid (2010) concludes that the categorization of the body is, on the one hand, based on perceptual constraints. On the other hand, speakers need to learn the linguistic conventions of their language. In a comparison of body part nomenclature across Dutch, Japanese, and Indonesian, Majid (2015) further explored this view and showed that names of body parts often align with visual discontinuities. Nevertheless, embodied representations do not explain the whole picture. This contrasts with the embodiment thesis that human cognition is embodied and shaped by our bodily perception (Wilson 2002, 2011).
Introducing the body part list
The brief overview of the literature demonstrates some of the discussions surrounding the study of body part categorization. At first glance, the human body seems to be the perfect starting point for cross-linguistic universals, but the picture turns out to be much more complex. To examine patterns of body part nomenclature on a larger scale, I created a list of human and animal body part terms based on German which were mapped to the concepts in the Concepticon. The list includes 171 body part concepts from ADAM’S APPLE to WRIST. Each concept was categorized into human, animal, or human/animal. In addition, the concepts received tags for gender (male/female) and if applicable, a reference for the relation to other body parts (part of, instance of). The list was published on Zenodo (DOI: 10.5281/zenodo.4058506) and will be available in the next version of Concepticon (List et al. 2020).
The following table shows a small excerpt of the body part list (note that the table was pivoted here for better readability):
Andersen, E. S. (1978). Lexical universals of body-part terminology. In Greenberg, J. (Ed.). Universals of human language, Word Structure. Stanford University Press. p. 335-368.
Brown, C. H. (2013a). Hand and Arm. In Dryer, M. S. & Haspelmath, M. (eds.) The World Atlas of Language Structures Online. Leipzig: Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. Retrieved from http://wals.info/chapter/129
Brown, C. H. (2013b). Finger and Hand. In Dryer, M. S. & Haspelmath, M. (eds.) The World Atlas of Language Structures Online. Leipzig: Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. Retrieved from http://wals.info/chapter/130
Dryer, M. S., & Haspelmath, M. (2013). The World Atlas of Language Structures Online. Leipzig: Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. Retrieved from http://wals.info
Enfield, N. J., Majid, A., & Van Staden, M. (2006). Cross-linguistic categorisation of the body: Introduction. Language Sciences, 28(2-3), 137-147.
List, J.-M., Rzymski, C., Greenhill, S., Schweikhard, N., Pianykh, K., Tjuka, A., Wu, M.-S., & Forkel, R. (2020). Concepticon 2.3.0. Jena: Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History. Retrieved from http://concepticon.clld.org
Majid, A. (2010). Words for parts of the body. In Malt, B., Wolff, P., & Wolff, P. M. (Eds.). Words and the mind: How words capture human experience. Oxford University Press. p. 58–71.
Majid, A., & van Staden, M. (2015). Can nomenclature for the body be explained by embodiment theories? Topics in Cognitive Science, 7(4), 570-594.
Wilson, M. (2002). Six views of embodied cognition. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 9(4), 625-636.
Wilson, R. A., & Foglia, L. (2011). Embodied cognition. Retrieved from https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/embodied-cognition/
Wierzbicka, A. (2007). Bodies and their parts: An NSM approach to semantic typology. Language Sciences, 29(1), 14-65.