Four and a thumb.

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SuprunP

Senior Member
Ukrainian & Russian
"Good—you’re awake. How many fingers?”
Five,” I said, trying to sound groggy but present. “Four and a thumb.

(Permafrost; Alastair Reynolds)

The story is set in Russia and they're all speaking Russian and in Russian a thumb has no 'exclusive rights', it's just another 'common' finger. Hence I seriously doubt you'll ever hear anybody say 'four and a thumb' in Russian (maybe in 2030 when they have this conversation, but we'll have to wait a tad and see).

So if somebody showed me an open hand and asked 'how many fingers' (usually they'd only show two or three digits, five is apparently too many to count when you've just been unconscious) I'd immidiately say 'five', but what would be going through your English speaking mind? Would you be hesitant for a second or two, as our heroine in the story ostensibly was?

Thanks.
 
  • Chez

    Senior Member
    English English
    As in your extract, we might say 'five' and then correct ourselves. We do very much differentiate between fingers and the thumb, but when a doctor holds up fingers it is the number that is important (to make sure your vision is OK), so you might say 5 first, then specify more clearly 4 and a thumb.
     

    Uncle Jack

    Senior Member
    British English
    The way the dialogue is written sounds entirely natural to me. I am sure it is still a common schoolboy trick, to ask someone else how many fingers you are holding up (which includes one or both thumbs), then say the other person's got it wrong by counting thumbs as fingers. Primed from such an early age, it is common for BrE speakers to be wary of referring to thumbs as fingers, despite the natural inclination to do so in this type of question. I have no idea if the same thing happens in America.
     

    velisarius

    Senior Member
    British English (Sussex)
    The person who said "four and a thumb" sounds to me like an English speaker who also happens to be a member of a language forum.
     

    kentix

    Senior Member
    English - U.S.
    We definitely say there are five fingers on each hand. The thumb is a finger but it's a special finger in many contexts. In others, it's not.
     

    natkretep

    Moderato con anima (English Only)
    English (Singapore/UK), basic Chinese
    The person who said "four and a thumb" sounds to me like an English speaker who also happens to be a member of a language forum.
    :D:D:D
    Was the narrator an English speaker, although the interaction was supposed to have taken place in Russian?
     

    Thomas Tompion

    Senior Member
    English - England
    I'd immidiately say 'five', but what would be going through your English speaking mind? Would you be hesitant for a second or two, as our heroine in the story ostensibly was?
    I might hesitate because it's such a dumb, or enigmatic, question, in English.

    My answer would have to be four.

    If Tatiana was English, I'd say she'd given an excellent answer. Given that she's Russian I'd have the same concerns as you, Suprun.
     
    Last edited:

    dojibear

    Senior Member
    English - Northeast US
    The story is set in Russia and they're all speaking Russian and in Russian a thumb
    The story is written in British English by a British English author, who is writing for British English readers. Why would he use Russian language terminology for finger-counting? In order to confuse his readers? Less than 1% of his readers speak Russian.

    The wikipedia page for Alastair Reynolds does not say that he speaks Russian. He probably does not know that a thumb is a finger in Russian.

    The novel was not written by "the narrator". It was written by the author.
     

    SuprunP

    Senior Member
    Ukrainian & Russian
    The story is written in British English by a British English author, who is writing for British English readers. Why would he use Russian language terminology for finger-counting? In order to confuse his readers? Less than 1% of his readers speak Russian. [...]
    He probably does not know that a thumb is a finger in Russian.
    These are moot points and I'm afraid they have little to do with my actual question. Talking about confusing his readers, by the way, how about a 'pollen-sized speck of replicating machinery, containing one half of a quantum particle system called a Luba Pair'. I checked, there's no Wikipedia page titled "Luba Pairs", which left me a little bit confused indeed.

    Whenever I see someone write about Russia and, as you put it, 'probably not knowing' some details they are trying to write about my mind flashes back to (relatively) old American films portraying Russians in their own, peculiar way (which can be argued had little to do with reality). I find it funny, if nothing else, and when it comes to language matters - worth discussing it here.

    (Just for the record, I think it's that doctor holding up five (four and a thumb) fingers who was trying to confuse our poor heroine (and actually succeeded in pulling off that schoolboy trick), not Alastair Reynolds.)
     
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