Do animals have faces?
May 3, 2018 3:14 AM   Subscribe

Please help adjudicate a debate. Do animals have faces, or is face a word that can only apply to humans (and anthropomorphic animals like cartoon characters or pets)? In case this is a regional / dialect thing, please note your background when answering.

Also a person in this discussion is Italian and noted that Italian has two different words for human face and animal face. I'd be interested in other languages that require a distinction here. In particular, does anyone here know about Swedish?
posted by lollusc to Writing & Language (51 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
 
A popular way people describe vegetarianism is (or used to be) “nothing with a face” which was broadly understood, so I would say yes, they do, at least in the part of US culture I’m in/was in (East Coast, 1990s—I don’t hear it as much anymore but am also not a vegetarian anymore.)
posted by needs more cowbell at 3:18 AM on May 3, 2018 [3 favorites]


(And I’d describe my background as white East Coast Jewish.)
posted by needs more cowbell at 3:23 AM on May 3, 2018


I'm from Scotland, and animals definitely have faces. The German and Irish people I know also use face for both humans and animals, although the Germans were speaking English so no guarantees there. I'm also sort of fascinated that Italian separates the two.
posted by stillnocturnal at 3:29 AM on May 3, 2018


Out of curiosity I asked my sister, who speaks French, German and Arabic, and she says she's never come across this distinction before and wishes she knew more Italian.
posted by stillnocturnal at 3:34 AM on May 3, 2018 [1 favorite]


As another reference point I remember learning about evolution in science class and learning about the first animals that had faces. They were just faces. I’ve never heard of two words for face. I’m American, English first language.
posted by bleep at 3:34 AM on May 3, 2018


(To be fair, of the five people present here only one native English speaker is claiming you can't use the word face for animals. But he is really definite about it. It's blowing my mind. Maybe he is just weird. (And the Swedish question is because his parents are Swedish, so even though he doesn't speak the language himself, I'm wondering if he was influenced by them.))
posted by lollusc at 3:38 AM on May 3, 2018


We use the word face on inanimate objects, why would animals be excluded?
posted by Thella at 3:41 AM on May 3, 2018 [6 favorites]


If he's a native English speaker, I'd love to know what word he uses instead? They can't just *not have* a face, how else would you describe my cat's smooshy face.
posted by stillnocturnal at 3:42 AM on May 3, 2018 [14 favorites]


British English: Yes animals have faces. There's no separate word to distinguish animal faces from human faces.
posted by EndsOfInvention at 3:44 AM on May 3, 2018


I'm Dutch. My language does not have a separate word for animal face. Applying the Dutch word for 'face' to an animal sounds slightly anthropomorphic but it's not wrong. I would certainly use it to tell my vet, for example, about a problem with a cat.

We also use our version of the word 'snout', but it's not the same because when used literally (as you would when talking to your vet) it means only a part of the face (nose and mouth area).

We do, however, have separate words for animal head, animal mouth and animal leg/foot. Those are used for all animals except for horses which are treated as humans in this regard.
posted by Too-Ticky at 3:45 AM on May 3, 2018 [5 favorites]


If he's a native English speaker, I'd love to know what word he uses instead?

He claims he would just use the word "head", not "face". I know people are unreliable narrators of their own language use though, so I'll be listening carefully from now on to see what he actually says.
posted by lollusc at 3:50 AM on May 3, 2018 [2 favorites]


Animals have eyes, noses and mouths. Faces!
posted by Ursula Hitler at 3:52 AM on May 3, 2018 [2 favorites]


(For those wondering, the Italian guy says in Italian "faccia" is only for humans and you say "muso" for animal faces.)
posted by lollusc at 3:53 AM on May 3, 2018


Cornell (one of the top schools for orntithology) uses “face” for owls, for example

But I think your friend is right, depending on the animal. I would not say a tick has a face, more a head. Same with fish. I am not really sure if I would say a vulture has a face, either. If I saw a vulture with a butterfly on its bill, I would say “look at its head.” Same with mice, perhaps, but I would say a hamster has a face.

So, I think it depends on whether or not I can attribute human-like characteristics to the animal’s face area.
posted by umwhat at 4:04 AM on May 3, 2018 [5 favorites]


The Italian guy is right, for Italy. We would definitely not use faccia for animals, it’s a very human term. I mean, you could, and people would know what you mean, but faccia and muso are two very distinct words. One way to describe someone pejoratively is to imply he or she has a muso instead of a face, for example.

I don’t feel like that distinction exists in English, however.
posted by lydhre at 4:05 AM on May 3, 2018 [10 favorites]


You'd need to get pretty far away from humans before I'd say something doesn't have a face. Even bugs have faces if you look closely enough to make them out. I mean, just try to tell me this jumping spider doesn't have a face.

Horseshoe crabs don't, though. I'm not even sure if I'd grant them a head, or just a carapace with some sensory bumps on it.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 4:23 AM on May 3, 2018 [5 favorites]


If it has eyes, I'll probably grant it a face. But I am a total crouton-petter.
posted by stillnocturnal at 4:30 AM on May 3, 2018 [3 favorites]


I think we're hard-wired to see faces in things, and so most languages don't make the distinction between humans and non-humans - it's more about appearance.

It's somewhat akin to the question I've heard often, which is 'do animals have hands?'. Something that has fingers and can be used to pick things up (as opposed to just being used for walking) is often called a 'hand'. A monkey, a squirrel or a beaver can easily be thought to have 'hands', but less so a cat or a crab. The same with faces - the further it diverges from the idealised human face (eyes above nose above mouth, all on the front of the head), the less likely you'd be to use the word. That's true of the few European languages I'm familiar with, anyway.

It's just a descriptive word, and people will use it how they will. My sister (who works with horses) talks about horses having a 'face', whereas I'd say 'head'. Same language, different people.
posted by pipeski at 4:30 AM on May 3, 2018


Or course, in English, a cliff or a building can have a face, so there is that added meaning that might colour English-speakers' more general use of the word.
posted by pipeski at 4:32 AM on May 3, 2018 [3 favorites]


Even a cube has faces. Six of them. I guess in English, "face" is sufficiently generalised to mean any more or less flattish surface to which I'm going to pay some kind of attention. Animals certainly have them.
posted by rd45 at 4:34 AM on May 3, 2018 [4 favorites]


The Italian 'muso' is about the same as 'muzzle' in English. Or like 'hocico' in Spanish.
If you look up 'cara' (The Spanish word for 'face') in the Real Academia you get:

1. f. Parte anterior de la cabeza humana desde el principio de la frente hasta la punta de la barbilla.
2. f. Parte anterior de la cabeza de algunos animales.


Note the use of the word 'algunos'. That is, a cara is something humans have and some animals. Which animals? That is probably subjective and depends on what extent we are anthropomorphising the animal.

Or course, in English, a cliff or a building can have a face..
I guess in English, "face" is sufficiently generalised

That 'face' means side (as in side of a building) or aspect is also true for any Romance language I can think of.. In fact, English took it from the Latin 'facie'
posted by vacapinta at 4:39 AM on May 3, 2018 [2 favorites]


Hmmm we use the term muzzle in English but it may be a false cognate. My understanding of the term muzzle is that it refers to the protruding nose and mouth but does not include the ears and eyes.
posted by donut_princess at 4:43 AM on May 3, 2018


The thing is, head isn't really a substitute for face. The face is the bit with the eyes and the mouth. The head is the face + the rest of the head. So my cat has a smooshy face when he sleeps. He doesn't have a smooshy head, or I'd have to take him to the vet, because a whole head shouldn't smoosh. Things get a bit complicated with, say, snakes, who have a face that takes up possibly all of their head.
posted by stillnocturnal at 4:45 AM on May 3, 2018 [12 favorites]


Yeah even if muzzle is a cognate, that doesn't mean it has the exact same semantics.
posted by lollusc at 4:45 AM on May 3, 2018 [1 favorite]


In English, all sorts of inanimate objects have faces. Heck, even abstract concepts like legal arguments have faces, so we can talk about them being "facially plausible" or obvious "on the face of it." The idea that a cliff or a golf club or a legal argument can have a face, but a dog or a monkey can't is completely bizarre to me, and not at all a distinction I have ever seen anyone make in my (American, primarily urban, native speaker) experience.

(Also, on preview, it's worth noting that the very first example sentence in vacapinta's wiktionary link is "The monkey has a pretty face." So clearly wiktionary at least does not make this distinction).
posted by firechicago at 4:47 AM on May 3, 2018


If you look at animal breed standards, the word “face” is used constantly to describe dogs, horses, cats, goats, sheep, and other species.

There’s even an English breed of sheep called the Bluefaced Leicester.
posted by faineg at 5:00 AM on May 3, 2018 [3 favorites]


My mother frequently referred to some of her sheep as having badger faces. They weren't the actual breed of badger-faced welsh sheep, but that's a thing too.
posted by rd45 at 5:18 AM on May 3, 2018


I am Danish, so Swedish is very close, but not entirely the same. There are absolutely different uses of words for humans and animals. I don't remember ever hearing people say my dog, cat or pony has a nice "ansigt" (face) ("ansikte" in Swedish). However, influence from Anglo media might be changing that with younger generations. An animal only has a head, only humans have faces in the Scandinavian social groups I am part of. You'd rather say the animal has a nice expression, or beautiful eyes, like a couple of teens who were smothering my dog when I came out of the store this morning did.
(But my dog has a really cute face in English)
posted by mumimor at 5:25 AM on May 3, 2018 [11 favorites]


Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The: I mean, just try to tell me this jumping spider doesn't have a face.

I'm sorry to be the one to tell you this, but that picture was 'shopped. (TW: pictures of spider faces)
posted by Too-Ticky at 5:26 AM on May 3, 2018


This distinction appears in Polish. People have a twarz, animals have a pysk (which is more the muzzle, but can mean the entire face). There's also the lovely word morda used as impolite slang for humans and as a neutral word for animals. Generally using an animal word for people is a prelude to a punch, unless it's your best friend.

Ryj is another one - means snout, but can also be used as an impolite word for human faces. Why yes, Polish has a wide variety of insults to the point most ESL learners are disappointed Americans are limited to sex and faeces as the main colloquial interjections...
posted by I claim sanctuary at 5:31 AM on May 3, 2018 [2 favorites]


In French, the direct translation for face is visage, which is only used for people. The word face also exists and can be used for animals with faces perceived as expressive such as apes/monkeys, cats, dogs etc., but not for cattle, pigs, sheep and rabbits for instance. As a result, most animals don't have faces in French, just heads, muzzles, snouts etc. But, as Vacapinta notes above about cara, it's very subjective: face won't be used for a vache (cow) but can be used for a taureau (bull), possibly because bull heads are iconic... (and let's not forget face de bouc for pun lovers). Face is also used in derogatory fashion (for humans, prend ça dans ta sale face espèce de bâtard), or as a technical / medical / veterinary term.
posted by elgilito at 5:37 AM on May 3, 2018 [2 favorites]


The Oxford English Dictionary defines "face" (the noun) thusly: "The front part of a person's head from the forehead to the chin, or the corresponding part in an animal." emphasis added

My background is white East Coast American. Native English speaker.

TBH, it sounds like the English speaker insisting that animals can't have faces is just not an animal person? I've had similar disagreements with people who claim that you can't "meet" an animal (but can "see" one), etc.
posted by schroedingersgirl at 5:37 AM on May 3, 2018


TBH, it sounds like the English speaker insisting that animals can't have faces is just not an animal person? I've had similar disagreements with people who claim that you can't "meet" an animal (but can "see" one), etc

No, I think he is an animal person. Like, he admits that our cat has a face but that is just because she is so adorably cute and he thinks of her as human.

The only logical argument he has managed to muster up so far is that faces are about having an expression, and that animals do expressions with their body language more than their heads, so there's no point in talking about their 'faces'.

I think you guys have made a good case that it is vanishingly rare for English speakers to have this animal/human distinction for 'face'/'head', so I'm guessing that Swedish might be like Danish and that he was subliminally influenced by the way his parents used the words when he was a child. (I'm guessing they wouldn't use English "face" for animals if they learned the word as a translation for 'ansikte').
posted by lollusc at 5:45 AM on May 3, 2018


The only logical argument he has managed to muster up so far is that faces are about having an expression, and that animals do expressions with their body language more than their heads, so there's no point in talking about their 'faces'.

Animals do have facial expressions. Some animals, like dogs, consciously manipulate their facial expressions.

This guy is just wrong, sorry.
posted by schroedingersgirl at 5:52 AM on May 3, 2018


Not only do animals have facial expressions, they can even learn to use them as a means of communicating with humans.
posted by Too-Ticky at 5:52 AM on May 3, 2018 [4 favorites]


My cat definitely has expressions. But I may be biased in his favor. My dog, too!

It sounds like maybe Italian uses faccia vs. muso the way we might use "hands/feet" vs "paws". Calling a human's hands "paws" would definitely be insulting, and I'd feel weird saying a cat or dog has "hands". Monkeys and suchlike would probably be an exception.

In my brand of English (American, Deep South growing up, West Coast and New England as an adult) animals do have faces and I can't think of any other word I'd use to distinguish their faces from human faces.

We also have terms like "fish-faced" and "horse-faced" which implies a linguistic acceptance of the concept that animals have faces.
posted by invincible summer at 5:57 AM on May 3, 2018 [2 favorites]


I think it would depend on context and species. Most mammals can be anthropomorphized as having facial expressions. Birds, reptiles, and fish can be a bit more difficult, and the majority of animals are not chordates. While "happy as a clam" is an idiom, I don't think many people imagine clams as having smiling faces. But, if someone where to get technical and say that primates have faces but cats don't, I probably wouldn't object.

Midwest United States. Only English-speaking relatives within living history. I'm also a bit of a biology geek.
posted by GenderNullPointerException at 6:11 AM on May 3, 2018


Animals have faces. Many languages distinguish between animal and human facial features (noses and snouts, mouths and muzzles are the only ones that come to mind in English). But as a scientist from the northeastern US, I would absolutely use face to describe ... the face ... of animals. Many animals also make facial expressions.
posted by ChuraChura at 6:28 AM on May 3, 2018


> In French, the direct translation for face is visage, which is only used for people.

Adding on to this: one of the first French insults I ever encountered was "ta gueule!" which is along the lines of "shut your hole" or "shut your trap" but relies on the word 'gueule' which means 'snout or 'face' of an animal'. A more literal translation would then be "shut your animal face."

I am, however, not a native French speaker so take everything I just said with a grain of sel.
posted by komara at 6:42 AM on May 3, 2018


A horse walks into a bar. The bartender asks, "hey buddy, why the long face?"

This joke is very old and makes no sense if horses don't have faces.
posted by muddgirl at 6:44 AM on May 3, 2018 [9 favorites]


Many languages distinguish between animal and human facial features (noses and snouts, mouths and muzzles are the only ones that come to mind in English)

Or "mouth" and "maw." I think "maw" may actually be a closer synonym to "mouth" than "muzzle," though it's certainly used less.

Levinas would deny that an animal had a "face" for philosophical reasons.
posted by praemunire at 6:52 AM on May 3, 2018


...only one native English speaker is claiming you can't use the word face for animals. But he is really definite about it.

An animal begs to differ.
posted by flabdablet at 7:51 AM on May 3, 2018


He is just weird.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 8:00 AM on May 3, 2018


this is a fascinating question.

I understand what your friend means about the distinction between human and animal faces and his theory is proved, to a degree, by the fact that Italian (and, as I learned from this thread, Polish and French) have words for "non-human face." The distinction exists. But in English we have no other term for a non-human face, so "face" it is.

Others in this thread are also correct that for to some degree, with some animals, the distinction does not really exist and doesn't need to be codified in language. For example, the function of infant facial features ("baby schema") seems to exist in many mammals. Those are obviously faces, serving not only the biological but the "aesthetic" function of faces.

I think your friend is generally wrong, but he'll surely be gratified to know that he'd be right if he were in Italy; and yeah, if we're discussing, say, bugs, then he's correct -- English lacks an important word.
posted by fingersandtoes at 8:52 AM on May 3, 2018


Photoshopped or not, I still say (most) bugs have faces, and often quite cute ones.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 9:41 AM on May 3, 2018 [2 favorites]


Levinas would deny that an animal had a "face" for philosophical reasons.
My cat is called 'Levinas', in part because he has such a cute face. It definitely constitutes an ethical demand.
posted by Acheman at 9:41 AM on May 3, 2018 [3 favorites]


My cat is called 'Levinas', in part because he has such a cute face. It definitely constitutes an ethical demand.

I've always felt that argument was so weird, because so many people (including me) feel an ethical obligation to animals that is emotionally situated in the interaction with their sweet little faces. Their faces are definitely a synecdoche for their personhood, or near-personhood, or however you care to define it. It's when a dog looks at you that you feel the pull of the relationship most. I'm not a Levinas expert, but that seems to be very close to at least the literal level of the interaction he describes.

This is not an ethical obligation I feel confronting a cockroach. They have no faces.
posted by praemunire at 10:49 AM on May 3, 2018 [1 favorite]


One of my cats was named Lampedusa. Actually he was just grey-pussy, and then a very literate American lady came by and gave him this very smart name. Non of us had ever read anything by Lampedusa, or seen the movie, but after that we all did (in our time). The point here is that in my experience Americans anthropomorphize animals more than we do. But this is just an anecdote and as I have grown older I can see what she meant. Lampedusa was killed by a train because he loved sleeping on the tracks and was too lazy to move when the train came.
posted by mumimor at 12:37 PM on May 3, 2018


Not that you'd need it, but here's some more support via publication in credible sources:
  • New York Times, 2016/02/15, How Does One Dog Recognize Another as a Dog: "The French study trained nine dogs to expect a food reward when they picked the dog from side-by-side computer displays of a dog’s face and that of another creature, including domestic and wild cats, sheep, goats, cows, birds, reptiles and humans."
  • New York Times, 2004/12/02, Portraitist of the Not-Yet Set: "Mona, a shelter cat with a pale, Persian cat's body and a tabby cat's face and paws, has the kind of mongrel beauty that does well in Hollywood."
  • New Yorker, 2012/09/25, Norman Mailier, Auteur: "Mailer breaks off to talk to one of the guys, and then epileptically swings his fist in the dog’s face."
  • New Yorker, 2014/01/13, Khe-Yo: "You can get an animal's face on a salad just about anywhere these days—even in midtown, at Xi'an Famous Foods,"

posted by mhum at 2:00 PM on May 3, 2018


I think this is pretty much well and truly answered by now, but just thought I would mention that when I got my cat as a kitten, we used to spend hours just looking into each other's eyes, which is part of what created the intense emotional connection. (Ok, it was non-consecutive hours, because kitten attention span is not very long.) I think this is the same thing as what humans do with each other to fall in love and I don't think it would work if we didn't perceive (some) animals as having faces. The ubiquity of some animals being treated as special (cats, dogs, horses, etc) regardless of whether different cultures' language describes animals' faces as faces seems significant to me. And the whole thing probably also relates to how we classify some animals as suitable for eating and others not.
posted by Athanassiel at 5:06 PM on May 3, 2018


Native English speaker from Texas with some experience studying animal and other ethics in academic environments in Texas, the mid-atlantic/northeast US, and New England: Animals definitely can have faces.

The face is the front part of the head, or sometimes the front ish part of a fish on either side, etc. Some animals may not have have faces depending on what you think is required in comprising a face, but not many and this is a species specific thing. I'm only aware of a state of general agreement that at least many animals definitely have faces.

There is discussion of distinguishing human and non human animals (or humans and animals) for various purposes and in various ways, but I've never seen the concept of faces widely or successfully used for that.
posted by Verba Volant at 7:43 PM on May 3, 2018


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