In Ancient Greek, πνεῦμα (pneuma) can mean "breath" as in "a breath of air" (literal) or "divine breath of inspiration" (figurative); it can also mean "life", "spirit", and "vitality" as demonstrated in ancient medicine as well as philosophical doctrines such as that of Stoicism.

In Latin, nouns like anima and spiritus have similar properties, with the verb spiro meaning both "to breathe" and "to be alive".

In Sanskrit (and Hindi), similarly, the noun meaning "breath", प्राण (prāṇa), also carries the meaning of "life", "spirit", "soul", etc.; this second meaning is described in Upanishads, and is also frequently invoked in Hindu philosophy.

In Hebrew, a word of comparable nature is רוּחַ (rúach). This one is particularly interesting as it shows up in the Bible in Genesis 2:7 in the form of the phrase "breath of life" (נִשְׁמַת חַיִּים).

In Classical Chinese, the character 氣 (pinyin: qi4; Baxter-Sagart: /*C.qʰəp-s/) takes a variety of meaning including both "breath" and "life", especially in a philosophical context.

Without listing more examples, I would like to know how this phenomenon came to be -- despite some obvious connections (such as those between Greek and Latin words), most of these words have clearly different etymological origins, yet the way they communicate a shared idea of "breath of life" strikes me as extremely similar. Is it related to certain primitive animist beliefs that commonly attribute the origin of life to "breath"? If so, what are the earliest textual evidences testifying these beliefs?

Much thanks in advance.

  • 13
    It is obvious to everyone that when a person or an animal is breathing, they are alive, and that if they stop breathing long enough, they never breathe again. Also that if they die by some other means they never breathe again. In other words, breath is life; if there is one, there is the other. This has nothing to do with language, or even metaphor -- it's just a fact of life.
    – jlawler
    Commented Dec 21, 2018 at 0:57
  • 2
    It could well have to do with language if e.g. bible translations transmitted the metaphor. But it is not just breath that is symbolic for life. life, power, health as abstractions are hard to put into words so originally substantial meaning is expanded to it's consequences.
    – vectory
    Commented Dec 21, 2018 at 4:13
  • 2
    If you look for early textual evidence then I would add Hattic pšun meaning both breathing and soul. Aside the semantics, the language belongs to a completely different group than the aforementioned languages which shows that the concept existed across language families.
    – Midas
    Commented Dec 21, 2018 at 19:57
  • 2
    נשמת חיים nishmat hhayim does not in fact contain רוח ruahh. Actually, what you have there is a second Hebrew word, נשמה neshamah, that is also polysemous between breath/life. רוח can also mean spirit or wind, and I'd say leans more towards that (Gen. 1 God's רוח hovers over the deep), whereas נשמה is more like breath/the state of being alive. Commented Dec 24, 2018 at 15:53
  • 1
    See also sila and its relations in various Inuit languages. Same polysemy there.
    – Draconis
    Commented Dec 24, 2018 at 18:30

3 Answers 3


There are three possibilities, basically

  1. A shared origin,
  2. Semantic loans,
  3. Independent innovations,
  4. All 3 in a symbioses.

A shared origin would be most exciting and more likely than independent innovation, if it is so succeptable, but only if a common origin of the world languages can be assumed -- which is not at all established--and if the innovation occurred before the divide. Semantic loans and independent innovation could still help to persist the metaphor. However, whole languages could be independent innovations, we really don't know.

Semantic loans are a possibility. All the languages mentioned in the question must have been in contact, eventually indirectly, as early as the spread of agriculture and metal work attests to, and as late as the bible (loaning from indo iranian in the first place?), unless those were individual innovations. German "Lebensatem" e.g. is a direct analog to the Hebrew. An equation of "Luft" (air, sky) and "Leben, Leib" (life, body) on the other hand seems intangible. Nevertheless, wind odin and odem are significant in Germanic myths.

Similar metaphors like seeing/knowing, juice/power arm/strength abound. Especially Greek humor-theory with parallels in Chinese, or the four elements, is notable, and perhaps Egyptian Ka and Chinese Qi, too. As regards far spread, diverse believes about soul, that's too broad as a question of comparative religion.

For fully separate innovation, its pretty easy to see that "doesn't breath" equates to "doesn't live" and that the latter requires euphemism.

  • +1, but I would suggest you put possibility #3 as the #1 possibility. Chinese and Greek are not known for having a common origin. Commented Sep 4, 2019 at 14:09

Surely breathe and spirit have the same etymological origins? Spirit is from the French esprit (pronounced espree). Remove the e from esprit to get sprit (as in spiritual), which would be pronounced spree. Change the b in "breathe" to a p and you get "preathe", pronounced "preethe". The similarity between the sounds in sPREE and PREEthe is then very easy to observe.

  • I'm afraid it doesn't work like that Robert. Current forms are notoriously unreliable for comparing origins of words. A look in any decent dictionary will show that breath goes back to Germanic words which have always had the skeleton "b-r-t", ultimately Indo-European *bʰrē-t- meaning "steam rising from cooking", ( cognate with broth !). Spirit is through French from Latin spiro.
    – Colin Fine
    Commented Jan 3, 2020 at 20:02
  • No, I totally agree, because s- can be expected to fortify consonants. Further, if s-mobile was semantic and ocassionally indicating ex or out, then breath out works for me.
    – vectory
    Commented Jan 3, 2020 at 21:02
  • I think this is a joke and it kind of amused me, but it's not really an answer so while I'm being all serious-business-reviewing-queues I feel I ought to downvote it...
    – LjL
    Commented Jan 4, 2020 at 1:29
  • This may be a joke, but it is ridiculously, hopelessly, horrendously wrong. Since SE answers are often taken as gospel by random googlers, having immensely misleading answers like this on the site is actively harmful. It should be deleted. Commented Jun 15, 2021 at 14:48

Breathing and movement have always been characteristics of a living human. In some languages the word for movement (animation) resembles the word for spirit/breath (Latin anima) in another language. Greek Zoi from which Zoo shows a similar relation (life vs the animals). The Biblical story of Adam and Eve is a rewriting to suit monotheïsm but it shows earth (Adam) and heaven (Eve) to have been considered our original ‘ancestors’ in the Israelites’ worldview. This originates from a world view where the body falls to the earth after death and the spirit/breath goes to heaven. The spirit became personified later on as a seperate entity while it is in essence the breath of life. The word life is abstract and comes from an older concrete word for feet as can still be seen in the resemblance between English ‘life’ and German ‘laufen’ (to walk) and the ‘soles of the feet’ is that which gives you movement which is cognate to anima and that is why these words look so similar to words with a meaning of living and breathing.

Similarities that are no coincidence: Spirit: breath, bird, bread, birth Anime: animal, name, animate Life: laufen, love, elevate Leg: ciel, soul, keel (Dutch) Foot: pt (sky in hieroglyphs, tepe (hill), top, body Bein (German leg): nebo (Russian sky), oben (above in German), nebula, to be, B hieroglyph is a leg Zoi: Chi (Hebrew life), zoo, qi (life energy in Chinese), Ka (the double (spirit) in Egyptian texts), to go (which refers to motion) Adam: atmen (to breath in German) Important to note is that the dead bodies fall back to the earth as they die so the invertion of Adam/Atmen in consonant phonemes is ‘mt’ which is the consonantal foundation of Semitic words having to do with tomb and death. This is why ‘mute and deaf’ are euphemisms for death: -mute: mut (death) -deaf: death Without breath there is no Word. This resulted in the spirit of god being the word in the beginning. Spirit is breath and the creative ability of breath is words, so the word God had to be uttered for the spirit to animate itself.

“The soles of my feet go up into the air that I breathe and animate my body.” This sentence can be understood as a description of life, and the individual meanings have differentiated into the different languages. It should be possible to reconstruct which meaning originally belonged to what phonemes by identifying the meanings of the individual phonemes within the words.

Breath: B-R-Th is descriptive for sky/up-air/sun/-body. A bird has the ability to bring its body into the air. At birth is the first moment where the body inhales air; the breath meaning the same.

To go: this sound is not the original as the original underwent many sound changes. To chew is one of those changes where the motion refers to the jaw. Chew can be decompounded to (and I simplify here) ‘go-jaw’ which describes the ‘motion of the jaw’ literally.

B as a hieroglyph for leg shows how words like beth (Hebrew house), bath and bed are described as B-T (legs on the earth) thus lying down. That is what you do in your habitat, bath and bed. It describes that you are not standing on the legs or moving them but they are on the ground, resting. B=legs Th/T=earth An example of how phonemes describe the meaning of the words bath, bed and beth.

Basically many of what we now know as nouns used to be short descriptive phrases with phonemes that each had a couple of rudimentary meanings that could be used to express a characteristic of what the noun stands for. And words for life and breath belong to the oldest category and are therefor easier to decompound to their rudimentary descriptions as later words. With a world view that saw the body as the earth and the breath as the sky returning to both when dying, these became our cosmic parents in the most Ancient world views. That is why many languages have such similarities. A shared origin.

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