All major branches of the IE family use variants of a metaphor that equates understand with grasp, but they use various roots, all of which have PIE pedigrees: Sanskrit has gŗbhnate < GhŖBh with double meaning, but English grabs and Russian грабит have strictly tangible meaning. Sanskrit also has la(m)bhate with double meaning, Greek κατα-λαμβανει < LA(M)Bh. Latin has com-pre-hendit, English he gets it < GhEDh. Russian has по-ймёт / по-н-имает < EM, but Latin emit simply means seizes.

Do other major language groups (Semitic, Chinese, etc) use similar metaphors, or do they use specialized words without obvious metaphoric origin?

  • Can’t really think of anything for Chinese, at least not Mandarin. 抓紧 zhuājǐn ‘grasp tightly, clasp’ is used to mean ‘pay special attention to’, but that’s not quite the same. Other than that, I can only think of literals 懂 dǒng ‘understand’) and metaphors pertaining to clarity (明白 míngbái ‘clear-white = understand’) and separation/distinction (分清 fēnqīng ‘distinguish/separate clearly = understanding the difference between’, cf. also Jap. 分かる wakaru ‘be separable = understand’). Nothing graspy comes to mind. May 25 at 15:05
  • Hebrew tafas "catch" also means "understand", but it's colloquial and is not the basic word for the concept.
    – TKR
    May 26 at 2:55

With regards to Chinese: Yes, but it is far from the most common.

The lexical item most relevant to this is 把握, Mandarin Pinyin: bǎwò, Cantonese Jyutping: baa2 (ng)aak1.

Both syllables had the verbal meaning of "grasp" in Classical Chinese; and the first one was fairly common, e.g. from Mencius:


Mencius said, 'Anybody who wishes to cultivate the tong or the zi, which may be grasped with both hands, perhaps with one, knows by what means to nourish them.

On its own, it is used as a classifier for long objects held in the hand, and in Mandarin varieties it has been fully grammaticalised as a light verb that foregrounds the direct object.

The collocation 把握 is attested in works from before the Common Era, in Classical Chinese, but it is not in general used to mean "to understand"; rather, it is primarily "to grasp hands, to join hands", and by extension "to master, dominate".

This meaning of "grasp" and "master" is retained in many Chinese varieties, and is very common in modern colloquial Mandarin for understand in the sense of mastery, and often as a noun as well as a verb, e.g.


Tā duì zhè jiàn shì méi bǎwò.

He has no understanding of this matter.

However, this is item 2871 on the Leeds Internet Chinese Corpus, and much of those are likely not strongly related to "understanding".

A very non-exhaustive list of words for "understand" are outlined below:

  • 明白 (Mandarin Pinyin: míngbái; Cantonese Jyutping: ming4 baak6), literally "clear/bright + white". This verb is what most people learn first growing up, as well as in Chinese classes; it is 541st on the Leeds Internet Chinese Corpus, much higher than 把握.
  • 明 (Mand.: míng; Cant.: ming4/meng4), literally "clear/bright". In many southern varieties, including Cantonese, this is orally the most common verb for "understand". It can also be used as a resultative complement in these varieties.
  • 清楚 (Mand.: qīngchu/chǔ; Cant.: cing1 co2), the first element is relatively transparent as "clear", as used of liquids especially. The derivation of second element is still debated. This is primarily an adjective, "to be clear about something".
  • 懂 (Mand.: dǒng; Cant.: dung2), with an opaque etymology - it is likely a fundamental word for "understand". The visual representation includes the heart radical, but the rest is phonetic. This is primarily a verb, and used for a more "intuitive" or "immediate" sense of "to understand" than 明白 in standard Mandarin; however, this is not necessarily true of all varieties (for example, Cantonese makes little use of this at all).
  • 理解 (Mand.: lǐjiě; Cant.: lei5 gaai2), at position 694, and 了解 (Mand.: liǎojiě; Cant.: liu5 gaai2), at position 463, are very similar but have slightly different nuances. The final lexeme, 解, refers to "dividing", "splitting", or "releasing", even "liberating"; a good parallel is English's "to have cracked it".

There are others, such as 識/识 or 晓得.

  • 1
    Ah, 把握, of course – that didn’t pop into my mind at all before. There’s also the very similar 掌握 zhǎngwò, which I’d say is probably more likely to be used in the sense of grasping a concept (as opposed to mastering a topic or skill set) than 把握 is. May 25 at 21:48

The more common verb for the grasp in the Turkic languages is anla- ( structurally close to Proto-Slavic orzum-ěti ), but there is another common verb: düşün-. It seems already to be some kind of metaphor, but in the Oguz branch there are more metaphorical variants of this, see: başa düş-/başı çık- 'to understand'. Also, more rarely in the sense of the grasp used the expression with verb bil- 'to know (how)' ( this have semantical parallel in the Slovene language um-èti 'to know how, to understand'):

Anı bil+1sg. - I understand this/Ya ponimayu eto (russ.).

Additionally to the TKR's answer about Hebrew word with the meaning 'to catch', there is Russian example 'ulavlivat' (smysl)' - 'to catch the meaning/to understand':

Ulovil!? Ulavlivaesh'? - Are you understand (this)?

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