I vaguely remember reading something years ago on this subject --an article in a magazine or something, I don't even remember-- but what I do remember is the theme that it's supposedly common for languages to conflate "sense of touch" with "emotional well-being".

Of course, this is a common metaphor in English:

"The rock feels rough." (Implication: the speaker felt/touched it.)

"I feel rough." (Implication: the speaker felt/touched themselves?)

What I'm wondering is, is this actually a pattern?

For instance, the situation with "fühlen" is much the same in German, but that doesn't count unless the metaphor developed independently, with no inter-language borrowing or common inheritance from a shared parent language.

Japanese "genki" ("original energy/spirit/air"?) seems like an immediately obvious counter-example to me. (And I would guess that Japanese originally obtained it as a borrowing from Chinese, so...? I obviously can't conclude much from that.)

Does anyone know what sort of studies may have been done on this? Any widely-accepted conclusions...?

2 Answers 2


This isn't a full answer to your question, but I'd like to point out that there's some good evidence that there are little to no universals in language. (relevant paper here: http://www.princeton.edu/~adele/LIN_106:_UCB_files/Evans-Levinson09_preprint.pdf ). So it would be a safe bet to assume that the touch metaphor is not ubiquitous in language. That being said, there is probably a more satisfying historical explanation for the metaphor's distribution...which is beyond me.

  • It varies with the frames involved, from language to language; essentially feel in English is the default sense verb in metaphors for emotional, intuitive, esthetic, or moral judgement.
    – jlawler
    Dec 7, 2013 at 21:09
  • Aye, I hear you on the "little-to-no language universals" thing (beyond those that are simply forced by the logic of using a mostly linear medium), but did say "common", not "universal"; Eg, it's still a very interesting fact that languages with Object-Subject order in neutral utterances are much less common than Subject-Object, even though it's not a universal...
    – Owen_AR
    Dec 8, 2013 at 0:23

Japanese does have 気持ち, which roughly translates into "holding of spirit/air", meaning "feeling", and it is not a Chinese loan (perhaps calque, but I don't know any Chinese dialect using a similar word) as it is a native Japanese compound.

So, umm, you are using your hands to hold air...which could be related to the "touch" thing.

  • I kinda assumed that was more in the pattern of the Greek "pneuma"/"your breath is your spirit" kinda thing...? Which, now that I think about it, is an odd idea, even for a superstition. Your soul is constantly being replaced from the surrounding air? In and out like a cat... x3
    – Owen_AR
    Dec 7, 2013 at 23:55
  • Interestingly, none of your brain cells were there when you were a newborn baby. Your memory also has to forget some old event (perhaps an unnoticeable obscure event) to remember new events. Our soul is constantly being replaced XD
    – ithisa
    Dec 8, 2013 at 0:03
  • Ahh, the wisdom of the ancients. xD Although I wonder... "Your memory also has to forget some old event (perhaps an unnoticeable obscure event) to remember new events." ... HOW DO YOU KNOW?
    – Owen_AR
    Dec 8, 2013 at 1:19
  • Well, finite memory...and physically brains (which remember long-term memory non-volatilely in patterns encoded in neurons) don't just forget stuff (when was the last time your computer just forgot your file?); the reason why you forgot where you put your keys is because a newer memory came in and overwrote it.
    – ithisa
    Dec 8, 2013 at 1:37
  • Well is "event" even a unit in which the brain deals? Dec 8, 2013 at 4:01

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