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...?


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 '13 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 '13 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 '13 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 '13 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 '13 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 '13 at 1:37
  • Well is "event" even a unit in which the brain deals? – hippietrail Dec 8 '13 at 4:01

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.