The shocking truth: ใจ doesn’t mean “heart”!

Monday, February 4, 2008 at 8:00 am 8 comments

The word ใจ (“jai”) is commonly misunderstood. People say that ใจ means “heart.” That is simplistic and incorrect. If anything, ใจ really means “mind.”

Admittedly, few words in any language always “mean something.” Context influences meaning. Consider รถ, which means “car,” right? Not exactly. รถ means “car” sometimes. Generally, รถ means “vehicle,” which is obvious when you consider these words: รถเข็น รถม้า รถตู้ รถถัง รถพ่วง รถไฟ (in English: cart, carriage, van, tank, semi, and train).

One way to think about it is that the word รถ means “car,” but the prefix รถ means “vehicle.” ใจ is no different, but I want to correct the ใจ/heart misunderstanding for two reasons:

  1. It’s wrong.
  2. It contributes to the bad myth that Thai is a primitive language or that Thai people are juvenile.

Let’s approach this objectively: count ใจ-words and see what the data reveals. In the tables below, the first column is the Thai word; the second column is the basic English translation; and the third column makes the case for the word if it is unclear, either by noting the literal translation or by citing similar English expressions.

The Case For “Mind”

All these ใจ-words relate to the concept of the mind, thought, or consciousness.

Thai Translation Notes
เข้าใจ Understand Literally, “enter mind”
จิตใจ Thoughts, consciousness
รู้ใจ Intimate To know one’s mind
ตั้งใจ Intend Literally, “put mind”; “Set one’s mind [to something]”
ตัดสินใจ Decide “Make up your mind”
เกรงใจ To mind someone To be considerate
พอใจ Satisfied To get what you have in mind
ใจร้อน Hot-headed, eager Literally, “hot mind”
ใจเย็น Cool-headed, level-headed Literally “cool mind.” (Not “cold-hearted”)
เปลี่ยนใจ Change one’s mind Literally, “change mind”
น้ำใจ Thoughtfulness
แปลกใจ Surprising Thought-provoking
ใส่ใจ Careful Or, “mindful”
ใจอ่อน Yielding Literally, “soft mind”
เอาแต่ใจตัว Determined “Headstrong”

The Case for “Heart”

All these ใจ-words clearly relate to the concept of the heart.

Thai Translation Notes
หัวใจ Heart The blood-pumping organ
ตกใจ Startled “My heart skipped a beat”
เสียใจ Saddening “Broken-hearted”
ดวงใจ Sweetheart
ใจดี Nice “Kind-hearted”
ใจดำ Cruel “Black-hearted” (ostensibly)
หมดใจ Wholeheartedly
ใจร้าย Mean “Heartless” (This is ร้าย, not ไร้; so no literal translation)
เจ็บใจ Crushed “Heartbroken”
กำลังใจ Courage หมดกำลังใจ means “disheartened”

Although I categorized it as a heart-word, I take issue with ใจดำ. It means “cruel,” but nobody actually says “black-hearted” in English. We say “cold-hearted.” When you translate “cold-hearted” literally, a Thai speaker will misunderstand you, hearing “level-headed.” Nonetheless, since “black-hearted” is understandable in English, it goes in.

The Case for Neither

These examples do not clearly contribute to the heart/mind debate. Some strike me as a little mind-like, but the correlation is not strong enough.

Thai Translation Notes
ดีใจ Pleased
สนใจ Interested
หายใจ Breathe
ไว้ใจ Trust Maybe literally “to leave your mind” with someone with someone?
ประทับใจ Impressed
จริงใจ Sincere Maybe literally “true heart” but that’s a stretch. I would say “straight shooter.”
แน่ใจ Confident Maybe literally “sure mind”?
ภูมิใจ Proud
ตามใจ Assent “To go along [with someone]”
น้อยใจ Sensitive Or “offended”

Also note that some native Thai speakers (even educated ones) assert that their mind feels to them physically embodied in the center of their chests. But this fact contributes to neither the mind nor the heart argument. It only confirms that the concepts of mind and heart overlap for Thai speakers (as they do for English speakers). So this fact, while interesting, is not relevant to this analysis.

Conclusions

It’s pretty clear that most ใจ-words do not evoke the heart meaning, although some do indeed. Many seem connected to the English “mind” concept, directly or indirectly. Therefore, the argument that “ใจ means ‘heart'” is not compelling.

(We did not consider each word’s frequency of use, but the results would likely not change since each type of ใจ-word is in extremely common usage.)

So we have a convincing primary conclusion: That ใจ means “heart” is incorrect—it’s is a misleading oversimplification.

And we have a reasonable secondary conclusion: If there is one word that ใจ does mean, that word is “mind.”

Entry filed under: General. Tags: , .

Spine / สัน Business Thai Digest: Feb 6, 2008

8 Comments Add your own

  • 1. mangkorn  |  Saturday, February 9, 2008 at 3:07 am

    Good topic, Jason. Since it means both the heart and the mind, which overlap at times, but not always, I’d guess it really speaks to the “essence of one’s being.”

    The spirit?

    Cheers.

    Reply
  • 2. james  |  Saturday, October 4, 2008 at 12:56 pm

    i really like your blog

    but i have to say..

    you said that in english we do’nt use “black-hearted”, we use “cold-hearted”

    i have to admit, i was born in australia, from australian parents, and grew up in australia but i have never seen the term cold-hearted before – black-hearted, on the other hand, i use and hear all the time

    just something interesting i noted about all the different forms of ‘english’ out there

    haha

    Reply
  • 3. rikker  |  Wednesday, October 15, 2008 at 3:42 pm

    Clearly you need to listen to more 1980s Paul Abdul records. I submit exhibit A:



    Interesting language difference, though.

    Reply
  • 4. bkkunderground  |  Monday, November 24, 2008 at 9:42 pm

    I think the more important thing to not re:ใจ is not a literal meaning of the heart but as the repository of feelings. The opposite correlation would be จิต the repository of thought. The way you are reading ใจ as relating more to thought than to feelings in some cases is correct but your conclusion that as a result ใจ is not feelings is oversimplified. The best I can explain it is the deepest and most sincere manifestation of thought จิต is when it is corroborated by your feelings ใจ hence จิตใจตรงกัน. So ใจ used in a meaning that represents thought means sincere thoughts or your mind at its deepest level, the level of the heart.

    Reply
  • 5. John Berns  |  Saturday, July 25, 2009 at 4:55 pm

    Jai (ใจ) is one of those words that you will go cray trying to pigeon-hole into an equivalent English word.

    It’s meaning is related to both mind (thought, logic) and heart (feelings, emotions) because there is less of a duality between the two concepts to Thais than there is to English language speakers.

    Westerners seem to take almost a Vulcan stance on the mind: facts are facts and logic is logic and that’s that. Here are the facts and this is the conclusion. How you feel about something it is secondary to the facts and logic of it.

    I believe that a Thai would find that the facts and the feelings of people involved in the situation can’t be so easily separated when coming to a conclusion. A resolution that is “right” should take into account facts and the feelings of the people and that logic can’t be applied in an emotional vacuum.

    So to say it’s either heart or it’s mind, thought or feeling is to diminish the term; it stands for something more that one or the other alone.

    Reply
  • 6. Leela@SheSimmers  |  Monday, January 4, 2010 at 5:42 am

    Great observations, Rikker, though I’m not sure the theory can be substantiated. I agree with John Berns: the line between the heart and the mind in the Thai way of thinking is not as clearly drawn as it is in the Western way of thinking and the hair-splitting, though fun, may no yield a result as revolutionary as one might hope.

    Your method of categorization of ใจ as in heart, ใจ as in mind, and ใจ as in neither heart nor mind seems arbitrary and very much dependent upon which of the two words occur in the corresponding English expressions which *you* could think of (or so it seems). For example, you put เปลี่ยนใจ in the mind category as it corresponds with the English, “to change one’s mind.” But if you’d gone with the alternate expression, “to have a change of heart,” wouldn’t that put เปลี่ยนใจ in the heart category? Also, personally, พอใจ and ดีใจ are so close in meaning they’re interchangeably used in several cases. Yet, the former is categorized as mind-related whereas the latter as neither mind- nor heart-related because the translation for พอใจ given here contains the word mind and the translation for ดีใจ given here doesn’t contain either heart or mind.

    It’s either I didn’t understand your methodology or more lucid explanation is needed to make the case stronger than it appears now. I think you’re on to something, but the water is still a bit murky.

    Another thought – what is subtly implied here, inadvertently perhaps, is that the Thai concept of ใจ can only be accurately understood through the corresponding expressions in the English language. In other words, it takes the expressions in English to illuminate the use of ใจ in the Thai language.

    But is English the only means through which the Thai concept of ใจ can be understood?

    If you place Spanish, Italian, Chinese, Arabic, etc., expressions in the right-hand columns of these three tables, is it possible that a different conclusion might be reached? Would the thesis which you’re proposing here still stand?

    My guess is we’ll see tons of overlaps and high degree of interchangeability, so much so that there’s no choice but to just say ใจ, though literally points to the heart, represents different cerebral activities. Anatomically speaking, the seat of emotions is the brain, not the heart. Yet, the heart has been used metonymically across cultures and language groups. The use of ใจ in the Thai language is no different.

    Additional thoughts:
    *I would say ‘sensitive’ corresponds better with ใจน้อย than น้อยใจ. For example, เขาเป็นคนใจน้อย means he is a sensitive person; every little thing upsets/bothers him.
    *I wouldn’t translate เจ็บใจ as ‘crushed’ or ‘broken-hearted.’ เจ็บใจ clearly carries the idea of being angry, offended, with a tinge of vengefulness even. I think ช้ำใจ is the correct translation of crushed, hurt, or broken-hearted.

    I could go on. But all in all, great observations and great post.

    Reply
  • 7. M.N.  |  Sunday, July 25, 2010 at 1:33 pm

    I would say heart in Thai means in our modern world mind but in history it means actually heart. You have to know Thai is a language older than 700 years and in this time it does not vary. My personal experiance is that you can think with your heart and you come to different conclusions totally. What do you think why the modern war don’t want to show real pictures from the war? It’s your heart why they don’t like it to show.

    Reply
  • 8. Spanish school Costa Rica  |  Saturday, January 10, 2015 at 8:25 pm

    It is really amazing post! I never know the meaning of heart in Thai. I am really very eager to learn Thai. I just love two languages Thai and Spanish. Your blog has wonderful posts. Thanks

    Reply

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