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I always know that 歩く is the verb to use when talking about walking. But I'm aware the kanji 歩 has another verb 歩む. In WWWJDIC, the example sentence given is:

ビルはあの会社の社長になるまで成功への道を歩み続けた。
Bill climbed the ladder of success until he became the president of the company.

There is also this one line from the lyrics of the song 「未来へ」 by KIRORO:

これがあなたの歩む道。

It seems to me from these usage examples that 歩む is better suited to refer to the abstract type of walking, like walking down the path of life, while 歩く is used when referring to the actual act of walking on foot. Is this always true?

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up vote 4 down vote accepted

Let's look at what the dictionaries say. Daijirin:

あゆむ 【歩む】

(1)あるく。 「本道を―・む」

(2)経て来る。経験する。過ごす。 「父の―・んだ人生」

This seems to support your hypothesis that 歩む has a more abstract meaning. But:

あるく 【歩く】

(1)人や動物が普通の足どりで、体を前方に移動させる。歩行する。あゆむ。 「駅まで―・く」

(2)徒歩や乗り物で行く。 「世界の各地を―・く」

(3)経過する。進む。生きる。 「まじめに人生を―・く」

(4)野球で、打者が四死球などで一塁に行く。

(5)(多く、他の動詞の下に付けて)…してまわる。 「製品を売り―・く」「孫の自慢をして―・く」

〔上代、歩行の意味では「あゆむ」が使われ、「あるく」は主に移動する意に用いられた〕

Sense (3) is very similar to sense (2) of 歩む above. And the footnote says that formerly, 歩む was used to mean walking on foot, while 歩く was used to mean movement! But the situation is reversed now, I think. Indeed, the thesaurus supports this view:

[使い分け]

【1】「歩く」は、足を使って前に進む意。具体的な動作を表わす。

【2】「歩む」は、物事が進行する意。具体的な動作を表わすよりは、抽象的な意味で用いられるのが普通。

There's also a nice table comparing possible usages.

Being more speculative now, I think the role reversal is simply due to 歩む becoming more rarely used. To me it has a somewhat literary or poetic flavour.

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The meanings are not reversed. The footnote of Daijirin states that あるく used to mean to move to some place, which is not the current usage of あるく or あゆむ. –  Tsuyoshi Ito Aug 14 '11 at 1:41
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Will it sound weird if someone still uses あゆむ to refer to walking on foot, e.g. 歩んできました, other than when trying to be poetic? –  Lukman Aug 14 '11 at 2:55
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