Language and Culture

By Geraldine Wells,2014-06-24 06:09
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Language and Culture

Language and Culture

    Chapter 1

    Does language shape culture or does culture shape language? In my view, language is a mirror, in front of which culture is reflected. As a student majoring in Chinese as a foreign language, I??d like to take this advantage to discuss the cultural differences between Chinese and English. In the following passage, I am going to elaborate on the cultural differences reflecting in colors.There are many color words in our language, such as red, white, black, yellow, purple and so forth, which are used frequently. In the first place, I??d like to introduce the common usages of the color words.

    1.adj.+color word

    (1)"deep/dark+color words": indicating the strong color

    e.g., deep blue; deep green; dark brown; dark red.

    (2)"light/pale+color words": indicating the light color

    e.g., light yellow; light blue; pale grey; pale white.

    (3) "bright/rich/vivid+color words": indicating the bright color

    e.g., bright/rich/vivid red; bright/rich/vivid yellow.

    (4) "dull/dirty+color words":indicating the dark color

    e.g., dull yellow; dull gold; dirty grey; dirty white.

    2. "color words+-ish"

    This group indicates the different shades of the color. An adjective followed by -ish means "slightly??"

    e.g., whitish sky, yellowish book leaves; reddish face??

    3. "color words+color words"

    This pattern indicates the mixture of the color. The former stands for the main color, while the latter functions as modification.

    e.g.,red green; green yellow; grey blue??

    4. "color words+and+color words"

    Two colors coexisting in something without being mixed form a design and color.e.g., The dog is black and white.

    She has a yellow and black car.

    Chapter 2

    English abounds with phrases containing color words. Colors may convey different messages to people of different cultures. Due to the respective cultural background and tradition, some phrases containing color words have far surpassed their original meanings, forming different connotations.

    What does see red mean? If he is in a blue mood, what kind of mood is he in? Is he happy, sad, or what? Obviously, red and blue do not mean just the color. Each has additional meanings-certain cultural associations-that are hidden behind the word. The following part will be devoted to the discussion of cultural

differences of certain color words.

    2.1 Red

    In both Chinese and English, red is usually associated with happy occasions. On calendar, we can find that holidays such as Spring Festival are printed in red, which is called ??red-letter days??, while ordinary days are in black. Besides, ??to paint the town red?? is to celebrate wildly, to enjoy oneself to one??s heart??s content. Another example is to ??roll out the red carpet for someone??, meaning to give a hospitable and formal reception.

    Similarly, Chinese people traditionally cut red couplets and applique to celebrate occasions like wedding and New Year. Besides, We have a very famous trademark ??double red happiness?? (????) which is symbolic of good fortune. Red is also associated with certain emotions. Let us see a few examples.He clenched his fist and went very red.

    Her face turned red when bombarded with such an embarrassing question.I can see that he is red with anger.

    When he criticized my work, I really saw red.

    The mere mention of his enemy??s name is like waving a red flag to him.In the sentences above, we can guess the meaning of some, for there is an Chinese equivalent?? while the others are not so easy to understand by Chinese. For instance, in English, her face turned red or to become red-faced shows one??s embarrassment, as it does in Chinese s??. But what is the meaning of see red and waving a red flag? Both suggest anger. The former means to become very angry while the latter means to cause quick anger in somebody by doing something offensive.

    ??Government policy in interest rates, and on finance generally, has been marked by vacillation, wishful thinking, electoral expediency of the most shameful type towards the end of last year, contortions and contradictions, all to accommodate the redneck economics of the National Country Party. (Harsard Aug.27 1981)??In the example above, ??redneck?? is used as an adjective, meaning ??reactionary??. ??redneckery?? deriving from ??redneck?? refers to ??reactionary attitudes??. For instance, ??...the redneckery of the Queenland government...(Garth Nettheim ABC Books and Writing Apr.21.1982)??The literal meaning of ??redneck?? is red-neck. How is it related to ??reactionary??? ??redneck?? originally meant (AmE) Southern farmers of U.S.A., usually carrying a derogatory meaning. Now ??reactionary??, the extended meaning of ??redneck??, has something to do with its special historical and geographical background.

    Another example.

    ??Ironically, it was Red Nose Day, the day when millions of Australians donned red noses to support research into sudden infant death syndrome. (New Idea. Oct.7 1989)??

    Red Nose Day refers to a day on which an appeal is made for donations for research into sudden infant death syndrome, marked by the distribution of plastic red noses to donors. In Chinese, however, there is no such connotation.Some Westerners take ??red?? as an evil omen or red for danger, stemming from the spirits of bullfighters. So the red rag (or red flag) that bullfighters use to provocate bulls is considered annoying. According to the Random House

    Dictionary, red further develops to be the synonym for political radical. Furthermore, red has some extended meanings, such as cruelty, disaster, trivial formalities, etc.

    red alert�alarming in emergency

    a red battle�a cruel battle in which a lot of lives have been lostbe caught red-handed�be caught on site

    have red hands�commit a murder

    red ideas�revolutionary concepts

    red ruin�fire(as a disaster)

    red tape�bureaucratic writings

    in the red�in debt

    don??t care a red cent�don??t care at all

    2.2 White

    To most Chinese and Westerners, white has some meanings in common. White suggests purity, innocence and honesty.

    e.g.,Mary is a white girl. (pure and innocent)

    Tom is a very white boy. He never tells lies. (honest)

    But in this sense, what does the term a white lie mean? Can a lie be pure and innocent? Actually, a white lie is a harmless one, intended not to hurt someone. For example, your mother bought a dress for you that she was very satisfied with, and wanted to know if you liked it. Maybe in your mind, it was out of the fashion or the color was not to your taste. But you said, ??Oh, I really like it?? in order not to let her down. It was a lie, but a good-intentioned lie.The connotation of white in Chinese also includes something unhappy. At funerals, Chinese pay respect to the dead and express their sorrow by wearing white and writing elegiac couplets in white paper. In the West, however, white is the traditional color for the brides at weddings, and to wear white at funerals would be offensive. So care should be taken in translating the phrase??????. To avoid misunderstanding, we can put it simply as weddings and funerals. Talking about red and white, there is an interesting coincidence in Chinese and English. In Chinese, those who are popular and find favor with their bosses are called????(red guy literally). But Irish people call them the white-headed boy. In this sense, red equals white in the two cultures.We have a famous drama called????ëŮ??. If we translate it literally as ??A White-haired Girl??, those Westerners will be confused and it will be very hard to see the profound meaning behind it�In old China, folks in general were made ghosts, while things have changed a lot in new China.

    In addition, here is a collection of expressions containing the word white.the white area�an anti-revolutionary area

    a white day�a lucky day

    white light district�ever-bright area

    a white elephant�something burdensome and valueless; huge burden

show the white feather�show fear

    a white slave�someone who is forced to be a slave

    days marked with a white stone�happy days

    a white war�a war without bloodshed; an economic competition

    bleed white�extort every cent from someone

    2.3 Black

    In both Chinese and English, there are various terms indicating that black often carries a negative meaning: blackmail(????),blacklist??????),black-hearted(???ĵ?)??black market(????),etc. But in the following sentence, can you guess the meaning? Since he took over the business, the company has been in the black. In the example above, black has a good meaning�running the business profitably. The term in the black reminds me of the phrase in the red which is just opposite to the former one. Both terms come from the color of the ink used in keeping accounts. Interestingly, we have an appropriate equivalent in Chinese-????,probably bought from English.

    Besides, black implies gloom, disgrace, misfortune, extreme anger, etc, as can be seen in the following examples. the black art�enchantment

    black and blue�full of bruises

    black day�unlucky day

    black dog�unhappy

    a black look�an angry look; glare at somebody

    in a black mood�in low spirits

    black sheep�evil member of the herd

    a black stranger�a stranger out and out

    turn black white�confuse right and wrong

    2.4 Blue

    It seems that blue is a favorable word to Chinese�the blue sky, as often as not, can arouse us to yearn for a better future; the blue sea full of uncertainty induces boundless imagination. Naturally, we take it for granted that the famous song Love is Blue equals a romantic love story. In Western culture, however, blue does not associate with happiness and imagination, but gloom and depression.

    He has been in a blue mood (or having the blues) since he knew that his failure in the entrance examination. In this example, those two terms mean a sad or gloomy mood. Similarly, a blue Monday carries the same feeling. Usually after the happy weekends, we are likely to feel reluctant to attend school or go back to work, thus coming the expression-a blue Monday that can be accepted and understood by both cultures.

    Blue is also often associated with high social status or being aristocratic. He is a real blue blood means he is from an aristocratic family. In addition, in U.S., a book with the names of famous figures, especially top government officials, is called blue book. Here is more to complement the word list of blue.

blue about the gills�in depression

    blue devils�depression and gloom

    blue film�erotic film {In Chinese, we call it ?????(a yellow filmɫӰ


    once in a blue moon�occurring only once in a thousand years

    blue in the face�look pasty

    blue murder�horrible screaming and shouts

    sing the blues�in low spirits; very depressed

    out of the blue�a thunder from the clear sky; the sudden coming of something unexpected

    2.5 Green

    English has the term green-eyed or green with envy, both meaning jealous and envious. However, in Chinese, the expression used to describe the same feeling is ??? or ???۲?(literally red-eyed)�a totally different color for the same feeling!

    In English, green also indicates lacking in experience, as seen in the phrase greenhand and greenhorn. The former suggests someone who is inexperienced and immature. The latter suggests an immigrant who is not familiar with local customs or untravelled.

    By the way, the Chinese expression ????ñ??literally to wear a green hat?? meansӣ

    to be a cuckold. If we translate it word by word, misunderstanding or confusion will arise.

    When paired with different words, its meaning is different. The following examples well illustrate its various usages.

    green apple�unripe apple

    green back�US dollars

    green from the school�fresh from the school

    green house�a warming house

    give the green light to somebody�allow someone to do somethinga green old age�bear one??s age well

    green power�mighty power

    green revolution�agriculture-related reform

    green room�the drawing room for actors and actresses

    go to the green wood�to be the hero in the wood

    2.6 Yellow

    Yellow appears in such Chinese expressions as???ɫ?????????????????. ShouldɫӰɫ

    they be translated as yellow books, yellow movies, yellow music? Of course not. We can replace ?? with filthy, obscene, or vulgar. In English, we have theɫ

    phrase yellow journalism which lays too much emphasis on scandals or exaggerates the ordinary news to a sensational degree, sometimes even with distortion.

    Similarly, we have Yellow Pages(??ҳ) both in Chinese and English.????This is a book with the telephone numbers of different shops, businesses, organizations, etc., arranged in the order of different categories. Yellow Pages is a very useful handbook whose pages are yellow, but the content is not yellow in the Chinese sense.

    Generally speaking, yellow is to some extent derogatory that carries the connotations of cowardice, jealousy, suspicion and contemptibility. Here is the proof.

    yellow alert�alert in advance

    yellow boy�gold coin

    a yellow dog�a contemptible person

    a yellow dog contract�a contract signed in the precondition that the employee will not join in the labor union

    the sear and yellow leaf�an old age

    yellow looks�suspicious looks

    yellow streak�tending to be coward and chicken-hearted

    2.7 Purple

    In English, purple shares the same connotation as that in Chinese language. In the eye of Westerners, purple is the symbol of emperor and power. In particular, the purple refers to the throne of the emperor or the pope. ??to be born in the purple?? means ??to be born in a royal family??; ??to be raised to the purple?? means ??to be promoted to the position as a pope??; ??purple passages?? means ??too florid words??, etc. In Chinese, we have ??????, meaning popular to the extreme. Here, purple indicates the degree of popularity (??).

    Here is more:

    marry into the purple�marry into a family of high social position purple patches�pompous passages

    turn purple with rage�fly into a fury

    Purple Heart�(US)an insignia awarded to those wounded in the battle2.8 Grey

    Grey is often used to suggest darkness, sullen weather, blue mood or gloomy outlook. For instances, He looks grey and tired. The prospect of the market is grey. He is a grey-haired man now.

    Grey also suggests wisdom and tact, as in the following expressions: grey wisdom, grey matter, and graybeard.

    Other colors have some connotations as well, but will not be discussed here.Chapter 3

    According to the above comparison and analysis, we can see that there are distinct differences between the color words in Chinese and English. Sometimes, Chinese may not use the color words when they are used in English expressions and vice versa. Let us see a few examples containing the Chinese character????.

????�a favorite with somebody in power

    ???�honor roll

    ????�bonus; extra dividend

    ????�good luck

    ???????�one??s face glowing with health


    ???�black tea

    ?????�traffic light

    I believe the above-mentioned examples amply illustrate the point. On many occasions, it is not the basic meaning of the color that functions, but the profound cultural associations related to the color that functions. That is to say, the differences in using color words between Chinese and English stand out when the color words themselves don??t play an important part. Two factors may help to illustrate. First is the language itself. There are many differences in the characteristics of both languages. English words are characterized by flexibility. One word is likely to have different meanings in different contexts. Comparatively speaking, the meaning of Chinese words remains fixed. Chinese is featured by standard, rigor and preciseness in choosing the words. Let??s take the word green for example. Green gains certain new meaning when associated with the phrase green revolution and when it is used alone, it still carries that meaning. However, green in Chinese will lose the meaning unless it is combined with revolution or other words in similar. Second is the factor beyond the language, which includes the cultural factors such as different customs, traditions and cultural background. Wherever the above-mentioned differences exist, the using of the color words can not be the same. Therefore, special attention should be paid in using the color words.


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