The Cultural Differences of Animal Words

By Catherine Lawson,2014-06-24 12:11
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    The Cultural Differences of Animal Words

    Between English and Chinese

    外国语学院 英语专业


Abstract A language and its culture are closely connected with each other, in which the language can’t

    exist without its culture, and there must be brands of specific cultural connotations. This paper tries to make an analysis of English and Chinese animal words and phrases from the view of cultural distinctions, and tries to find out the differences between two of them. [1] With comparison, we can clearly see the cultural marks of animal words because of cultural differences.

    Key words animal; culture; connotation; distinction

    Animal means a lot to us because we have been living together for so long a time, millions of years of closeness and sharing, which results in human complex feelings of fondness, sympathy or antipathy. There is no doubt that animals are the closest organisms of human beings in nature. Languages of all nations include Chinese and English have a lot of words donating to animals. With the development and evolution of human society, many animals have become domestic animals, and many others have become people’s pets. In some

    sense, animals have become part of people’s life. For those factors above, in the process of language development people have endowed animals with plentiful connotations and the process still goes on. People in different countries have different ideas about animals. Animal words got their connotations in different languages

    Changes in the meaning of animal words are determined by culture of which the substantial content is in turn reflected by the cultural meanings. Many English and Chinese culturally-loaded animal words differ in meaning owing to different cultural content, tradition and psychology, and the meaning differences are likely to invoke errors in comprehension and expression. [2] So these different connotations of animal words can reflect their culture differences and different value systems in different languages.

    As we all know, animal expressions are important components of language. These expressions reflect the


    development of people’s life in history. From these expressions, linguists figure out the lifestyle of people at that time, their likes and dislikes, and different cultures of different peoples. Different people have different attitudes towards animals due to different culture factors. For example, a magpie, in Chinese culture, associated with the sense of happiness, so Chinese people favor this kind of bird. But in western countries, a magpie is a symbol of chaos and mess, so English-speaking people dislike it. There are many other expressions related to animals which have different meanings in English and Chinese besides what is showed above, and we can easily find out that animal words are part of our language, whatever language we speak. What’s more, different symbolic meanings of animals truly exist in different cultures.

    The cultural differences about animal symbols between Chinese and English, or between Chinese culture and western culture, are their symbolic meanings, which can be divided into four aspects to perceive this issue: religion & myths, traditions and customs, geography environment and economic life.

    1. Differences in Religion & Myths

    Religion plays a very important part of cultures in any countries. Generally speaking, Britain is a Christian country, so we can imagine how many proverbs there are related to Christianity. And Bible is the spirit and a master work of those Christian countries. So there is no doubt that Bible has a great influence on the animal words and expressions in Christian countries, such as Britain. On the other hand, however, China is a country that tolerates many kinds of religions, but Buddhism comes first.

    In Bible, we could see many animal words used for metaphor, but it doesn’t usually happen in the Buddhism culture. Metaphor is indispensible in each language and is used widely in daily communication. People use metaphor whenever and wherever there is communication and to some extent, communication even could not go on without the use of metaphor. The use of metaphor makes language more vivid and effective. Yet it is known to all that the culture of each country is profound and it is very difficult for a foreigner to learn well and thoroughly. For example, here is a proverb which derives from Mathew in the New Testament: cast pearls before swine. This expression means “choose the wrong audience” or “preach to deaf ears”, which has similar meaning of “Dui Niu Tan Qin” in Chinese. Here, swine has the color of scorn and ridicule, while it

    exist no implied meanings in Buddhist cultures. There are some more examples for us to understand the difference of animal words in religion & myths.

    1.1 Dragon


    Dragon, a common image in both the Chinese and English cultures, is given different symbolic meanings in both languages owing to the different cultural backgrounds. In western culture, dragon is regarded as a monster, which is savage, fierce, cruel, wicked and evil. It was often compared to Satan, who is said to set himself against God and caused the disorder on the earth in Bible. In English, people often call a fierce woman a dragon, or we could describe such a woman with an adjective dragonish. For example: She was so

    dragonish that her husband left her at last. Another symbolic meaning of dragon is from Greek myths: dragon symbolized the caregiver with vigilance and fierceness.

    On the contrary, dragon, the Chinese totem, is a symbol related to gods in Chinese culture. There are four animal deities in ancient Chinese faith, one of which is dragon. Also, the dragon symbolizes power, strength

    and fortune in China. So in ancient times, emperors called themselves as “son of the dragon”, believing that they were like dragon. Meanwhile, dragon can also represent Chinese nation, that’s why we often hear a saying goes as “we are the descendants of the dragon”. Besides, dragon means happiness and good luck, and many elites are compared to dragon. In a word, dragon is a perfect animal in Chinese culture. 1.2 Sheep & Goat

    In western culture, sheep and goat are entirely different due to the influence of Bible. Sheep is related to goodness while goat is a symbol of bad person. Most of the idioms and phrases related to goat are depreciative. For example, to play the goat=play the fool;to get somebody’s goat and so on. In Bible, a sheepherder

    wanted to distinguish between sheep and goats because goats always ran into the sheep group and that was troublesome. So the sheepherder placed sheep right, goats left. This sentence is still very popular among westerners: separate the sheep from the goats. So, people use “to separate the sheep from the goats” to express

    the situation of dividing good or useful people from bad or useless ones.

    In China, however, there is no difference between sheep and goat in terms of their usage in Chinese. 1.3 Unicorn

    Kylin in Chinese is called unicorn in English, and it’s religious, too. In Christianity, unicorn represents

    the holy and purity of Jesus. And it also stands for Christian Gospel. The majestic unicorn is a symbol of

    Scotland, and the lion stands for England, so the image of British royal family’s armory.

    2Differences in Traditions and Customs

    Because English and Chinese live in two totally different culture backgrounds, people in these two


    nations involuntarily have two different images. There are some examples of different animal words and expressions based on English and Chinese customs and traditions.

    2.1 Bat

    In Britain, people regard bat as a kind of animal which is related to evil and forces of darkness. As a result, all of the idioms and phrases with bat in English contain some derogatory meanings. Such as: as blind as a bat. Besides, bat has the meaning of weird and abnormal. For example, have bats in the belfry= have some mental disorder or some strange though. So we can say: Don't say such silly things, Tom. People will think you have bats in your belfry. Meanwhile, there is an adjective, batty, which means that someone is flakey. It is an extending in meaning of “having bats in the belfry”.

    However, in Chinese culture, bat represents for happiness, lucky and ascendant because it has the same pronunciation as “Fu”. So people like to carve some bats on their furniture and embroider bats on their clothes or handkerchief, which shows Chinese people’s great desire of asking for good fortune and blessing.

    2.2 Magpie

    Magpie, in Chinese culture, associated with the sense of happiness. Chinese people often regard magpie as “lucky bird”, that is why Chinese people favor this kind of bird. And there is an old saying in Chinese: Lucky calls once magpie sings. But in western countries, a magpie is a symbol of chaos and mess, so English-speaking people dislike it. In Scotland, if a magpie flies near a window, it is a symbol of bad luck. And in a state of England, if someone happens to meet a magpie, he has to spit three times to avoid bad luck. 2.3 Owl

    Clever owls compare to unlucky owls. In English culture, owl is a kind of clever and quick-witted bird. It is symbolized of wisdom and seriousness. There are many expressions with owl, such as: as wise as an owl; as a grave as a owl and so on. But when it turns to Chinese people, it represents for a kind of unlucky thing because of its miserable cry at night. So when Chinese people hear the cry of an owl, they will believe that something unfortunate and ominous will happen soon. As a result, there are some Chinese idioms with owl which are derogatory term.

    3. Differences in Geography Environment


    As the old saying goes “Each place has its own way of supporting its own inhabitants”. So languages and

    cultures differ from different area. So animal words and expressions are also influenced by geography environment.

    3.1 Fish

    There are many words and expressions about fish in English, such as fish in troubled waters, go to the sea,

    if you would fish well, a big fish in a small pond, like a fish, a whale of a time, like a turtle on its back and so on. This is because Britain is an island, surrounded by the ocean. And the people in Britain make a living by fishing. So they are familiar with these creatures living in the ocean, which is the reason why there exist so many animal words in English relating to fish.

    However, Chinese have been living in Asian continent for centuries. And they live on agriculture or farming. So they are more familiar with domestic animals and fowls. Therefore, Chinese idioms are more likely to be about domestic animals.

    3.2 Lion

    Lion draws a picture of bold and powerful in English people’s minds: as brave as lion; to place one’s head in the lion’s mouth; as majestic as a lion, and so on. As we all know, Britain is close to Africa in geographical position. So they are familiar with lions because there are a lot of lions in Africa. However, when Chinese want to express the idea of powerful and ambitious, we would rather use tiger than lion. So when we are translating the following phrases into Chinese, such as like an ass in a lion’s hide, a lion in the way, come in like a lion and go out like a lamb, we usually translate these “lions” into “tiger” in Chinese.

    4. Differences in Economy

    Chinese people were fond of horse, because horse played a great important role both in agriculture and wars. So words and phrases about horse in Chinese are all commendatory. On the contrary, as Britain is an island country, horses are of less importance than China. So horse is more likely to be neutral in English. Besides, Britain is well-developed at animal husbandry. So their animal words are more likely to be connected with wool, such as: pull the wool over someone’s eyes; much cry and little wool; to go for wool and come

    home shorn.

    Languages are closely linked to cultures. The differences between English and Chinese culture make the distinction of animal words in many aspects. With the comparison of animal words in these two countries, we


    can clearly see that animal words in any language can not only represent animal symbols, but also the cultural marks and cultural differences. Only do we study well about the culture traditions and customs of English countries could we really understand the culture connotations of their words and phrases. And also, we can enhance our cultural awareness by means of learning the connotations of animal words, which is helpful to cross-cultural communication.





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