19 Feb 2015

What’s in a Word

Category: LearningAdmin @ 5:39 pm

Apparently, goats and sheep are pretty much the same thing in China. In Mandarin, there is one word to cover both: yang. This issue has come up recently because some English-speaking people seem confused about whether to call the current Chinese year, which began today, the year of the sheep or the goat.

Goat head illustration

Illustration attributed to Charles Henry Bennett (1829-1867)

In scientific taxonomy, the two animals are in the same family (Bovidae) and subfamily (Caprinae). In fact, they are even members of the same tribe (Caprini). That suggests that they are much more alike than many species of monkeys are to each other, so why worry? Just say it’s the year of the Caprini or (in English) caprine.

If you want to read more about English speakers’ confusion, see the New York Times article, “A Lunar New Year With a Name That’s a Matter of Opinion.” You might also be interested in my prior post about how language and perception interrelate, Observation and Preconception.

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