The Year of the yáng

Today begins the Chinese New Year. But there’s a problem in saying just what animal it’s the year of. The question has been widely covered in the general media, for instance in “Chinese new year: Is it the year of the ram, sheep or goat?” (by Zachary Davies Boren) in today’s The Independent; and in Victor Mair’s Language Log piece of the 15th, “Year of the ovicaprid”; with some extra information from a Wikipedia entry on the zodiacal goat. It all turns on the Chinese word yáng 羊.

Boren gets the basic problem right: the word covers both sheep and goats:

Its apparent meaning is ‘horned animal’ — an encompassing term that doesn’t really help journalists, event planners and new year celebrators decide which member of the Caprinae family they’re supposed to be honouring.

(Caprinae is a subfamily of the Bovidae, the ruminants, that includes sheep (genus Ovis), goats (genus Capra), and a few other creatures, like muskoxen and the European mouflon.)

Boren is not saying that the Chinese can’t tell sheep from goats; it’s just that they have a general word that refers to a category that includes both of them. Mair gives a link to depictions of yáng, each of which is clearly either a sheep or a goat, not some sort of intermediate creature. And the Wikipedia entry tells us that

The Chinese word yáng refers both to goats and sheep, with shānyáng specifically goats and miányáng sheep.

These more specific terms are composite, however; the single-character term embraces them both. That is, yáng is semantically neutral as between ‘sheep’ and ‘goat’, in the same way that English sheep is semantically neutral as between ‘ewe’ (female) and ‘ram’ (male), and also as between ‘lamb’ (young sheep) and ‘adult sheep’; or that English cousin is semantically neutral as between ‘female cousin’ (French cousine) and ‘male cousin’ (French cousin)..

For the yáng category (more restrictive than the Caprinae), Mair writes:

especially in my archeological work, I’ve grown accustomed to referring to yáng 羊 as “ovicaprid”, unless there is firm evidence indicating that the animal in question was actually a sheep, goat, ram, ewe, etc.

Bonus: sheep vs. goats. As far as I can tell, yáng are favorably viewed by the Chinese: all the zodiacal creatures have their positive qualities (since they serve as identifying creatures for millions). (I am myself a dragon, by the way,) But in the West, it’s definitely sheep over goats, as in the idiom separate the sheep from the goats ‘separate the good from the bad’. The source is the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats, in Matthew 25:31-44: the sheep are good and so are given an inheritance: they gave the parablist food and drink and clothing, tended him when he was sick, and visited him in prison, but the goats did nothing and so were cursed with eternal hell-fire (the moral: whatever you do to the least of these, you do to me).

One Response to “The Year of the yáng”

  1. Robert Coren Says:

    I have to wonder if the Biblical “sheep better than goats” thing has its origin in sheep being easier to control.

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