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The Thousands Of Idioms In English

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Language
Wordcount: 2190 words Published: 24th Apr 2017

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Language is a major feature of a nation. English language has developed hundreds of thousands of idioms. It has been estimated that about 7,000 idioms are used by a native speakers per week (Cooper, 1999, p. 249). At the same time, “grasping idioms can be a great asset to learners in acquiring a new language” (Celce-Murcia & Larsen-Freeman, 1999, p.36). Idioms are extraordinarily difficult for their flexible structures and figurative meanings (Liu, 2003, p.675). For example, the meaning of high horse has nothing to do with high and horse but means an arrogant people. According to the surface meaning, second language learners can hardly tell its meanings.

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Also, Language is the most important communication tool. People use language to preserve and transmit human civilization, that is, language conveys the culture. Sapir (1921) observed that culture can be defined as what a human community does and thinks. The function of language is to explain what a thought is. Therefore, language does not exist alone. It is rooted in national culture and reflects national institutions. If culture is regarded as the cradle of language, animal idioms can be seen as the crystallization of culture.

Animal idioms are plentiful in English. They prominently reflect English culture. For a long period, studies on animal idioms mainly focus on translation, cross-cultural comparison, literature, and so on. However, there are few studies on English animal idioms acquisition linking to British culture. Animal idioms, like a mirror, can clearly reflect the characteristics of a national culture. Generally speaking, anthropologists are divided into three levels of culture: high culture, popular culture, deep culture. High culture includes philosophy, literature, art and religion. Popular culture refers to customs, etiquette and the interpersonal aspects of life. Deep culture contains the meaning of beauty and ugliness, time orientation, problem-solving methods (Yin Li & Han Xiaoling, 2007). High culture and popular culture belong to low context culture; deep culture belongs to high context culture. In this thesis, the key point is to investigate whether the Chinese English learners can understand the low context culture by examining the command of animal idioms. High context culture is out of the scope of this project.

Literature Review

Culture and Language

There are a large number of definitions in culture, but a few of them can be reviewed. The most classical definition of culture is made by Edward B. Tylor (1871), the father of cultural anthropology. The definition describes the culture as a center of society, which is regarded as the first important anthropological theory about culture. Tylor provided that “culture is that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, customs and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of a society.” He believed that culture is shared by all mankind, all community. Then, following the definitions of sociologists, they believe that culture refers to human attitudes, institutions, and beliefs etc. Reflecting the life of a human community is the key point in culture. Williams (1965) mentions that the definition of culture contains three general categories. First, culture is a state or process of human performance and has certain universal values. Second, culture is the body of intellectual and imaginative work. It records human thought and experience. Finally, third, culture refers to a society, that is, culture expresses certain meanings and values in people’s life. It is not only in art and learning but also in custom and ordinary behavior. Also, Deng and Liu (2007) point out that culture illustrates “the ways of a people”, that is to say, culture refers to the entire way of life of a society.

Language is the carrier of culture which contains people’s daily life. Writing in 1950, Luo Changpei who was a famous linguist and educator in China recognizes that language is a crystallization of national culture, which spreads the past, pushes the future. Each language is a living fossil to a nation. Language as the main material has the most direct and close contact to build a culture. Furthermore, language is used for communication. It is impossible to use a language without awareness of its culture. That is to say, language can be a signal to identify different cultures. When language used by particular speakers, it conveys certain context which is how words be chosen, why to choose it, what meaning can be expressed. Language cannot exist without carrying culture meaning.

Given the arguments above, the relationship between language and culture can be described as follows: language come from culture and culture embodies the entire way of life of a society. Using language can promotes cultural spread and culture can promote language development. Language and culture work closely and influence each other. Expressing facts, ideas, or events and reflecting the people’s attitudes, beliefs etc. are the most important function of a language. Language exchange actually is cultural communication. Learning a language well must be aware of its culture.

Studies on Idioms

Smith L.P. (1925, p.167) points out that there is the element of enrichment which is of greater importance, which comes from popular, free and unschooled English. This element consists of what people call “idioms”. Smith also defines its use in this connection. “Idiom” is sometimes used to describe the form of speech peculiar to a people or nation; “idiom” for the meaning is expressed by the French word idiotisme, that is to say, those forms of expression, of grammatical construction, or of phrasing, which are peculiar to a language, and approved by its usage, despite the meanings they convey are often different from their grammatical or logical signification.

Makkai’s Idiom Structure in English, an extended version of his doctorial thesis (1965), identifies two major types of idioms: one is encoding; another is decoding. Makkai finds a rationale to explain this division. The headword listed in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) (1970) is sense 3a, which also appears in an identical form in the OED (1989): “A form of expression grammatical construction, phrase etc., peculiar to a language; a peculiarity of phraseology approved by the usage of a language, and often having significance other than its grammatical or logical one” ( cited from Fernando C., 1996, p.3-4).

According to Moon Rosamund (1998:4), narrower uses restrict idiom to a particular kind of unit: one is fixed and semantically opaque or metaphorical, for examples, as white as a sheet or cold shoulder. In broader uses, idiom is a general term for many kinds of multiword item, no matter semantically opaque or not. For animal idioms, the form is usually loose, and it mainly focuses on figurative meanings rather than literal meaning, for examples, put the cart before the horse, or straight from the horse’s mouth.

English idioms with the strong feature of rhetoric are formed from long-tem use and their structures are unique and have fixed expression. It contains proverbs, sayings, slangs, and allusions, etc. There are two important characteristics of idioms: one is semantic unity, that is, the overall meaning cannot be tracked from each word, for example, pull all one’s eggs in one basket. It means the desperate situation not the surface meaning. Another is the structure of fixity, that is, its structure cannot be altered arbitrarily, for example, kick the bucket. It cannot say kick the pail or be used in the passive voice- the bucket is kicked (Wang Benhua, 2010).

Animal idioms and British culture

There is a close relationship between animals and people’s lives. On the one hand, animal is the main source of food and clothing for human; the other hand, kinds of animals represent certain images which people pay homage to them. These animals reflect human thought and contain certain national culture. There are three bases to make animal vocabularies to cause cultural meanings. First, derive from animal’s appearances, physical structure, mentality, behavior. Second, come from cultural content such as fables, legends, religions, physical geography, and customs. Third, be created by association, that is to say, animals are associated with another things which relate to potential cultural psychology (Liao Guangrong, 2000). In the perspective of linguistics, animal images used in idioms have figurative meaning. Idioms linked to animals usually contain metaphors. Animals denote and connote supposed qualities. These qualities are applied to people and human situations. There is a phenomenon that no idiom database contains animal or insect, although many contain hyponyms such as cat, dog, or horse. The reason may be that general words such as animal are too neutral to cause these kinds of institutionalized metaphors, despite the fact that both animal and insect are used in other contexts with metaphorical meanings (Moon, R., 1998, p.196).

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In the meantime, the formation of animal idioms relies on culture. According to the arguments mentioned above, culture refers to all aspects of a people such as geographical situation, the style of production, and literature etc. In the history, Great Britain was the overlord in the sea. Despite the Europe, other continents were the British colonies. Therefore, British nation could contact with many animal species. Britain is surrounded by islands. Due to the abundant resources from physical geography, animal idioms flourished in the early years of that century. Thereby, English idioms have close contact with sea and fishing, for example, hook one’s fish. Comparing with China, Great Britain is filled with small mountains and strait lands. In ancient Britain, horses are main tillable force. The function of horses is above all. Thus, there is particularly large number of horse-related idioms, such as horse of another color, an iron horse, or horse sense etc. In ancient China, the cattle played a significant role. That is why so many idioms related to cattle in China, for examples, niu qi chong tian ¼Œfeng ma niu bu xiang ji etc. These cattle and horses have been portrayed by cultural connotation. In addition, some animal images come from Greek and Roman mythology or Bible, like serpent which means Satan in Bible (Zhao Shuyun, 2010).

Animal idioms related studies

In the second language learning, correctly using idioms has always been regarded as a tough problem. A learner must recognize the fix structures and given meaning, not only the literal meaning but also the figurative meaning. Figurative meaning refers to metaphors which have close relationship with culture. What’s more, animal idioms are more flexible and oral orientation. It is not easy for second language learners to breach the syntactic, semantic, and pragmatic barriers in idiom learning. Blasko and Connine (2002) made an experiment in comparing Malay and English to investigate second language figurative proficiency. They found two results as follows: First, “figurative expressions with an equivalent conceptual basis and linguistic form are the easiest”; Second, “figurative expressions with an equivalent linguistic form but a different conceptual basis are the most difficult.” Lin Weiyan (2003) designed a project to investigate English idiom learning in different cultural background. He observes that English idioms with same figurative meaning as Chinese are easy to understand comparing with different figurative meaning as Chinese. That is to say, if the English idioms are similar to Chinese ones in expression and meaning, mother tongue will make effectively transfer; if not, mother tongue will make negative transfer. Wu Xudong and Chen Bin (2006) quickly came to the conclusion that the process of conceptual and cultural transfer is the process of comprehending English animal idioms, and Chinese English learners has low capability to comprehend English animal idioms with different metaphors.

From the presented studies above, it can be concluded that commanding idioms, especially animal idioms is one of the big obstacles in second language learning. Chinese English learners have the advantage and disadvantage of understanding animal idioms, because there are some similar figurative meanings. But due to the learning environment, Chinese English learners have low capabilities to command animal idioms.

Research Question

Can the command of English animal idioms promote Chinese English Learners to understand British culture?


Due to the relationship with language, animal idioms and culture, command of English animal idioms can promote Chinese English Learners to understand British culture.


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