Running head: Animal-related Comparative Idioms In English and Vietnamese

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Animal-related Comparative Idioms In English and Vietnamese

Running head: Animal-related Comparative Idioms In English and Vietnamese

Animal-related Comparative Idioms In English and Vietnamese
A Contrastive Analysis

Student: Đoàn Thị An Hiên

Class: 4A08

Instructor: Nguyễn Ngọc Vũ

Ho Chi Minh City University of Pedagogy


One of the biggest obstacles to language learners is to master all idioms as there are too many. Sometimes some idioms cannot be understood literally. Even if the meanings of all the words in an idiomatic phrase as well as its grammar are simple, the meanings of the whole phrase may still be confusing due to cultural barriers. Therefore, a profound insight in idioms specifically animal related comparative idioms for cultural similarities and differences between Vietnamese and English offers language learners not only fun in learning but also success in communication as language is learnt through culture and culture is learnt through language.

Aims Of The Study

      • To identify the similarities and differences between animal related idioms in Vietnamese and English.

      • To explore their idiomatic meanings in English and Vietnamese

      • To gain a deeper understanding about the cultural contrast between the two languages.

Method Of Study

The first step was that I searched English and Vietnamese comparative idioms related to animals as many as possible, a list of which can be found in the appendix. For English animal idioms, there are some reference books consulted such Siefring, J. (2005). The Oxford dictionary of idioms. Oxford University Press and Albert Sydney Hornby, Sally Wehmeier, Colin McIntosh, Joanna Turnbull. (2005). Oxford advanced learner's dictionary of current English. Oxford University Press.

Another one that I found it quite interesting and informative is Hùng, N. Đ. (2003). Tuyển tập thành ngữ tục ngữ ca dao Việt Anh thông dụng. NXB Đại học Quốc Gia. In this book, the author tried to list English idioms with relevant Vietnamese ones. Also, the Internet could be utilized as an abundant source of data. Next, selected animals idioms were categorized into 3 groups (group 1: same animals with same idiomatic meanings; group 2: different animals with same idiomatic meanings; group 3: English idioms do not have equivalent meanings in Vietnamese). Finally, I clarified some possible causes of differences in idiomatic expressions in terms of history or geographical environment, religion and culture with typical representative examples.


Theoretical Background

What is Contrastive Analysis?

According to Fisiak (1981:1), Contrastive Analysis or Contrastive Linguistics mainly concerns with comparing any two or more languages to identify similarities & differences and selected languages for study depends on researchers’ practical & theoretical needs. An exploration into such likeness and variation certainly helps learners sharpen their communicative competence effectively.

What are Idioms?

According to Rosamund Moon (1998), idiom is an ambiguous term, used in conflicting ways. In general use, idiom has two main meanings. First, idiom is a particular manner of expressing something in language, music, art, and so on, which characterizes a person or group within a community. Secondly, (and much less commonly in English), an idiom is a particular lexical collocation or phrasal lexeme, peculiar to a language.

Three principal factors are taken into account: institutionalization, lexicogrammatical fixedness , and non-compositionality. Institutionalization is the process by which a string or formulation becomes recognized and accepted as a lexical item of the language and passim): it is a necessary but not sufficient condition for a string to be classifiable as a fixed expression. Lexicogrammatical fixedness implies some degree of lexicogrammatical defectiveness in units, for example with preferred lexical realizations and often restrictions on aspect, mood, or voice. The non-compositionality of a string may be considered a semantic criterion. Yet sometimes the meaning of the whole unity of an idiom does not yield to its word-by-word interpretation of the string.

The Relationship Between Language And Culture

It is generally agreed that language and culture have a deep rooted relationship. In other words, a language is always associated with its unique culture in terms of traditional thoughts, religions, history and other cultural aspects.

Our human language is much more than vocabularies, semantic or syntax rules, just purely spoken or written language. Specifically, to utilize English as an effective means of communication, study or research, learns are required to not only know linguistic items literally but also understand them figuratively. Additionally, it is said that common experience in life shapes the language. As a result, social shifts often lead to linguistic ones. Through literature of a certain time, people could partly evaluate the characteristics of contemporary community because language symbolizes cultural reality.

In short, language and culture co-exist and reinforce each other. Language learners cannot use a language efficiently without understanding its culture and vice versa.

Comparison The Idiomatic Meanings In English And Vietnamese
Animal-Related Comparative Idioms

There are many animal-related idioms in English and Vietnamese. According to the habits of animals, images of animals are often used to describe the appearance or personality of humans and depict the expression more vividly with typical features of specific animals.

Data Collection and Findings

Same Idiomatic Meanings With The Same Animal. Of the 100 samples of animal related comparative idioms (ARCIs) in English, 36 of them belong to Group 1 containing the same animal names as they do in Vietnamese.


      • as timid as a rabbit - nhát như thỏ đế

      • as slow as a tortoise - chậm như rùa

      • as fat as a pig - mập như heo

      • as sleepless as an owl - thức như cú

Same Idiomatic Meanings With Different Animals In English Compared With Ones In Vietnamese. Meanwhile, 16 ARCIs out of 100 employ different animal images in comparison with those in Vietnamese.


      • as strong as a horse - khỏe như trâu/voi

      • as mute as a fish - câm như hến

      • as naked as a jay bird – trần như nhộng

      • as prolific as a rabbit – đẻ như gà

Some English Idioms Do Not Exist In Vietnamese Idioms. The rest of ARCIs (61%) are sorted into Group 3 which have not Vietnamese equivalents.


      • as curious as a fish (tạm dịch: tò mò như cá)

  • as playful as a kitten (tạm dịch: nghịch như mèo con)

      • as wise as an owl (tạm dịch: thông minh như cú)

  • as shy as the squirrel (tạm dịch: xấu hổ như sóc)

      • as poor as a church mouse (tạm dịch: nghèo như chuột nhà thờ)

Surprisingly, 100% of the ARCIs in English bear a slight syntactic similarity with ARCIs in Vietnamese:

Noun 1 + be + as + adjective + as + Noun 2 (English)

Noun 1 + be + adjective + as + Noun 2 (Vietnamese)

Possible Causes For The Differences In Idiomatic Meanings
In English And Vietnamese

Both English and Vietnamese have experienced age long history of developing languages. People employ animal images as carriers in idioms very frequently in their daily conversation. However, due to the origin of the two languages in different geographic conditions, history, religious belief and traditional culture thoughts, the same animal word may arouse different associative meaning.

Different Geography Environment And History. Two countries with distinct living environments and history naturally gestate different connotations of animal words. Specifically, England is well-known for its fishery and endless grassland. People here are too familiar with the scene in which a farmer rides a horse to herd flocks of cows and sheep with the efficient help of sheepdogs. Thus, there are many comparative idioms related to fish, horse, and sheep and so on such as: ‘as mute as a fish’, ‘as curious as a fish’, ‘as muddy as sheepdogs’, ‘as tame as a sheep’, ‘as strong as horse’

On the contrary, about 70% of Vietnamese population lives on agriculture that cannot exist without farmland. So it is reasonable that they are likely to take things related to land as metaphors. For example, ‘khỏe như trâu – as strong as a buffalo’ instead of using ‘as strong as a horse’ in English, which results from that for thousands of year the buffalo plays an extremely important role in Vietnamese agricultural life. Here are some other examples illustrating for this unique wet rice cultivation: ‘ngang như cua – as stubborn as a crab’ instead of ‘as stubborn as a mule’ in English, ‘câm như hến – as mute as a clam’ instead of ‘as mute as a fish’ in English

Different Religious Belief. Generally English and Vietnamese people have different religious beliefs. Particularly, majority of the Vietnamese believe in Buddha and go to the pagoda, whereas in England most people follow Christianity, they often go to the church to conduct religious ceremonies. Of course, pagodas are distinct from churches where there is no food. That is why the English have idioms: ‘as poor as a church mouse’.

Take the idiom ‘as wise as a serpent as another instance. To Eastern people like the Vietnamese, this idiom sounds weird because ‘a serpent’ (a kind of snakes) often inspires in people’s minds about negative symbol of evil or dishonesty. So why do many western people associate serpents with the wisdom? In Bible Jesus teaches Christian follower to be ‘as wise as a serpent’. Here the wisdom means the ability to understand people and situations around and give sound judgment not only with eyes also with senses other than vision just like a serpent.

Different Traditional Culture Thought. Popularly agreed, the English possess a rich Western culture originated in ancient Greek mythology and the Vietnamese are influenced significantly by the Eastern culture with mainly Taoism, Confucianism, Buddhism.

In Greek mythology, Athena is referred to a goddess of wisdom and she always carries an owl beside her. Thus, the image of an owl is used to illustrate the wisdom in the idiom ‘as wise as an owl’.

Traditionally, in Vietnam people often use the images of castles or pets such cows, pigs, dogs, cats, etc… to symbolize the stupidity, humble social positions. For instance, ‘ngu như bò/lợn’, ‘lên voi xuống chó’. On the other side, in western culture domestic pets are supposed to remind of loyalty, friendliness like a family member. For example, as faithful as the dog’, ‘as friendly as a puppy’, ‘as playful as a kitten, etc…

Another example for the difference in two cultures is about the concept of the king of beasts. To the English and most westerners, lion is the king of beast. The lion represents high prestige or supreme power, which illustrates through expressions like: ‘as brave as a lion’, ‘as fierce as a lion’, ‘as regal as a lion’. However, in eastern culture, that prestigious position is taken over by the tiger. Among twelve zodiac animals, the tiger has the strongest power and an incredible bravery. It is often said that ‘oai hùm’, ‘râu hùm hàm én’, ‘vuốt râu hùm’,…


In spite of a small study, this paper gave me a good chance to have a closer look at the comparison of idioms generally and animal-based ones with the form “as…as” particularly. Thanks to this study, I could learn about the similarities and differences between English and Vietnamese animal comparative idioms. Personally, some useful implications for teaching, communication and translation will be highlighted as follows:

Firstly, a deeper understanding in ARCIs is probably beneficial for teaching and learning process. As far as I am concerned, in class most language students take in knowledge isolatedly and passively and rich cultural resources are left aside. The negligence may partly explain why students often forget previous lessons easily and learn with boredom. Imagine the inputs of knowledge for students in that case are considered as separate pieces of jigsaw. With the help of understanding the English culture and its origin of idioms, language learning could turn out to be a good adhesive connecting new and old pieces of information together. Moreover, cultural elements integrated in lessons are likely to increase student’s interest and contrastive analysis between the two languages. Furthermore, sometimes teachers should let students guess the meanings of idioms based on teacher’s hints or explanations instead of asking students to learn by heart. Gradually, students are able to motivate their cognitive views and get more accurate guesses whenever they encounter new items. In addition, students can adopt these in not only English conversations but also specially their writings to make it more naturally and lively and limit ambiguities.

Along with the helpful teaching and learning strategies, this critical comparison in the light of contrastive analysis enhances not only linguistic competence in English and in Vietnamese but, more importantly, better cultural knowledge as well. Also, deepening cross-cultural understanding will be taken into consideration, which helps students preclude unexpected misunderstandings with native English speakers and highly evaluate the beauty of our mother tongue as well.

Last but not least, it is crucial for translators to have profound contrastive analysis related to collocational and idiomatic aspects. To convey conceptual metaphor ‘so-called’ successfully from the source language to target language and vice versa, translators are supposed to have solid knowledge foundation of both languages. Consequently, they could deliberate when semantic equivalence or translation equivalence should be employed.


Definitely, cultural linguistics is considered as a very broad and appealing academic field. Through the process of doing this study, although I just focused on a quite small part about the animal-based comparative idioms with the pattern “as…as”, sometimes I found it overwhelming to understand fully this type of idioms multilaterally. However, the more I consulted reference materials, the more interesting the issue turned out to be. Due to the limited time frame and my modest knowledge of culture and language, that some idioms and linguistic views were not covered is inevitable. Anyways, I tried my best as much as possible to convey to readers at least the overview of similarities and differences in English and Vietnamese animal-based idioms of comparison. After contrasting and comparing many idioms, analyzing related concerns, I hold on hope that somehow my paper could be a helpful and informative material for teaching, learning and translation. Furthermore, through my paper I do wish to look for an interesting way to help students take in knowledge instead of learning by heart. Importantly, students could utilize what they have learnt as an effective communicative means but not a temporary solution to the school exam.


Albert Sydney Hornby, Sally Wehmeier, Colin McIntosh, Joanna Turnbull. (2005). Oxford advanced learner's dictionary of current English. Oxford University Press.

Anh, H. K. (2008). Similes in Vietnamese and English Proverb. Tạp chí Khoa học và Công nghệ, Đại học Đà Nẵng, Số 4, 27.

Animal Idioms and “as ____ as a ____” Phrases. (n.d.). Retrieved November 29, 2011, from

Hùng, N. Đ. (2003). Tuyển tập thành ngữ tục ngữ ca dao Việt Anh thông dụng. NXB Đại học Quốc Gia.

Rosamund, M. (1998). Fixed expressions and idioms in English. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Rosario, M. D. (n.d.). Retrieved December 15, 2011, from List of Animal Similes:

Seidl, J. (1989). English idioms: exercises on idioms. Oxford University Press.

Siefring, J. (2005). The Oxford dictionary of idioms. Oxford University Press.



  1. as afraid as a grasshopper (tạm dịch: lo lắng như châu chấu)

  2. as agile as a cat/ a monkey (tạm dịch: lanh như mèo/khỉ) – lanh như tép

  3. as alert as a chamois/ a bird in springtime ) - tỉnh như sáo

(tạm dịch: tỉnh như sơn dương/chim mùa xuân)

  1. as angry as a hornet (tạm dịch: hung hãn như ong)

  2. as awkward as a cow on ice (tạm dịch: vụng về như bò trên băng)


  1. as bald as a coot (tạm dịch: hói như chim sâu cầm)

  2. as blind as a bat (tạm dịch: mù như dơi)

  3. as big as an elephant/ as a whale – to như voi

  4. as bold/ brave as a lion (tạm dịch: dũng mãnh như sư tử)

  5. as brisk as a flea/ a butterfly (tạm dịch: nhanh nhẩu như bọ chét/ bướm)

  6. as busy as an ant/ a beaver (tạm dịch:cần mẫn như kiến/ hải ly)


  1. as calm as a cat (tạm dịch:êm nhẹ như mèo)

  2. as clumsy as a bear (tạm dịch: vụng về như gấu)

  3. as conscientious as a dog (tạm dịch: chu đáo như con chó)

  4. as cunning as a fox (tạm dịch:khôn ranh như cáo)

  5. as curious as fish (tạm dịch: tò mò như cá)


  1. as dead as the dodo (tạm dịch:hiếm như chim cu lười)

  2. as dirty as a hog ( pig ) – dơ như heo

  3. as dizzy as a goose – lúng túng như gà mắc tóc

(tạm dịch:mơ hồ/ lúng túng như ngỗng)

  1. as drunk as a skunk (tạm dịch:bét nhè như chồn hôi)


  1. as faithful as the dog (tạm dịch: trung thành như chó)

  2. as fast as a deer- nhanh như sóc (tạm dịch: nhanh như hươu)

  3. as fat as a pig/ a porpoise/ a whale – mập như heo/béo như bò mộng

  4. as fierce as a lion/ a tiger – dữ như sư tử/cọp - ác như hùm/thú

  5. as foolish as a calf – ngu như bò

  6. as free as a bird – tự do như chim trời

  7. as friendly as a puppy (tạm dịch: thân thiện như cún con)


  1. as gaudy as a butterfly/ a peacock (tạm dịch:lòe loẹt như bướm/ công)

  2. as gentle as a lamb (tạm dịch: hiền như cừu)

  3. as graceful as a swan – đẹp như thiên nga

  4. as greedy as a hog/ a pig – ăn như heo/ rồng cuốn/ hạm

  5. as gruff as a bear - đầu gấu (tạm dịch: thô lỗ như gấu)


  1. as happy as a clam/ a lark/ a pig in mud (tạm dịch:vui như hến/ chim chiền chiện)

  2. as hairy as a gorilla/ a mastodon ( a spider ) (tạm dịch: lông lá như tinh tinh/ nhện)

  3. as heavy as an elephant – nặng như voi

  4. as hungry as a wolf/ a horse – đói như con sói

  5. as harmless as doves (tạm dịch: hiền như bồ câu)


  1. as imitative as a monkey – bắt chước như khỉ

  2. as innocent as a dove/ a lamb (tạm dịch: ngây thơ như bồ câu/cừu)


  1. as jealous as a cat (tạm dịch:đố kị như mèo)

  2. as joyful as a fly (tạm dịch: hân hoan như ruồi)


  1. as lazy as a toad/ a lobster/ a pig (tạm dịch: lười như cóc/ tôm hùm/ heo)

  2. as loathsome as a toad – xấu như cóc

  3. as loyal as a dove (tạm dịch:trung thành như bồ câu)

  4. as little as a squirrel – bé như con kiến/con muỗi (tạm dịch: bé như con sóc)


  1. as mute as a fish - câm như hến (tạm dịch:câm như cá)

  2. as meek as a mouse (tạm dịch: nghe lời như chuột)

  3. as muddy as sheep dogs (tạm dịch: lấm lem như chó chăn cừu)

  4. as merry as a cricket/ a lark (tạm dịch: vui như dế/chim chiền chiện)


  1. as nimble as a bee (tạm dịch: nhanh nhẹn như ong)

  2. as naked as a jay-bird – trần như nhộng (tạm dịch: trần như chim giẻ củi)


  1. as obnoxious as an alligator (tạm dịch: hiểm độc như cá sấu)

  2. as obstinate as a pig – ngang như cua (tạm dịch: ngang như heo)


  1. as proud as peacock (tạm dịch: tự mãn như công)

  2. as prolific as a rabbit - đẻ như heo

  3. as poor as a church mouse (tạm dịch: nghèo như chuột nhà thở)

  4. as playful as a kitten (tạm dịch: nghịch như mèo con)

  5. as patient as an ox (tạm dịch: nhẫn nại như bò)

  6. as plentiful as ants - đông như kiến

  7. as prolific as rabbits – đẻ như heo (tạm dịch: đẻ như thỏ)

  8. as proud as a peacock (tạm dịch: vênh váo như công)


  1. as quiet as a mouse – câm như hến (tạm dịch: im lặng như chuột)


  1. as rude as a bear- đầu gấu (tạm dịch: thô lỗ như gấu)


  1. as safe as a tortoise under its shell (tạm dịch: an toàn như rùa rụt cổ)

  2. as selfish as a fox (tạm dịch: ích kỉ như cáo)

  3. as serious as an owl (tạm dịch: nghiêm trọng như cú)

  4. as shy as the squirrel (tạm dịch: xấu hổ như sóc)

  5. as silly as calves/ a sheep ( as a goose, as a goat ) – ngu như bò/trâu

  6. as sleek as a mouse (tạm dịch:nịnh nọt như chuột)

  7. as sleepless as owls – thức như cú

  8. as spineless as a jelly fish (tạm dịch: ẻo lả như sứa)

  9. as stealthy as a cat - len lén như rắn mùng năm (tạm dịch:len lén như mèo)

  10. as stink as a polecat – hôi như chồn/(tổ)cú

  11. as stolid as a cow (tạm dịch: lừ đừ như bò)

  12. as stupid as an ass/ a donkey/ a sloth – ngu như bò/lừa/lợn/chó

  13. as subtle as a serpent (tạm dịch: xảo quyệt như rắn)

  14. as supple as a snake (tạm dịch: uốn éo như rắn)

  15. as surly as a bear (tạm dịch: thô lỗ như gấu)

  16. as suspicious as a cat (tạm dịch:ám muội như mèo)

  17. as swift as a deer/ a hare/ a hawk – nhanh như cắt/ sóc

(tạm dịch:nhanh như hươu/thỏ/diều hâu)

  1. as slippery as a snake/ an eel – trơn như chạch (tạm dịch: trơn như rắn/ lươn)

  2. as slow as a tortoise/ a snail – chậm như rùa/sên

  3. as sly as a fox – ranh như cáo

  4. as strong as a lion/ an ox – khỏe như vâm/voi/trâu

  5. as sick as a dog (tạm dịch: bệnh như chó)

  6. as stubborn as a mule – thân lừa ưa nặng/ ngang như cua

  7. as snug as a bug in a rug (tạm dịch: Thoải mái và ấm áp như rệp trong chăn)


  1. as tall as a giraffe (tạm dịch: cao như hươu cao cổ)

  2. as tame as a sheep/ a chicken/ a hare/ a house cat

(tạm dịch:hiền như cừu/ gà con/ thỏ/ mèo nhà)

  1. as talkative as a magpie (tạm dịch: nhiều chuyện như chim ác là)

  2. as thoughtless as a lark (tạm dịch: vô tư như chim chiền chiện)

  3. as tricky as an ape/ a monkey (tạm dịch: mưu mẹo như khỉ)

  4. as trivial as a parrot's prate (tạm dịch: nhỏ nhặt như chuyện tầm phào của vẹt)

  5. as troublesome as a monkey (tạm dịch: phiền toái như khỉ)

  6. as timid as a rabbit - nhát như thỏ đế


  1. as ugly as a bear/ an ape- xấu như cú/ ma (tạm dịch: xấu xí như gấu/ tinh tinh)

  2. as useful as a cow (tạm dịch:hữu dụng như bò)


  1. as vain as a peacock (tạm dịch: tự mãn như công)


  1. as weak as a kitten (tạm dịch: yếu như mèo con)

  2. as wise as an owl/ a serpent- khôn như rận/ rái (tạm dịch: khôn như cú/ rắn)

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