Academic journal article The Modern Language Review

The Human Bestiary

Academic journal article The Modern Language Review

The Human Bestiary

Article excerpt

A feature probably shared by all languages, and certainly by the major languages of Western Europe, which are the only ones with which I can profess some familiarity, is the frequent figurative application of animal names to human beings. The names of the fox are used in English, French, German, Spanish, and Italian to designate the cunning person, those of the donkey to characterize stupidity or stubbornness, and those of the pig to characterize the physically or morally 'dirty' person. The names of the dog are also used in generally derogatory ways. More understandably, terms meaning 'vermin', 'parasite', or 'noxious insect' are also generally applied to humans in highly pejorative senses. These and other associations mirror past and present perceptions of parallels between people and animals, lexicalized in usage at various stages: for instance, whereas the identification of the donkey with stupidity is ancient, since the Latin asinus already had that sense, the application of the term mule to a person who smuggles drugs from one part of the world to another seems to be fairly recent.

The original inspiration for the associations has to be sought mainly in human psychology and its varying perceptions of points of similarity between particular animals and particular types of human or types of human behaviour, but one would have to distinguish different layers, both chronological and cultural, given that some parallels are not only ancient but have religious, symbolic, or literary origins, whereas others, humorous, cynical, or affectionate, are more popular, in the sense of belonging to popular culture, and often more transitory in nature.

The peoples of Western Europe have many elements of culture in common. Except for most of Germany, they were conquered by Rome, and were romanized to a greater or lesser extent: Latin usage pre-dates that of the modern languages in human applications of the names of the dog, the cat, the lion, and the vulture, as well as that of the donkey. (1) Until the Reformation, these countries shared the Catholic religion and its symbolism, with Latin as its common language, and with the Bible as a source of many relevant associations. Christianity has given us the dove as a symbol of peace, and hence of the pacific person; the Bible is the inspiration for references to scapegoats, sacrificial lambs, lost sheep, black sheep, the clergy and their flocks, and many others. Either through an unbroken transmission from generation to generation, or through the clergy and others with some learning, Latin associations of a more secular nature also seem to have found their way into the vernacular. The case of words like asinus has already been mentioned: it seems reasonable also to see expressions such as odd bird, drole d'oiseau and seltsamer Vogel as calques of the Latin rara avis, although the modern forms are more pejorative in tone. Similarly, the fact that the eagle has been a symbol of power and courage since ancient times is reflected in the favourable nature of its human associations. In iconography, the cat has been a symbol of the woman, and the goat has been linked to the devil, with his cloven foot: both animals have had a role in sorcery, which is probably reflected in the associations that involve them.

Other associations had their origins in literary texts such as Aesop's fables, or, somewhat later, in medieval traditions and texts centring on Reynard the Fox. Some associations therefore reflect attitudes which are no longer typical: it is doubtful, for instance, that modern West Europeans would choose to characterize the donkey as the epitome of stupidity, not only because they have relatively little contact with donkeys nowadays, but because other candidates would seem more obvious (as later examples will show, the use of various bird-names in all the languages suggests a more typical recent view of animal stupidity).

Examples are found in all levels of discourse, from the formal down to the most esoteric slang. …

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