Year of the ovicaprid

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According to the Chinese zodiac, the coming New Year is referred to as yángnián 羊年, but there's a problem:  what animal are they referring to?  Is it the "year of the ram", the "year of the sheep", the "year of the goat", or something else?

The Chinese media are having a field day mischievously gloating over our consternation:

Wàiméi jiūjié Zhōngguó yángnián shì zhǐ nǎ zhǒng yáng: miányáng, shānyáng qí shàngzhèn 外媒纠结中国羊年是指哪种羊:绵羊山羊齐上阵 ("Foreign media are in a tangle over what type of 'yáng' the Chinese 'yángnián' refers to: sheep and goats all go into battle") (2/16/15)

Lǎowài kuài fēngle: nǐmen Zhōngguó rén guò de yángnián jiùjìng shì nǎ zhǒng yáng? 老外快疯了 你们中国人过的羊年究竟是哪种羊? ("The old foreigners are about to go crazy:  what kind of 'yáng' are you Chinese celebrating this 'yángnián' after all?") (2/14/15)

N.B.:  For "Laowai", see "Laowai: the old furriner" (4/9/14).

Zhōngguó yángnián bǎ quán shìjiè de Yīngwén méitǐ gǎo fēngle 中国羊年把全世界的英文媒体搞疯了 ("The Chinese 'yángnián' is driving the English language media of the whole world crazy") (2/14/15)

How are we to escape from this dilemma?  Up steps an authority:

Zhōngguó yángnián jiùjìng shì shénme yáng?  Mínsú zhuānjiā: shānyáng 中国羊年究竟是什么羊?民俗专家:山羊 ("What kind of 'yáng' is the Chinese 'yángnián' referring to?  Folklore expert:  goat" (2/16/15)

All right, that takes care of that, right?

Not so fast.  Take a gander at this large collection of images that depict how Chinese themselves picture the 'yáng' of 'yángnián'.

That's why, 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.

Of course, few people have ever heard of the word "ovicaprid" (only 4,770 ghits), but I have used it quite a bit in my publications, including Language Log posts such as these:

"The unpredictability of Chinese character formation and pronunciation" (2/6/12)

"Polysyllabic characters in Chinese writing" (8/2/11)

Considering that domesticated, herded ovicaprids were brought to East Asia before the Bronze Age by pastoralists from the steppes to the northwest, it is remarkable how the semantic classifier yáng 羊 has entered into many important characters having positive, felicitous meaning in Chinese civilization:

yì 義 ("justice, righteousness")

shàn 善 ("good[ness]")

xiáng 祥 ("felicitous; auspicious")

yǎng 養 ("raise; nourish; nurture; rear; take care of in old age")

měi 美 ("beauty")

xiū 羞 ("[sense of] shame")

yǒu 羑 ("to guide to goodness / right / reason")

xiàn 羨 ("admire; be fond of")

xiān 鮮 ("fresh; delicious food; delicacy; good and kind — an obvious merging of ovicaprid and piscine qualities")

qún 群 ("group; community")

For a fuller treatment of this phenomenon, see "Lamb of Goodness, Goat of Justice" (pp. 86-93) in Victor H. Mair, "Religious Formations and Intercultural Contacts in Early China," in Volkhard Krech and Marion Steinicke, ed., Dynamics in the History of Religions between Asia and Europe:  Encounters, Notions, and Comparative Perspectives (Dynamics in the History of Religion, 1 [Ruhr-Universität Bochum]) (Leiden:  Brill, 2011), pp. 85-110. (available on Google Books)

But ovicaprids are only one part of a large package of cultural attributes and technologies that entered East Asia along the same vector from the northwest.  Tattoo is another, and it ultimately contributed in a fundamental way to the development of writing:

"Tattoos as a means of communication" (9/1/12)

Whatever you wish to call it, may the New Year be happy and prosperous!


  1. Bathrobe said,

    February 16, 2015 @ 12:49 am

    I wrote about this issue on my website 12 years ago and it barely caused a ripple. This time around the question seems to have spread like wildfire and hits on that particular page have gone through the roof.

    Of course if we just look at Chinese it's ambiguous (sheep or goat, with ram thrown in the mix because it sounds good in English), and the Chinese don't see the problem.

    But the Chinese are not the only ones to use the 12-year zodiac. Neighbouring countries have adopted it, and unlike the Chinese the languages of these countries actually make a distinction between sheep and goats.

    in Japanese it's 羊 hitsuji 'sheep', not 山羊 yagi 'goat'. This could be due to nothing more than the fact that when the Japanese adopted the Chinese character 羊, they equated it to hitsuji, not yagi. I have no idea what might lie behind this. If the Chinese believe that the 羊 defaults to 'goat' rather than 'sheep', then they need to explain why the Japanese took it the other way.

    And there's Mongolia, where the coming year is the year of the хонь (honi sheep), not the year of the ямаа (yamaa goat). Since both are important to the Mongolians, one wonders why they might have picked the sheep rather than the goat as the animal of the zodiac. Given that the Mongolians would have had plenty of direct contact with the Chinese, it seems hard to understand why they got it wrong.

    And then there are the Vietnamese, who call it the year of the sheep (), not the year of the goat (cừu). In Korea it's the year of 양 yang 'sheep'.

    So with four neighbours plumping for sheep, it's hard to know why some Chinese might insist on goat as the original animal. Could they be having trouble separating the sheep from the goats?

  2. Bathrobe said,

    February 16, 2015 @ 1:12 am

    Heh, got that nicely back to front. The Vietnamese, who call it the year of the goat (dê), not the year of the sheep (cừu).

    So it's three neighbours plumping for sheep and one for goat.

    Could goats be better suited to the climate of Vietnam than sheep?

  3. rwmg said,

    February 16, 2015 @ 2:02 am

    So how do Chinese-language Bibles deal with the parable of the sheep and the goats?

  4. Bathrobe said,

    February 16, 2015 @ 2:35 am

    Well, they can distinguish them if they want to. 绵羊 miányáng (literally wool-ovicaprid) and 山羊 shānyáng (mountain ovicaprid). But the norm is to NOT distinguish them.

  5. John Swindle said,

    February 16, 2015 @ 2:56 am

    And for the story about separating sheep from goats the Chinese Union Bible does make the distinction that Bathrobe mentioned: 把绵羊安置在右边,山羊在左边 。Matthew 25:33, found at

  6. Jongseong Park said,

    February 16, 2015 @ 6:38 am

    양 羊 yang is the Korean word for sheep, both domestic and wild. The Korean word for the domestic goat is 염소 yeomso, which is native Korean in origin. 염 yeom was an old name for this beast, to which was added 소 so, the native Korean word for bovines, to produce the modern form. Korean does use 산양 山羊 sanyang, but exclusively for wild goat.

    I must say that I found it odd when I first heard speakers of Chinese background call it the "year of the goat", because Koreans only think of the zodiac animal as the sheep. But then I recalled the anomaly of 산양 山羊 sanyang for wild goat and figured that the original Chinese character must have a broader meaning than in Korean.

  7. Elliot Sperling said,

    February 16, 2015 @ 9:05 am

    First of all, a happy Wood-Female-Sheep ( Shing-mo-lug) Year to everyone. In Tibetan there is a clear distinction between sheep (lug) and goats (ra), so the question of a possible Goat Year doesn't really arise.

  8. Will said,

    February 16, 2015 @ 9:40 am

    Singapore has clearly decided it was the year of the goat, Hong Kong the year of the sheep.
    Make of that what you will.

  9. Bathrobe said,

    February 16, 2015 @ 10:21 am

    Professor Mair has asked me to link to my page of 12 years ago! Well, it was a fairly simple page and it's been updated (as of today) through the addition of Mongolian. The URL is:

    Year of the Sheep or Year of the Goat?

    Katie Hunt of CNN actually emailed me to request an interview (by phone), but by the time I finally saw her mail she'd already posted the story.

  10. Victor Mair said,

    February 16, 2015 @ 10:40 am

    Very happy to have Bathrobe's excellent updated post. Am trying to get other languages — Manchu, Turkic…. Will post as they come in.

  11. Jongseong Park said,

    February 16, 2015 @ 11:04 am

    @Will, my Singaporean colleague based in Hong Kong was calling it the year of the goat.

    I wasn't really sure about the identity of the wild sheep and goats that I was referring to, so I did more research. 산양 山羊 sanyang in Korean actually refers to a bovid species called the long-tailed goral, Naemorhedus caudatus. Gorals form one genus of the goat-antelope subfamily Caprinae, distinct from both the genus Capra (which includes the domestic and wild goat) and the genus Ovis (which includes the domestic sheep).

    The long-tailed goral is the only wild bovid found in Korea, from what I can tell. So it's natural that the appellation 산양 山羊 sanyang traditionally applies to this species in Korean, though I'm a bit surprised that a native mammal only has a Sino-Korean name. I can't think of any other native wild mammal that has a purely Sino-Korean name.

    In practice, I think Koreans use 산양 山羊 sanyang for pretty much any unfamiliar wild member of the Caprinae subfamily, including ibexes, chamois, bighorn sheep, and mountain goats, though excluding the muskox which we call 사향소 sahyangso, a calque which combines the Sino-Korean element 사향 麝香 sahyang "musk" and 소 so "cow". The dictionary does include a second definition of 산양 山羊 sanyang as "goat", but I've never seen this and I suspect this is only used in translating Chinese works. In practice, only the native name 염소 yeomso is ever used for the goat.

  12. Vilinthril said,

    February 16, 2015 @ 11:11 am

    The addition of the sheep seems to have gone awry, Bathrobe, since you call them “mor'” instead of “khon'” at the end of the paragraph.

  13. The suffocated said,

    February 16, 2015 @ 11:26 am

    Someone on the web has mentioned that among the twelve zodiac pottery figurines of Tang dynasty (618-907AD) that were excavated from Hansanzhai, Xi'an, the one representing 羊 is apparently a sheep. Incidentally, the zodiac animal 羊 is also a sheep (hitsuji, ひつじ) in japenese. Since the japanese culture has preserved many elements of Tang culture, this coincidence shows that the 羊 in question probably refers to "sheep" rather than "goat".

  14. Leo E said,

    February 16, 2015 @ 11:30 am

    What is the consensus on the century-old argument by Edouard Chavannes (Le Cycle Turc des Douze Animaux, T'oung Pao, Second Series, Vol. 7, No. 1 (1906)) about the (at least partial) Turkic origin of the animal zodiac in China? I've seen several places talk about how its logic is now completely undone, importantly by the discovery of the Chu silk text from Zidanku Changsha (300 BC) and by 'day books' from Shuihudi. Other arguments against a nomadic origin include the lack of Central Asian inscriptions until relatively late (absence of evidence/evidence of absence) and citations from Chinese dynastic texts like the Book of Zhou (written between 629-636) reference to the Tujue ("Turk") peoples in the Northwest: 其書字類胡而不知年曆唯以草青為記 (qí shū zì lèi hú ér bù zhī nián lì wéi yǐ cǎo qīng wéi jì), "their writing system is that of the Hu and they don't know about the calendar, relying only on the grass turning green as a marker." (This doesn't explicitly refer to the animal calendar, though, and could simply be the gan-zhi cycle.)

    Not that it matters ideologically to prove which grand nation is the original progenitor of the animal zodiac. For what it's worth, the ovicaprids in question are apparently differentiated in the earliest Turkic writing available. The phrase "qon yilqa" (the year of the sheep) appears in several inscriptions, including Kül Tegin, and there are references to both qon "sheep" and amgha "goat" in the Irq Bitig, a divination manual found in Dunhuang. (amgha is not in the Dryevnyetyurkskiy Slovar' (Old Turkic Dictionary) but is likely cognate with yamaa mentioned above.) This only says that both goats and sheep had distinct names and that sheep was more than likely thought of as the zodiacal representative. As a side note, in some Turkic sources the Milky Way is called the Qon Yoli, the "Sheep Road."

    Here are some other years mentioned in the old Turkic inscriptions. What relation do these names have to the Chinese zodiac?
    laghzin yilqa, in the year of the boar, Memorial Complex of Altin Tamghan Tarqan (~720s)
    ülü yilqa, in the year of the dragon, Memorial Complex Iltemish Yabghu (~710s)
    it yil, the dog year, Bilge Qaghan complex (~730s)
    taqighqu yilqa, in the year of the rooster/hen, Il Etmish Bilge Kaghan (~750s)
    tabishqan yilqa, in the year of the hare, same source as above
    küskü yilqa, in the year of the mouse, same source as above

    The weird one is the "bichin yil" (the monkey year, not the bitchin' year) mentioned in the Kul Tegin memorial. There are no monkeys on the steppe, so what did they think of as a bichin? And where did the word come from?

    This is just to elicit more discussion on the subject, so apologies in advance for any wrong assumptions.

  15. J.W. Brewer said,

    February 16, 2015 @ 11:46 am

    The official position of the U.S. Postal Service: Not sure if they consulted with the State Department to see if this would be the approach least likely to lead to diplomatic incidents.

  16. J. F. said,

    February 16, 2015 @ 12:37 pm

    @J.W. Brewer,

    The U.S. Postal Service's website has apparently relied on a Cantonese speaker (chuen-hop). Are they trying to encourage splittism?

  17. JQ said,

    February 16, 2015 @ 12:46 pm

    I believe that most Chinese speakers trying to translate the word into English don't really know the distinction between a sheep and goat in English, or which actually corresponds to 绵羊 / 山羊

    I've never had any cause to say either 绵羊 or 山羊 in Chinese and inaccurately refer to both as just 羊. To be honest, many English-speaking city dwellers may not really know the difference in English either.

  18. Victor Mair said,

    February 16, 2015 @ 1:03 pm


    Canton / Guangzhou has a key legend about five goats that were crucial for the survival of the city, and there are many statues to goats in and around the city, so naturally they're gonna opt for the goat over the sheep when it comes to determining the identity of the joeng4 羊 in the zodiac, even though it might be historically and philologically inaccurate in terms of the formation of the cycle of animals in the zodiac.

  19. Joyce Melton said,

    February 16, 2015 @ 1:29 pm

    I wouldn't let this question get your goat, you might end up feeling sheepish. Odd isn't it that feeling goatish is completely different in English and only a wool rustler would try to get your sheep.

    All I know is the calendar placemats at my favorite Chinese restaurants show a sheep; a ram, in fact. I don't recall seeing any sheep in Viet Nam and I spent some time in the mountains. But goats are common, I had a pet one when I was there. They are much smaller than the ones we raised when I was a kid. [Me-eh-eh!]

  20. Victor Mair said,

    February 16, 2015 @ 1:38 pm

    From Steve Wadley:

    The Manchu word for the year is honin (honingga aniya), which refers to a sheep. They have a different word for 'goat' niman.

  21. Bathrobe said,

    February 16, 2015 @ 2:45 pm

    Thanks, Vilinthril, a hasty job, now fixed.

  22. Vilinthril said,

    February 16, 2015 @ 2:58 pm

    No problem, glad to have helped! :)

  23. Victor Mair said,

    February 16, 2015 @ 3:04 pm

    From Alexander Vovin:

    Korean borrowed Chinese shí'èrzhī 十二支 ("twelve [calendrical] branches") names. None of the steppe extant languages to the best of my knowledge borrowed anything from Chinese except EMC luŋ 'dragon', which appears in OT as luu, WM luu, and Khitan lu[u] (quite interestingly without the final -ŋ), but that was not directly from Chinese — I attach my 10-year old article on OT animal cycle which discusses this loanword — hopefully it will be of some interest in the conjunction with this problem. [VHM: see note at ** below] But the more interesting problem is where the Chinese names themselves came from, because they do not coincide with habitual names for these animals in Chinese. If I remember correctly, there is a very interesting article by William Boltz in Boltz and Shapiro (eds) Studies in the Historical Phonology of Asian Languages, John Benjamins 1991. Some of them like 午 Ch. wu3 < OC *ŋaʔ 'horse' 'or 丑 Ch. chou3 < EMC trhuwʔ 'ox' are likely to have Viet Mu'o'ng-Katuic connections (see Ferlus, Michel 1992. 'Sur l'origine des langues Viet-muong' Mon-Khmer Studies XVIII-XIX: 52-59).   To answer your posting and the problem with 'goat/sheep', I think it is goat. Ch, 未 wei4 (OC *mets) seems to have the same Austroasiatic connections, see Ferlus article for details. It is too hot for sheep to survive in Southeast Asia or even South China. Even Okinawans raise solely hwijaa 'goat', but not sheep. And, as you well know, Indonesian Muslims are happy to consume pork, because there are no sheep there. [**Sasha's article is "Some Thoughts on the Origins of the Old Turkic 12-Year Animal Cycle," Central Asiatic Journal, 48.1 (2004), 118-132. It is publicly available on his page.]

  24. cameron said,

    February 16, 2015 @ 3:38 pm

    I remember from geography classes in my school days that sheep are not kept in low-lying or generally wet regions, because they're prone to something called "foot rot", which sounds extremely unpleasant.

    So it makes sense that people would not have kept many sheep in Southeast Asia or Indonesia.

  25. David Morris said,

    February 16, 2015 @ 4:41 pm

    I hope my wife is Sheep, because in 20 years' time I don't want to be married to an old Goat!

  26. JS said,

    February 16, 2015 @ 4:45 pm

    Re: the comments of Sasha Vovin (of my M.A. Thesis committee!) above: the notion that all or part of the Chinese duodenary Dizhi series might have Austroasiatic origins — specifically, that the Chinese terms might reflect old AA animal names — was first Jerry Norman's:

    Norman, Jerry. 1985. "A Note on the Origin of the Chinese Duodenary Cycle." In Graham Thurgood, James A. Matisoff & David Bradley, eds., Linguistics of the Sino-Tibetan Area, The State of the Art: 85-89. Pacific Linguistics, Series C 87.

    For example, Norman proposed that wu3 午 '7th Branch' (OC *ŋaʔ) might reflect an old MK word for 'horse' based on words like Vietnamese ngựa 'horse'. I discovered just now that Michel Ferlus expanded on the idea in a 2013 SEALS presentation entitled "The sexagesimal cycle, from China to Southeast Asia" available here.

    The whole idea is not a great one for several reasons:

    The Chinese cycle — as written graphs and thus presumably as the OC antecedents of the very words that survive as constituents to this day (*but see below) — dates to the Shang period (and is sure to be rather older than that still). There is to my knowledge no indication of any of these words or characters ever having been used in Chinese texts, OBI on down, to refer in a concrete way to any of the animals with which the cycle positions were eventually to be associated some 1000+ years later. Neither has there been any credible suggestion that the associated graphs might have first represented, in whole or part, the animals of the much later sequence.

    *The received sequence differs from the OBI one at first and sixth positions: for instance, what is known to be the graph 子 (representing zi3 'offspring' [OC *tsəʔ, associated by most with an ST root tsə 'come forth']) occupies in the OBI not the first but the sixth position (more recently si4 巳), complicating the idea that this word might be associated with AA words for 'rat', first member of the animal sequence, like PVM *ɟuot 'rat' (Ferlus p. 7).

    Also, the AA animal words implicated are taken from various languages to render the associations credible; that is, there is no extant or historical AA language animal sequence that employs the animal words proposed by Norman and others as cognate to the Branches.

    Also, phonological correspondences leave rather much to be desired.

    Also, the sequence is used even as of the OBI alongside the ten-member Heavenly Stems (tiangan) sequence, rendering 60 sequential combinations by just the distinctive cycling manner of later historical periods.

    The answer to the puzzle of the Chinese Stems and Branches is thus more likely to be here, in the peculiarity of early usage, as well as in what we already know but pretend not to about the Chinese words and graphs involved: to take the above, zi3 子 means '[that which] comes forth' (and note the graph is a picture of a child) and wu3 午 means 'stand opposed to' (even Zdic has 古同“忤”、“迕”,逆,背, and note the old graph represents precisely two opposed objects.) In addition, we know that wei4 未 means 'not yet / incipient', that shen1 申 means 'extend', that chou3 丑 was "the original graph for 'claw, finger'" (wording is that of Schuessler / ABC Etymological Dictionary of Old Chinese / p. 191 — I would rather say the word chou3 丑 meant 'claw'), etc. — in all cases graphs designed to the Chinese words.

    Thus, it is not clear why the insistence that the constituents of Stems and Branches sequences are entirely arcane; this is not the case. What's unclear is simply why these particular words and graphs, about which we know a great deal, would have been employed in such sequences.

    Building on work by David Pankenier and others, an interesting possible answer is proposed in Jonathan Smith, "The Di Zhi 地支 as Lunar Phases and Their Coordination with the Tian Gan 天干 as Ecliptic Asterisms in a China before Anyang," Early China Vol. 33, pp. 199 – 228.

    Of course, JS would find such work interesting. :/

    PS: I am by no means committed to the thoroughgoing "Chinese-ness" of the Stems and Branches series and think that in general terms connections to MK are rich and deep — but Norman's particular solution cannot be right.

  27. Bathrobe said,

    February 16, 2015 @ 5:49 pm

    I notice in that paper by Edouard Chavannes that Annamite has thỏ (hare) for the Year of the Rabbit. When did Vietnam switch from the Year of the Hare to the Year of the Cat?

  28. Victor Mair said,

    February 16, 2015 @ 7:02 pm

    From a Turkologist:

    The animal-cycle opposition between 'sheep' and 'mountain goat' among the 'Altaic' languages is really fascinating!

  29. Richard W said,

    February 16, 2015 @ 8:04 pm

    > I've grown accustomed to referring to yáng 羊 as "ovicaprid"

    In a similar way, I once had an idea that 老鼠 (lǎoshǔ) could be defined as "muroid rodent", since people use 老鼠 to refer to hamsters, for example, as well as rats and mice; and I thought that 老鷹 (lǎoyīng) could be defined as birds of the family Accipitridae, although it's typically defined in dictionaries as "hawk" or "eagle" or "hawk; eagle". But "muroid rodent" and "Accipitridae" are not everyday terms — as 老鼠 and 老鷹 are — and moreover, I don't think think they capture the range of species precisely either. I had a hand in writing CC-CEDICT's definition of 老鷹: "(coll.) eagle; hawk; any similar bird of prey".

  30. Bathrobe said,

    February 16, 2015 @ 8:25 pm

    @Richard W

    What about 老鵰? Is this just a variant on 老鷹?

  31. Ross Bender said,

    February 16, 2015 @ 8:33 pm

    In Japanese usage, "goat" can be either 山羊 or 野羊both read "yagi". The Nihon Seisho Kyōkai 1974 Bible entry for Matthew 25:31 ff uses 羊 for "sheep" and katakana やぎ for goat.

    FWIW Claude Péronny ‘s “Les Animaux du Man.Yô-Shū” (De Boccard, 2007) lists neither "mouton", "chèvre" nor "caprin", although Sasha Vovin would have the final word on whether the MYS is in fact devoid of ovicaprids.

    Shoku Nihongi, also FWIW, has neither山羊nor 野羊. There is one intriguing passage in 781(Ten’o 1.6.1) 譬以十羊更成九牧which definitely does refer to the animal (which animal?). The kanji羊is several times used in the combination "Yawata (Hachiman) no Himegami"八幡比咩神, denoting the female deity at Usa Hachimangu.

    Plenty of未but only AFAIK for calendrical usage, eg 己未 (tsuchinoto-hitsuji) or the negative particle.

  32. Victor Mair said,

    February 16, 2015 @ 10:04 pm

    From Nicholas Sims-Williams:

    In Sogdian, the word used in the animal cycle is ps-, usually translated "sheep". I doubt whether one can exclude the possibility that goats could also be included in this category, but there is a specific word bz- for "goat", and this is not used in the animal cycle.

    By the way, an alternative to "ovicaprid" is "shoat" — an informal word used by archaeologists for the bones of sheep or goat, which apparently cannot be distinguished.

  33. Richard W said,

    February 17, 2015 @ 1:10 am

    @Bathrobe: I'm not very familiar with the word 老鵰. Google says there are only about 4,000 verbatim results for "老鵰", while there are 515,000 verbatim results for "老鷹".

    Since 老鵰 is pronounced differently from 老鷹, I would not use the word "variant". At best, it might be a synonym, but I'm not so sure it's a synonym either.

    老鵰 doesn't even rate a mention in some dictionaries. Where it does appear, it is sometimes defined as "vulture". E.g.

    In other sources, it is defined more broadly as 鹰属的泛称, which I interpret as "bird of prey".
    If that's correct, then I guess you could say 老鵰 is a synonym for 老鷹.

  34. Bathrobe said,

    February 17, 2015 @ 2:45 am

    I get 210,000 results for "老雕" (using the simplified character) and 214,000 for "老鵰". For "老鹰", on the other hand, I get 3,600,000 results. Similar ratios but vastly different results. I'm not sure what we're doing different. Baidu says "老鹰" is a kite, but I'm highly sceptical. Most people seem to use it just as you say.

  35. Richard W said,

    February 17, 2015 @ 3:10 am

    Bathrobe, it sounds like you are not using verbatim results (not that it matters so much in this instance, since you get somewhat similar proportions with regular Google search). To get Google verbatim results, you need to click the Search Tools button, then click the drop down menu "All results", and select "Verbatim". Then, to see the hit count, click the Search Tools button again.

    Yes, Baidu is probably using, as it generally does, the same source as, which says [black-eared kite; hawk; eagle]. I think the inclusion of "black-eared kite" is somewhat arbitrary. My contention is that it doesn't specifically mean any one of those three birds, but rather any bird of prey similar to them. And people have been known to refer to even a possum as a 大老鼠.

  36. Victor Mair said,

    February 17, 2015 @ 7:44 am

    From Barclay Hershey:

    Thai does make the distinction between kɛ̄ แกะ (sheep) and pʰɛ̄ แพะ (goat), and has come down on the side of pīː pʰɛ ปีแพะ (Year of the Goat). But for linguistic history purposes that won’t really help us much in understanding. Instead of pʰɛ̄ แพะ (goat) we need to use the formal religious term: mámɛ̄ː มะแม (the name of the 8th year of the 12 year zodiac cycle, marked by the symbol of a goat).

    I hope you will bear with me if my IPA is a bit off. I am trying to find a good way to master the IPA and have been looking for a corpus of English in IPA so I could practice reading and development a more robust matching of IPA transcription of the phones used in English. Once I am more comfortable with the English language phones I hope to expand into Spanish and Thai (the other languages that I have had some exposure to).

  37. cameron said,

    February 17, 2015 @ 11:19 am

    That Sogdian bz- for goat is notably similar to the modern Persian word boz. Presumably that's an Iranian word of some antiquity.

  38. Rodger C said,

    February 17, 2015 @ 12:28 pm

    Archeologists' use of the word "shoat" for "sheep/goat" has long annoyed me, since the word already exists in English for a stage in the development of swine. What do archeologists call the bones of actual shoats?

  39. Alex said,

    February 17, 2015 @ 1:15 pm

    *rodger C
    We call them juvenile suids. (Not suidae for some reason.) And we do use "ovicaprid" a lot, because there really is no way to tell if it's sheep or goat so much of the time.

  40. Eidolon said,

    February 17, 2015 @ 6:56 pm

    Is it not arguable that 羊 featured in Chinese symbols for fortune, wealth, beauty, etc. because sheep/goats were rarer and finer tasting, and therefore more valuable than other meat animals? After all, we do not associate 'cheap'/'common' with the above qualities. The idea that sheep/goat meat is of a higher quality meat looks to be quite persistent, though today, perhaps due to the influence of American culture, expensive cuts of beef have overtaken it in terms of delicatessen.

  41. Victor Mair said,

    February 17, 2015 @ 7:00 pm

    From Yuanfei Wang:

    Here is a new MV titled 喜氣羊羊過好年 that puns on 羊羊, 樣樣, and 洋洋. I guess the tone difference between 樣樣 and 羊羊 can be easily mitigated in the music.


    VHM: Notes to help in understanding the triple pun:

    xǐqì yángyáng guò hǎonián 喜氣羊羊過好年 ("May you have a happy goat / sheep year")

    yángyáng 羊羊 ("goat-goat / sheep-sheep")

    yángyáng 洋洋 ("oceanlike; copious")

    yàngyàng 樣樣 ("everything")

  42. Victor Mair said,

    February 17, 2015 @ 7:09 pm

    As usual in other years, in the last couple of weeks I have received dozens of Chinese New Year's greetings. This year, most of the ones I've been receiving from South China and beyond to the south picture and / or translate yáng 羊 as "goat", while most of the ones I've been receiving from North China and beyond to the north picture and / or translate yáng 羊 as "sheep". Such is the overall ecology of the yáng 羊 ("ovicaprid") in continental East Asia, as has already been brought out by several of the earlier commenters.

  43. J. W. Brewer said,

    February 17, 2015 @ 7:36 pm

    The Council on East Asian Studies at a notable Ivy League university (not Penn) seems to be joining the post office in going with "ram": I find the patriarchal political implications of that choice rather baffling – what sort of academic with any sense of self-preservation gratuitously uses a marked-as-masculine English word to render a gender-neutral Chinese one?

  44. Victor Mair said,

    February 17, 2015 @ 7:45 pm

    Take a look here for the following forms of yáng 羊 ("ovicaprid), from oldest to relatively younger:

    oracle bone inscriptions (latter part of the 2nd millennium BC) — fourteen rows at the bottom

    bronze inscriptions (dated roughly to the latter part of the 2nd millennium BC and the first two thirds of the 1st millennium BC) — next three rows up from the bottom

    seal forms (latter part of first millennium BC) — next two rows up from the bronze inscriptions

    Now, you tell me, schematic though they be, are these meant to depict goats or sheep?

  45. Matt said,

    February 17, 2015 @ 8:06 pm

    The Nihon Shoki has an interesting part revolving around a line from a "popular song" that was recorded "歌麻之之能烏膩" ("kamasisi no wodi" as the OCOJ romanizes it). This means roughly "old kamasisi man", where the "kamasisi" is generally identified with the modern "kamoshika" = Japanese serow. But later this poem is interpreted as a commentary on (then-)current events:

    "kamasisi no wodi: means that the hair on Prince Yamashiro's head was 班雑毛 (mottled/piebald/salt-and-pepper + wild/tangled), like a 山羊"

    So here 山羊 is probably being used to represent yet another animal in the ovicaprid family, found only in Japan. (I say "probably" because technically 山羊 in the commentary might have been intended to be read "yagi", giving something like "he was called 'old serow man' because he was scruffy as a goat" — this seems a bit counterintuitive though).

  46. Eidolon said,

    February 17, 2015 @ 8:35 pm

    Caveat: I'm in no way a biologist.

    The focus of the graphs is on the animal's face & horns.

    * Presence of horns: the graphs indicate an animal with horns. Sheep and goats both have horns. However, goats tend to always have horns, while many breeds of domesticated sheep are hornless. This argues for a goat or wild sheep.

    * Shape of horns: sheep, when they do have horns, tend to have spiral horns, resembling B05696. While there are also goats with such horns, the bulk of goats have curved, but not spiral, horns. This argues for a sheep, but only for those graphs with spiral horns.

    Best candidate for wild inspiration? Its horn shape and habitat both match. For the domesticate inspiration, archaeo-biological information beyond my Google-fu is required, but the wild predecessors of domesticated sheep,, do have spiral horns.

    Besides the above, I also observe that there is a horizontal slash in certain graphs eg J09040 but not others, which eventually develop into the second horizontal slash in the mature form of the graph. I wonder whether that, in fact, indicates that these graphs were for two different animals within the family, rather than variants of the same graph.

  47. JS said,

    February 17, 2015 @ 8:52 pm

    My impression was that many wild sheep were horned, and that some such could well have been first inspiration for the character 羊.

    I've now learned from Wikipedia that "sheep" is, unsurprisingly, not a terrifically precise term; the Central Asian, etc., creatures I was thinking of are members of the genus Ovis and by their sociability are "sheep" in some larger sense, but the English word now refers more commonly to the domestic sheep (Ovis aries aries?) in particular.

  48. Victor Mair said,

    February 18, 2015 @ 1:06 am

    Since my birthday is March 25, 1943, I am Aries (♈) according to the Western horoscope and yáng 羊 according to the Eastern zodiac. Does this mean that I'm doubly sheepish by nature?

    Not surprisingly, the sign for Aries (♈) resembles some of the early forms of the character yáng 羊, except that the former doesn't customarily or conventionally have a horizontal line (whether angled or not) near the bottom. Some of the more elaborate versions of ♈ do have marks near the bottom that somewhat resemble those near the bottom of the early Chinese graphs. It would be interesting to see what the early forms of ♈ looked like.

  49. John Walden said,

    February 18, 2015 @ 4:36 am

    What do the various languages mentioned call Aries and Capricorn? I'm guessing that there must be some interest in other astrologies so the question must have come up.

  50. J.W. Brewer said,

    February 18, 2015 @ 7:27 am

    A semi-related ambiguity I just noticed/recalled in German. The noun "Bock" is often thought of as primarily meaning "goat" (or more specifically he-goat/billy-goat – I believe it's cognate with English "buck"), but can also mean "ram." It is not uncommon for bottles of the "bock" style of beer to have goats on the label (or so I think I've seen and Wikipedia says the same) for punning reasons, but I just noticed that the label on the bottle of Shiner Bock (brewed in Texas) I drank after work yesterday evening has a ram on it instead. (Although the German Wikipedia article for the astrological sign Aries calls it "Widder," which is another, perhaps more specific, word for "ram"; Capricorn is apparently "Steinbock" which = something like "mountain goat / ibex" and is perhaps reminiscent of 山羊.)

  51. Victor Mair said,

    February 18, 2015 @ 7:47 am

    In Russian, my Dungan friends are wishing me a Happy New Year of the овец ("sheep"), not козел ("goat").

    "Dungan: a Sinitic language written with the Cyrillic alphabet" (4/20/13)

  52. Victor Mair said,

    February 18, 2015 @ 7:49 am

    The sign for Capricorn is ♑.

  53. Jongseong Park said,

    February 18, 2015 @ 8:07 am

    In Korean, Aries is 양자리 yangjari "sheep location" and Capricorn is 염소자리 yeomsojari "goat location", using the already-discussed usual words for sheep and goats as expected since the Western constellations are a recent cultural import. A constellation is 별자리 byeoljari "star location" in Korean, in case you're wondering about the element 자리 jari.

    When I lived in Kenya, I was told the easiest way to distinguish sheep and goats was that the sheep's tail hangs down, but the goat's tail sticks up. The shape of the last letter "p" in sheep was supposed to be the mnemonic. I don't remember who told me this but I think it was a fellow foreigner, and I don't think it's a piece of wisdom associated specifically with Kenya. But it was maybe more useful there because the breeds of sheep and goats in Kenya looked more similar to each other than if you were used to sheep bred to give a lot of wool.

  54. Victor Mair said,

    February 18, 2015 @ 8:30 am

    Dear Mr. Mair!

    In Dungan culture coming year – the year of the sheep! No goat.

    Sincerely, An Huse.

    President Association Dungan of Kazakhstan

  55. Bob said,

    February 18, 2015 @ 10:42 am

    this zodiac thing is relatively new in Chinese culture, originated from mid-China, those common animals found in villages were used to name the zodiac.. sheep are not usually seen in mid-China, so I think it should be GOAT…. for the year chicken, why no one has argued whether it is rooster? hen?

  56. Bob said,

    February 18, 2015 @ 10:49 am

    "sheep" is used more often than "goat", perhaps people were just following what they read.. there were heads of the Chinese zodiac animals in the garden of the Qing Summer Palace, which –sheep or goat– was used?

  57. Rodger C said,

    February 18, 2015 @ 10:54 am

    Alex, thanks. At first I read "juvenile squids." Washed up on Obama Beach, no doubt.

  58. Steve Rapaport said,

    February 18, 2015 @ 11:43 am

    At the risk of violating the 'be relevant' injunction, I have been reading through all these ovicaprid comments with Cake's 1998 tune "sheep go to heaven…" repeating in my fevered brain. Obviously his song was needed to draw that distinction for those of us who, like archaeologists and Chinese non-folklorists, cannot tell the difference.

    And he released it a few years early for Bathrobe's original article!

  59. Victor Mair said,

    February 18, 2015 @ 11:56 am

    From Ivo Spira:

    Yanshansin's Dungan-Russian dictionary has the following entry: "ЁН I баран, овца", i.e. "ram, sheep".

    Other relevant entries:

    ҖҮЛҮ I-I козел, коза.
    ЕҖҮЛҮ II-I-I дикая коза
    МУҖҮЛҮ II-I-I коза
    ҖҮЛҮ I-I козел, коза.
    ҖҮЛҮ(ДИ) I-I-II козий; җүлү нэзы козье молоко.

    So you can see that the standard word for "goat" is җүлү (should be sth like julü with two pingsheng tones in pinyin, but I haven't been able to track this word yet).

  60. Ross Bender said,

    February 18, 2015 @ 1:38 pm


    I had never heard of the Japanese serow (Capricornis crispus), but according to Wikipedia it "eats shoots and leaves." Apparently the fossil record is nonexistent and it is unclear when this goat-antelope came to Japan. Textual records are also sketchy and the "kamashishi" or "yamashishi" may in fact have been a type of wild boar.

    The poem is Nihon shoki kayō 107 (in the OCOJ), although Cranston 1993 identifies it as #110.



    ipa no pe ni
    kwosarukome yaku
    kome dani mo
    tagete topora-se
    kamasisi no wodi

    This premonitory poem occurs in Nihon Shoki , Kōgyoku 2.10 hinoto-hitsuji 丁未 (appropriately enough.) In the 5-volume Nihon Shoki ed by Sakamoto Tarō et al, the poem and the interpretation are found in Volume 4 (1995), pp 208 ff. Footnote 10 on p 209 helpfully but ambiguously identifies the creature as "Larger than a 羊, with big horns."

    My increasing suspicion is that the 山羊 in the interpretation does not refer to an actual animal found in Japan at the time, but is lifted from a Chinese text, as so much of Nihon Shoki tends to be.

    To me, the question is now when exactly were ovicaprids introduced to Japan. We seem to have no references to wool in the 8th century or previously. Plenty of shika (deer) and shishi (wild boar)…

    BTW correction — the やぎ in my first comment is of course hiragana, not katakana.
    Also, 未 is a negative, although it is not grammatically a particle. Not sure what it is.

  61. Bob said,

    February 18, 2015 @ 1:45 pm

    Chinese had used silk, cotton, for clothing.. but not wool. Would Chinese let sheep's fleece alone, if there were sheep around?
    — by the way, this Chinese zodiac thing is a very minor legend, none of the Ming, Qing dynasty, even the 1st half of 20 century novels I have read, mentioned anything about Chinese zodiac.. When I was growing up in Hong Kong, the only references about YEAR OF XXXX were for marriage matches, (hardly a deciding factor). Nowadays, the YEAR OF XXXXX is cited during Chinese New Year only,

  62. J. W. Brewer said,

    February 18, 2015 @ 2:19 pm

    Of course they have the Year of the Dragon both in Japan and elsewhere despite the lack of actual dragons in the local fauna. But it's interesting that the Japanese tradition should be so decidedly in favor of sheep rather than goat if (as I suspect) neither animal was particularly significant in traditional Japanese culture (whether in folklore or as a source of fiber for clothing or as a source of milk or meat for cuisine). One almost wonders why it wasn't indigenized as "serow," the way the Vietnamese swapped in the water buffalo because it made more sense in their own context, although wikipedia claims that the serow was traditionally thought of as a kind of deer (鹿) and only recently (presumably under the influence of Western scientific taxonomy?) did it get reclassified as a kind of 羊.

  63. Matt said,

    February 18, 2015 @ 5:14 pm

    You make a good point — 山羊 might have been referring to some fantastical Chinese beast (like a sheep, or goat!) which was considered similar to the kamosisi, rather than the kamosisi itself.

    Incidentally, what arguments have you seen for interpreting "kamosisi" as something in the boar family? OJ speakers were quite familiar with boars and they had a separate morpheme for them ("wi"); "ka" on the other hand is strongly associated with deeroids (a group which traditionally includes the Japanese serow). The Heian dictionary references all seem to reach for Chinese characters with 羊 in them to define the word. Nor does it make a lot of sense on the face of it to say "he's called old man boar because his hair is scruffy and tangled."

  64. Terry Collmann said,

    February 18, 2015 @ 5:50 pm

    Just to repeat Alex's point, it is very hard for archaeologists to distinguish the bones of a sheep from those of a goat.

    On the other hand, the occasions I have eaten mutton (rather than lamb), it has had a much stronger taste than goat.

  65. Victor Mair said,

    February 18, 2015 @ 8:21 pm

    From Brian Spooner:

    Thinking more about this it occurs to me that the Chinese usage you describe, that fails to distinguish between sheep and goats, is common throughout Asia. My main experience is of course in Iran. It always made sense to me there because I don't think I ever saw a flock of sheep without some caprine members. And the goats actually have a function: they lead the sheep. Sheep are boring, goats are interesting.

  66. Jongseong Park said,

    February 18, 2015 @ 9:21 pm

    Brian Spooner's comment has got me curious. Besides the Sinitic languages, which languages in Asia use the same word for sheep and goats? The languages mentioned so far seem to have separate words for the two, including Persian and the Turkic languages. Of course, he could be talking about cases where one of the words could easily be applied to the other even if there are separate words, but that's hard for me to tell from just looking at word lists.

  67. Dave Cragin said,

    February 18, 2015 @ 10:37 pm

    Richard W – I’ve also wondered by the very popular TV series “The Condor heroes” (Shèdiāo yīngxióng zhuàn 射雕英雄传) isn’t called "The Eagle Heroes” or something similar.

    Condors are a slow moving type of bird and like other vultures, they eat dead animals (carrion). This doesn't seem to connote a hero. In addition, condors only exist in the Western Hemisphere (not China), so it's not clear why this word was used instead of eagle.

    (For those studying Chinese, this is a good DVD series because it lasts forever – 9 DVD disks of 5 episodes/each).

  68. Victor Mair said,

    February 18, 2015 @ 10:45 pm

    From Bob Bauer:

    I've noticed this morning that RTHK (Radio Television Hong Kong) keeps referring to "Year of the Goat or Sheep".

  69. Richard W said,

    February 18, 2015 @ 11:17 pm

    Dave Craigin – I'm afraid I can't help much. Is 射雕 used in other contexts, and if so, what does it mean? You might have to ask the person who originally translated 射雕 as "condor" (someone called Jean Lim, apparently).

    Wikipedia does say that "The Moche people of ancient Peru worshiped nature. They placed emphasis on animals and often depicted condors in their art."

    Another website says "By 1532 the entire empire, from Ecuador to Chile, was in Spanish hands. The 12 million inhabitants of this region passed into slavery and deadly forced labor in plantations and high Andean silver mines. As they passed from relative freedom into slavery, the symbolic meaning of the condors changed as well. Under the Incas the condors had represented the spirit of an expanding empire, but now they represented the hope of freedom from oppression and tyranny."

    Funny you should mention a DVD series that "lasts forever" — I'm currently halfway through the 42 disks of The West Wing.

  70. Victor Mair said,

    February 19, 2015 @ 12:07 am

    "A New Year With a Name That’s a Matter of Opinion"
    NYT (2/18/15)

  71. Victor Mair said,

    February 19, 2015 @ 12:46 am

    "Hong Kong Welcomes the Lunar New Year of the Goat, Ram or Sheep"
    From South China Morning Post, 18 February 2015, page A10

  72. Matt said,

    February 19, 2015 @ 2:30 am

    If nothing else this discussion has shown us the true power of Chinese characters: the few humble strokes of 羊 have grown into dense thicket of ambiguity encompassing the entire Sinographosphere, not to mention at least half a dozen distinct species, which only archaeology has any chance of resolving. (The ancient principle of 爭名 at work.)

  73. Victor Mair said,

    February 19, 2015 @ 8:12 am

    I want to thank everyone for the wonderful, sustained, illuminating discussion. If you want to see where Google, the arbiter of all things internet, comes down on the matter, do a search (go to their search engine home page) today (February 19).

    But don't be swayed by just that cute little animated cartoon. Take a look at all of the charts here:

  74. Chau Wu said,

    February 19, 2015 @ 1:25 pm

    I think the root of the problem regarding whether the new year is the “year of the goat”, the “year of the sheep” or the “year of the ram” is that 羊 iáng is a generic term, answering to the academic coinage “ovicaprid” of Mair et al. My mother tongue is Taiwanese, and so my mental image associated with the word 羊 iûn (vern.) / iông (lit.) is mainly that of a goat simply because goats are a lot more common in Taiwan than sheep.

    How about 鼠年 shŭnián? Is it the “year of the rat” or the “year of the mouse” in English?

  75. Jean-Michel said,

    February 19, 2015 @ 3:05 pm

    @David Cragin:

    I’ve also wondered by the very popular TV series “The Condor heroes” (Shèdiāo yīngxióng zhuàn 射雕英雄传) isn’t called "The Eagle Heroes” or something similar.

    A 1993 parody film based on the story is actually known in English as The Eagle Shooting Heroes. The original Chinese title (射鵰英雄傳之東成西就) is an untranslatable non sequitur pun on the Chinese title of Ashes of Time (東邪西毒)–with which it shares much of the same cast–so rather than come up with a new pun for the English title, they apparently just decided a literal translation of the novel's title would be sufficient.

  76. Victor Mair said,

    February 19, 2015 @ 3:21 pm

    @Chau Wu

    Five years from now, we can have a big debate over "mouse" versus "rat". Then the year after that we can talk about the advisability of "ox" versus "cow", and later on we can debate "rooster" versus "chicken".

    In my Classical Chinese class today, we had several vigorous debates about subjectless sentences and tenseless verbs. Often in Chinese there are things that don't have to be specified, but that in English and other IE sentences must be specified. That's one of the things about Classical Chinese that makes it endlessly fascinating to me — trying to wrap my head around these differences.

  77. Jongseong Park said,

    February 19, 2015 @ 5:12 pm

    Some more interesting info gathered from various Korean media reports:

    In Korean, you refer to each of the twelve zodiac signs as 띠 tti when you're talking about the year that one was born. This usually follows the Gregorian calendar nowadays according to my experience, so we're actually already a month and a half into the Year of the Sheep in Korea, by the way. But older Koreans might be more accustomed to changing to a new zodiac sign at the Lunar New Year, while die-hard traditionalists insist that both are wrong and instead go with the winter solstice (21-22 December) or the start of the first solar term (4-5 February) depending on the particular tradition.

    Nowadays, someone born under the same sign as this year is solidly a 양띠 yangtti "sheep sign". But a couple of reports mentioned that in the past, one used to say 염소띠 yeomsotti "goat sign" alongside 양띠 yangtti. Sheep were rare in Korea historically. They were introduced during the Goryeo period from the Jurchen Jin dynasty (1115–1234) but never thrived due to the mountainous terrain, and Korea didn't develop any indigenous breeds. The Chinese character 羊 more often referred to the wild gorals or goats. There isn't much mention of sheep in Korean folklore compared to other animals, and tellingly, the word for sheep in Korean is the Sino-Korean 양 羊 in contrast to native Korean names for the other domesticated animals. But the Joseon dynasty (1392-1897) court apparently sacrificed sheep in Confucian rituals.

    But sheep became more familiar in the 20th century due to attempts at sheep herding during the Japanese colonial period and also in the 1970s under Park Chung-hee. Perhaps the influence of Christianity also helped. In any case, today, the zodiac sign this year is firmly 양띠 yangtti "sheep sign".

    I also found this interesting blog post about the history of sheep in Korea, though it seems to be using Chinese folk tales as evidence for the presence of sheep herding in Korea before the known introduction:

  78. Bathrobe said,

    February 19, 2015 @ 6:00 pm

    @Jongseong Park

    I was struck by your reference to die-hard traditionalists. What tradition would support the winter solstice as the start of the year? I'm aware that the Tibetan new year apparently started around that time but was changed by one particular Tibetan king to roughly match the Chinese New Year (it's surprisingly difficult to get any kind of information about this on the Internet). The Mongolians (of Mongolia), who supposedly follow the Tibetan calendar in setting their date, maintain quite stubbornly that their Tsagaan Sar is not the same as the Chinese New Year, and it is indeed often off by a day, and occasionally by a month. But if the Tibetans consciously aligned themselves with the Chinese, highlighting this distinction would seem to be more for show than anything else. Do these 'diehard traditionalists' in Korea have anything in common with the old Tibetan dating?

  79. Jongseong Park said,

    February 19, 2015 @ 7:01 pm

    @Bathrobe, I really don't know and I was just riffing off the articles I had read. But wasn't the winter solstice considered the start of the year in many cultures? Intuitively the shortest day of the year would seem like a natural choice regardless of culture.

    The debate between 동지 冬至 dongji winter solstice and 입춘 立春 ipchun the start of the solar term as the start of the zodiac year seems to be hotly debated in traditional fortunetelling circles, where they seem to argue based on traditional Chinese Confucian and divination texts. It doesn't look like we need to bring in old Tibetan dating.

    The traditional calendar uses both the lunar calendar and the solar terms in a parallel system, so the lunar new year and the winter solstice have both been celebrated. Each has an associated food-related folk tradition in that you are said to age one year when you have your 떡국 tteokguk (rice cake soup) on the lunar new year or your 팥죽 patjuk (red bean soup) on winter solstice.

    Traditionally, fortunetellers in Korea seem to have divided the years at 입춘 立春 ipchun, the start of the solar term. But it looks like there is vocal opposition to this, saying that it should be at winter solstice instead. This is a really niche debate that I only found out about just now—probably a storm in a teacup for most Koreans.

  80. JS said,

    February 19, 2015 @ 8:29 pm

    Dongzhi 冬至 and Lichun 立春 are both solar terms, two of the 24 that make up the solar portion of the traditional lunisolar calendar. I think Jongseong is right that the latter is traditionally regarded as "first" of the series.

    But the Chinese New Year, and unless I am mistaken the Korean as well, is marked by the first day of the first lunar month, and thus at a new moon. Determination of which new moon will begin a new year is not entirely straightforward but involves coordination with the solar cycle — I believe the lunar month containing Dongzhi is by definition the 11th, meaning the first lunar month of the year to come will in most cases (i.e., 12-month lunar years) begin with the second new moon following the solstice. Corrections from astronomers, etc., welcome…

  81. JS said,

    February 19, 2015 @ 8:38 pm

    Actually, "in most cases" above should actually mean not "in 12-month lunar years" but more specifically "when there is no intercalary month following the 11th (winter-solstice-containing) month"… I think.

  82. Victor Mair said,

    February 19, 2015 @ 9:06 pm


    "Happy lunar new year! But is it the year of the sheep or something else?"

    Nikhil Sonnad in Quartz

    Very nice post!

  83. Matt said,

    February 20, 2015 @ 3:06 am

    Since this is becoming a sort of a clearing house, let me throw in this factoid about the word "hitsuji" ("sheep" in Japanese) itself.

    Many sources offer an etymology of "hitsuji" that boils down to "hi" (日 sun) + "tsuji" (旋 turning or 辻 crossing). The argument is that when the 12-item calendar was imported from the continent, Japan had no word for the animal that was represented by 未, so they just described the block of time it represented, i.e. the one when the sun noticeably starts going down. The word "hitsuji" then began to be applied to the animal itself.

    This sounds very strained to me, and there's no contemporary, non-circumstantial evidence for it at all as far as I know. But it lives on as the default explanation because no-one's been able to offer a better one for the word "hitsuji" other than "I guess it's a loanword or something."

  84. Jeffrey Willson said,

    February 20, 2015 @ 4:45 am

    My vote is for "Year of the Ram." Here's my reasoning: when I visited China (Ningxia) I saw lots of sheep but no goats, and all the 羊肉 yangrou I ate was sheep's flesh (which in America is always called lamb). Therefore, my default image to go with 羊 yang is a sheep. When you say "year of the __" in English, you need a specific image in mind, and I think it is just more auspicious-looking to have an animal with robust horns. Besides, "Year of the Ram" is traditional, having been seen on millions of placemats on America's Chinese restaurants over the years.

    What would be the origins of the expressions 绵羊 mianyang and 山羊 shanyang? The qualified kinds of 羊 yang that I found in the Shanhai Jing were 麢羊 lingyang (羚羊 antelope?) and 羬羊 xianyang, which in my "Illustrated Shanhai Jing" appears to be some kind of goat or antelope. I would presume that any ancient dialect of a region that knew both sheep and goats would have had completely different words for the two animals. To me, shanyang sounds like a Central Plains coinage for an exotic animal, and having the two terms mianyang and shanyang in neat opposition sounds like a piece of Aristotelian classification.

  85. Victor Mair said,

    February 20, 2015 @ 8:36 am

    "Got their goat: Debates over 'yang' rumble on in Western media"


  86. satkomuni said,

    February 21, 2015 @ 5:31 am

    What's wrong with "bovid"? Why make up a word when one already exists? Besides these two, there are 羚羊for gazelle,羊驼 for alpaca, etc.

  87. Victor Mair said,

    February 21, 2015 @ 7:46 am


    We'll take up "bovid" when we get to the niú 牛 year. At this point, who has said that something is wrong with it?

    What made up word are you talking about?

    What word that already exists are you talking about?

    When you refer to "these two", what are you talking about?

    What is the point of your comment?

  88. Victor Mair said,

    February 21, 2015 @ 7:59 am

    "Lunar New Year 2015: Is it the year of the goat or the sheep?

    Linguistic and cultural differences have Western citizens scratching their heads about the true meaning of this year’s zodiac symbol."

    Christian Science Monitor (2/19/15)

  89. January First-of-May said,

    February 21, 2015 @ 11:40 am

    @Victor Mair, about the birthday…

    My own birthday is in early January 1992, which makes me a Capricorn by the Western zodiac and a Yang by the Chinese one (at least when one actually cares about the lunar calendar, as opposed to assigning by Gregorian year).
    And yes, I have, in fact, joked that it means I'm a goat twice over (for a while I wasn't aware that the year could also be sheep, and even when I did learn that I still preferred the "goat" version because of the Capricorn connection).

  90. Lisa R-R said,

    February 21, 2015 @ 11:15 pm

    Canada Post also went with the Ram.
    (I learned a new French word – bélier.)
    Thanks for the great post!

  91. maidhc said,

    February 22, 2015 @ 3:40 am

    China sheepishly rings in new year

    Many mainland Chinese tuned into the annual New Year’s Eve TV gala Wednesday evening, and this year’s mascot managed to achieve the problem-solving feat of not being clearly a sheep or a goat.

  92. Gene Anderson said,

    February 23, 2015 @ 9:58 pm

    Chris Atwood points out that the Mongolian words for ram, ewe, and goat are all quite different, and the year in question is definitely a ewe in Mongolian.
    Also, all the emotional characteristics of a person born in the year of the sheep are very ewe-like and totally un-goat-like! Not that my older son fits the pattern–born 48 years ago he is much more goatlike. Well, maybe it was his birth hour.

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