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