Same Animal + Different Cultures = Surprise!

by Bruce Goldstone on March 13, 2014

Falling cat, illustrating animal sayings that vary in different cultures and languages. (Image © deshy / iStock)

“If this is Life #7, I sure hope I’m an English-speaking cat!”
© deshy / iStock

Animal Symbols and Sayings

All over the world, cats are known for their seemingly magical ability to escape dangers that would be fatal to other, less feline species.  But different cultures and languages vary in how they talk about kitty’s special talents.

English speakers describe their death-defying trickiness by saying cats have nine lives. Consider 9Lives cat food, and its spokescat Morris, who vouch for the statistic.

Cats have the same reputation in Spanish, but in that language, they get only 7 lives. Are cats in Spanish-speaking cultures really less resilient than those where English is spoken? No, cats are cats, but the animal symbols and sayings across cultures may be quite different.

When you cross cultures, it’s a good idea to understand the differences so you don’t make a monkey out of yourself. Here’s some help with other critters in the animal kingdom.

Who’s Wise?

In ancient Greece, the wise goddess Athena was often depicted with or represented by an owl. That literary tradition plus the stately stare of the owl made this bird a symbol for wisdom in most Western cultures.

Wise-looking owl, representing wisdom, an animal symbol that varies in different cultures and languages.  (Image © lingkuo / iStock)

Owl = Wisdom, right?
© lingkuo / iStock

But not everyone thinks owls are all that clever. In India, the owl’s stare is considered dopey rather than penetrating, leading to its reputation as a dim-wit. In fact, the Hindi word for owl— oolu—can also mean dolt, idiot, or fool.

Dopey-looking owl, reflecting an animal symbol that varies in different cultures and languages. (© Catherine Philip/iStock)

Maybe owls aren’t super smart after all.
© Catherine Philip/iStock

And in the Netherlands, owls are a symbol of being stubborn, uncooperative, and inflexible. There’s a Dutch saying that goes Wat baten kaars en bril, als den uil niet zienen wil? (What difference do light and glasses make, if the owl doesn’t want to see?)

Interpreting the Turtle

For many English speakers, turtles are symbols of slowness, persistence, and determination.

Turtle moving slowly, reflecting an animal symbol that varies in different cultures and languages. (© nwhaa / iStock)

Turtles always mean slow and steady, don’t they?
© nwhaa / iStock

But in, Thailand, turtles are associated with something very different. Watch this ad and see if you can figure out why it makes sense.

If the video does not display, watch it here.

Yep—that’s an ad for deodorant because turtle in Thai is slang for body odor.

Monkey Business

In some Western countries, monkeys are playful tricksters. English speakers talk about monkeying around, monkey business, and more fun than a barrel of monkeys.

What do you talk about when you talk about monkeys? © Hung_Chung_Chih/iStock

What do you talk about when
you talk about monkeys?
© Hung_Chung_Chih/iStock

But other cultures perceive the monkey in a far different way. In Portuguese, monkeys carry an element of sudden surprise. To express astonishment, a Brazilian might say Macacos me mordam! (Monkeys bite me!) It’s like saying “Well, I’ll be damned!” Or, if you ever watched the old Batman TV series, think of Robin’s ever-changing catchphrase of surprise, “Holy [fill-in-the-blank], Batman!”

Regal monkeys, reflecting an animal symbol that varies in different cultures and languages. (© fatchoi / iStock)

Monkeys with a regal air
© fatchoi / iStock

In China, however, monkeys aren’t silly or surprising. They’re clever and noble. At one time, the Chinese title marquis and the word for monkey had the same pronunciation: “hou.” So, in China, the monkey is associated with dignity, social position, and intelligence.

Silken Sayings

Some cultures express the same advice or wisdom in an animal saying, but the animals are different. For example, in English, there’s this saying: You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.

A pig's ear, reflecting animal sayings that vary in different cultures and languages. (Image © Morgan David de Lossy / iStock)

Once a pig’s ear, always a pig’s ear.
© Morgan David de Lossy / iStock

In Spanish, a saying about monkeys is pretty much the same: Aunque la mona se vista de seda, mona se queda.  (A monkey that dresses in silk is still a monkey).

A baboon in a scarf, reflecting animal sayings that vary in different cultures and languages. (© fuse / Thinkstock)

Don’t you think a silk purse
would make this outfit complete?
© fuse / Thinkstock

Animal Anticipation

In English, to caution against making plans for something good until it really happens, people say: Don’t count your chickens before they hatch.

Chick and eggs, reflecting animal sayings that vary in different cultures and languages. (© gpointstudio / iStock)

Don’t count on your friends just yet, little fellow.
© gpointstudio / iStock

In Russia, people express pretty much the same sentiment: не дели шкуру неубитого медведя. (Don’t sell the pelt before the bear’s been shot.) Similar sayings show up in French-Canadian, Danish, Swedish, and Polish.

Brown bear, illustrating animal sayings that vary in different cultures and languages. (© dgwildlife / iStock)

Hey, I’m using this bearskin!
© dgwildlife / iStock

You Don’t Have to Be Real to Play

Different cultures even have different views of imaginary animals. In Western countries, dragons are usually fierce fire-breathing monsters that ravage villages and torment princesses. Something worthy of slaying. But in China and many Asian countries, they’re considered very good luck. Something worthy of celebrating in joyful dances.

Boy hugging Chinese dragon, reflecting an animal symbol that varies in different cultures and languages. (© Digital Vision / Photodisc)

Does this dragon look scary to you?
© Digital Vision / Photodisc

Oh, I seeManners, taboos, and animals, too, are all part of understanding different cultures and languages.  The symbols and sayings that may seem universal are often not. You might think about that the next time the cat’s got your tongue—because in Spanish, they’d blame your silence on mice: ¿El ratón te comió la lengua? (The mouse ate your tongue?)

To get a language fact a day, connect with @languagebandit. To pursue a passion for language, visit Langology and Pocket Cultures.

Video of the Thai deodorant commercial VIA The Zealous Water Buffalo.

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