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Year of the Yang

/ 02:47 AM February 18, 2015

Tomorrow is the start of a lunar new year and people have been asking me why it’s sometimes referred to as the year of the goat and, at other times, as the year of the sheep.

The answer is that it’s both because the animal of the year is referred to in Chinese as “yang” (with a rising tone), and it can mean either goat or sheep.

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You might ask: Isn’t that confusing? Like if you went into a restaurant and wanted to order mutton, wouldn’t you run a risk of being served goat meat instead?

No, not really. When in China, you will know if there will be goat meat or mutton. Mutton is usually available more in the northern provinces. In local Chinese restaurants, goat and sheep meat are both rarely available except for an occasional restaurant offering northern Chinese cuisine, and that will be mutton.

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All this just shows how contextual language is. China has both goats and sheep, but there didn’t seem to be a need to distinguish the two animal species. I was checking Internet sites for Chinese language lessons, with westerners complaining about the confusion between goats and sheep, and the Chinese speakers mainly responded that the lack of distinction between the two doesn’t cause problems for the Chinese. There were occasional references to using “shan yang” (mountain yang) to mean goat, but this was disputed.

In a word, the Chinese “know,” as does every native speaker of a language, whether it’s English, Filipino, German, French, or whatever. We learn our language contextually, through seeing what’s around us, and how people respond to the terms.

I thought of how I process “yang” myself, and it’s usually to think of goats. That is because I was born and raised in the Philippines and because sheep are so rare here—I think University of the Philippines Diliman’s veterinary hospital is one of a handful of homes to these sheep—I was not conditioned to think of yang as sheep.

 

Cooked stuff

Let’s take our little linguistic exercise another step, to cooked stuff, and why vegetarians have such a difficult time in the Philippines.

In English, there are very specific terms for different types of meat: beef, pork, mutton. Chicken is chicken, cooked or not.

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In Spanish, carne is meat, and to be specific about the type of meat, you have to combine meat with the animal, like carne de res (cow’s meat) for beef, carne de cordero (sheep’s meat) for mutton, and carne de cabra for goat meat. Pork, though, is cerdo or pig; no need to say carne de cerdo, just as pollo can be chicken or chicken meat.

In the Philippines, we borrowed the Spanish carne as well, spelling it differently as karne. Usually, though, karne refers to beef.   As with the Spaniards, baboy can be the pig or pork, and manok can be chicken or poultry meat. Then there’s karne del norte, meat from the north, which means corned beef. And carabeef for carabao meat.

Which is why we vegetarians have such a hard time in the Philippines explaining what we can’t eat. When I say that I don’t eat karne, people will say, Ah, puedeng chicken (so you can eat chicken.) I have to say no, no chicken, no pork, down the line.

Inevitably, because we Filipinos are such jokers, I get interrogated on the animal kingdom, all the way down to salagubang. (I had to check for an English translation; did you know it’s June beetle or June bug?) The variety of edible animals in the Philippines (and in China) is so wide that it can be challenging to both biology, and dietary, ethics.

I do take fish occasionally in the Philippines because of the difficulty finding a totally vegetarian meal in restaurants, and it always relieves the waiters who get so exasperated over what I can and can’t eat.

Knowing its mother

How do I deal with this ethically? I’ve had to reason out that fish don’t feel pain. But a fellow pesco-vegetarian (someone who takes fish and vegetables) gave me another way to reason out: Never eat something that recognizes its mother.

I actually used that with my son’s science lessons, combined with a bit of logic. I asked him: If I don’t eat anything that recognizes its mother, would that allow me to eat crocodile? (We had just come back from Palawan, with crocodile sisig.) That took him time to figure out. Crocodiles lay eggs, which hatch to produce baby crocs. Question: Do baby crocs recognize mommy crocs?

He ended up challenging me with a simpler problem. If a vegetarian becomes a zombie or walking dead, would that veggie walker still try to eat other human beings?

See how linguistics can be so fascinating? Linguistics isn’t just studying grammar and syntax; it’s now looking into how people use language, to make sense of the world around us through labeling and classification systems.

In English, distinctions are made even between sexes, and ages of animals. A male goat is a buck, or a billy, or a ram, if it is “intact.” If it is castrated, it is a “wether.” A female goat is a doe or nanny, and its kids are, well, kids. The terms for sheep are similar, but a young sheep is a lamb.

Science’s language

Biologists have a language of their own: Goats and sheep belong to the same family (Bovidae) and subfamily (Caprinae). But the goats and the sheep are recognized as two different animal species around biological criteria, mainly that they can’t mate. That includes separate species names to distinguish wild and domesticated goats, and sheep.

In the Encyclopedia of Life, a great Internet resource on biology, there is even an entry, “sheep/goat,” used by zooarchaeologists because when you dig up very old bones, it is often impossible to tell if they’re from sheep or goats. So, maybe the Chinese do have a point, with yang coming close to “sheep/goat.”

When it comes to food, language and classification can really get complicated. The Old Testament book of Leviticus has all kinds of dietary prohibitions adopted by Jews, Muslims and Seventh Day Adventists—for example, not eating cloven-footed animals that do not “chew the cud” (eat grass), which means no pork. There’s also a prohibition on animals from the sea that do not have scales.

You think being vegetarian is straightforward? Not quite. When I’m with strict Buddhists, we really have difficulties in restaurants because, apart from the prohibition on meat, they will not take garlic and onions, or anything else that comes from beneath the ground, because these bring out lust and other emotions.

Talking about which… Sometimes, in exasperation with waiters, I tell them, winking an eye, that there’s only one kind of karne that I eat and it isn’t on the menu. Usually it takes a split-second for the waiters to figure it out, and they break out in laughter as everything suddenly makes sense: no beef, no pork, no chicken, no mutton, no fish, no salagubang. In other words, no hayop of any kind or, in today’s politically correct English, no nonhuman animals.

Here’s to a happy Year of the Yang, goats or sheep.

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E-mail: [email protected]

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TAGS: Chinese cuisine, Chinese new year, Chinese restaurants, linguistics, mutton, pesco-vegetarian, shan yang, Spanish carne, Year of the Sheep
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