Animal Idioms and their Use in Foreign Language Lessons

Term Paper, 2008

13 Pages, Grade: 1,7



1 Introduction

2 Linguistic focus
2.1 What idioms are
2.2 A comparison between English and German

3 Animal idioms in foreign language lessons
3.1 Reasons for teaching animal idioms in (primary) class
3.2 How to teach animal idioms in class

4 Material for young learners
4.1 My own ideas
4.1.1 The Idiom of the Week
4.1.2 Animal Idiom Puzzle

5 Conclusion

6 Bibliography

1 Introduction

Idioms are quite pleasant and fascinating linguistic phenomena to me. I connect idioms to a creative and competent use of language. Therefore, I can still remember the first idiom I learnt at school: It’s raining cats and dogs. At that time, it was just a funny gimmick during the English lesson. Today the study of English opens new vistas to this. Why isn’t it raining fish? Or one could as: Why isn’t it raining cats and dogs in Germany, but “Bindfäden” (twines)?

In this presentation I want to engage in the field of idiomatic expressions containing animal names. As this group is unmanageably wide, I will concentrate on phraseological units that are connected to cats and dogs. After having given a short general linguistic overview of the field concerning idioms, I will concentrate on the possibilities of using idioms in primary class. I will not only give arguments for it but also present material one could use in class.

2 Linguistic focus

Although the linguistic background behind idioms is not important for primary learners of English, the teacher should know what is behind. Therefore I will give some information about how to define the term idiom, the special role of animals as source domain and a short comparison between English and German animal idioms.

2.1 What idioms are

Defining the linguistic term idiom is a difficult task, as several linguists do not have consentaneous opinions about it and the lines between different linguistic constructions, like phraseological units in general or metaphors and proverbs in particular are blurred.

Nevertheless, one can characterize idioms by listing several features. According to Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary “an idiom is a phrase whose meaning is difficult or sometimes impossible to guess by looking at the meanings of the individual words it contains” (2000: B12). The following examples illustrate this:

(1) It’s raining cats and dogs.

(2) the cat’s meow

Indeed, idiom (1) describes that it is raining, but from the meaning of cat and dog you can not reason that the rain is a torrential downpour. And although everyone can imagine, what a cat’s meow is – no linguistic hint exists that this means “Great” or “The best”. This property is called idiomaticity.

As idioms are phraseological units, they consist of more than one word, so their structure is polylexemic. Within their lexical structure, idioms are relatively stable. That means that parts of the idiom are not exchangeable and can not be reordered.

(3) *It’s raining dogs and cats.

(4) *It’s raining pigs and cows.

(5) *It’s drizzling cats and dogs.

Although these sentences are “well-produced”, the idiomatic meaning gets lost. One reason for that is that idioms are lexicalized. Within the speech community of English people just know, that the figurative term for a downpour is “It’s raining cats and dogs.” So, students of a foreign language have to learn idioms as a whole and put them into their mental lexicon as if they were vocabulary.

Of course, competent speakers of a language do not use idioms accidentally. The use of idioms is often connotative. The speaker wants to put special emphasis on his intention (cf. Fiedler 2007: 23), e.g. wants to be funny or poetic.

Other possible features of idioms are transformational deficiencies and other anomalies like grammatical ill-formedness or fossilized constituents (cf. Fiedler 2007: 17-27).

To give a brief overview of previous research on idioms and their classification I want to list the main facts, which characterize the animal idioms which are discussed in this presentation:

2.2 Animals as source domain

Carrying out an investigation to find out more about the source domains of idioms is of big interest, because it points out the relation between language and culture.

Apart from the human body, animals are the most frequent and motivating source domain of idioms. A reason for that might be that they are very closely connected with people. Animals do not only fulfill a function in agriculture (cows, horses, etc.), but are also alimental. Last but not least pets play a big role in die everyday life of many people. Often, pet owner impose human character features on their beloved cats and dogs.

If we take a closer look at the animal idioms that can be found in dictionaries, like the Longman Dictionary of English Idioms preferences for special animals become apparent.

dog/dogs - 29 entries

cat/cats - 21 entries

pig/pigs - 9 entries

lion/lions - 6 entries

cow/cows - 2 entries

elephant - 1 entry

Obviously, cats and dogs are the most favored animals; they stay ahead of all other animal constructions. Probably, their role as most popular pets, explains this frequency. Besides, cats and dogs fulfilled practical functions in former times, as well.

2.2 A comparison between English and German

Due to same cultural past and the close cultural relationship between Great Britain and Germany, there are lots of idioms that exist in similar versions in both languages. Only some examples are:

(6) fight like cat and dog = wie Hund und Katze sein

(7) let the cat out of the bag = die Katze aus dem Sack lassen

(8) go to the dogs = vor die Hunde gehen

(9) play cat and mouse = Katz und Maus spielen

These idioms most often refer to the behavior category. That is to no surprise, as English cats of course share the same behavior as German cats. The reason for (7) might be either similar attempts to defraud at German and British markets or just a translation into German, later. Similarities like that can be found in other European languages, too, e.g. in Polish, where people say: “zejść na psy” (go to the dogs) or “zabawa w kota i myszke” (play cat and mouse).

More interesting than the similarities are of course differences between English and German. There are many popular idioms in English, which can not be translated into German without loosing its idiomatic meaning. The German idioms with a similar meaning are often part of a totally different source domain, like “Es regent Bindfäden”, which means the same as “raining cats and dogs”. Astonishingly, Duden Redewendungen und sprichwörtliche Redensarten offers a similar idiom: “es regnet junge Hunde” which appeared in the Spiegel in 1984 (cf. Duden 1992: 355). Nevertheless one can claim, that this idiom did not become accepted in German.

There are of course, some English idioms that can not be translated into German without being paraphrased, because of the lack of an appropriate equivalent.


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Animal Idioms and their Use in Foreign Language Lessons
University of Erfurt
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animal, idioms, foreign, language, lessons
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Mandy Busse (Author), 2008, Animal Idioms and their Use in Foreign Language Lessons , Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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