Contrastive Analysis Mr Nguyễn Ngọc Vũ

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Running head: Idioms of comparison

Idioms of comparison in Vietnamese and English

A Contrastive Analysis

Trịnh Thị Phương Trang

University of Education

Contrastive Analysis

Mr Nguyễn Ngọc Vũ

December 30, 2010


Language is a system of communication of a nation. Every nation has their own historical, civilized, cultural, climatic characteristics, so every nation has their own language. However, different nations have similarities and differences in expressing their ideas. Studying similarities and differences between idioms of comparison in English and Vietnamese is liable to help the researcher to affirm that. Moreover, making some comparisons is a good way to memorize English idioms of comparison effectively and enjoyably. Hence, translation skill can be improved thanks to more knowledge about idioms. In addition, making comparisons between English and Vietnamese idioms can help the researcher to understand more about cultures of both of countries since similarities and differences in culture reflect coincidences and dissimilarities in ways of thinking and looking at the world of English and Vietnamese people.

Idioms of comparison in Vietnamese and English

A Contrastive Analysis


Idioms of comparison are applied frequently in literature and in daily life. It serves as a tool to make the language more graphic. However, every language has differences in ways of expressing the same idea using idioms of comparison.

The goal of the study is to discover some common types of comparison used in English and Vietnamese idioms. In addition, the study chiefly aims at finding out some similarities and differences between comparison idioms in both English and Vietnamese.

Because there are so many comparison idioms in both languages, it is impossible to include all of them in the study. The study can just explore comparison idiomatic expressions which play an important part in the purpose of the study.

Theoretical Framework

Theoretical background of idioms in English

Definition of idioms in English

The Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary defines idioms as: “A group of words whose meaning is different from the meanings of the individual words” (Hornby, 2006, p.740).

The viewpoint is supported in A Dictionary of Linguistics & Phonetics. The author regards an idiom as “a term used in grammar and lexicography to refer to a sequence of words which us semantically and often syntactically restricted, so that they function as a single unit” (Crystal, 1985, p.225).

According to A Dictionary of Linguistics, an idiom is “any expression peculiar to a language, conveying a distinct meaning, not necessarily explicable by, occasionally even contrary to, the general accepted grammatical rules” (Pei & Gaynor, 1954, p.95).

Feature of English idioms

When mentioning semantic features of idioms, we had better focus on the figurative meaning of idioms. It is the most important characteristic of idioms to know whether an expression is an idiom or not. According to Collins Cobuild English Language Dictionary:

A idiom is a group of words which, when they are used together in a particular combination, has a different meaning from the one they would have if you took the meaning of the individual words in the group. (Sinclair, 1987, p.718)

Smiley & Goldtein (1998) also suggest that “idioms are certainly more than the sums of their parts” (p.76). That means the meaning of components of an idiom is different from the meaning of the whole idiom. That we can guess the meaning of an idiom or not depends on open or closed classes. As Yong and Peng (2007) suggest:

In open class combinations, individual components are freely recombination and are used in a common literal sense. As co-occurrence of individual components is expected of this class of combinations, both their meaning and structures are predictable amenable to analysis. (p.178)

For instance, we can guess the meaning of the idiom “turn over a new leaf”. “Turn over” means to “make something change position so that the other side is facing towards the outside or the top” and “a new leaf” is a leaf which is more beautiful, more perfect. Therefore, the meaning of the idioms can be guessed as “to change your way of life to become a better, more responsible person”.

However, in close class combinations, we cannot guess the meaning of idioms. That is because “they are characterized by semantic opaqueness, syntactic restrictions and structural stability” (Yong & Peng, 2007, p.178). For example, the idioms “spread oneself too thin” or “for the birds”.

Idioms have “a fixed form – that usually cannot be changed” (Heacock, 2003, p.ix). However, Heacock (2003) also claims:

Not all fixed phrases are idioms. For example, “close your eyes” is a common fixed phrase, but not an idiom because each word in it is used in its standard meaning. The phrase “keep your skirt” is an idiom, however, because the phrase does not mean “do not take off your skirt” – it means “stay calm”. (p.ix)

Idioms can be divided into six different forms or structures:

+ Idioms located at noun entries such as “in addition to’”, “for the birds”…

+ Idioms located at verb entries such as “look forward to”, “take off”, “hear about”…

+ Idioms located at adjectival entries such as “in short”, “hot under the collar”…

+ Idioms located at adverbial entries such as “once again, “worse off” …

+ Idioms located at pronominal entries such as “give it up”, “come to nothing”…

+ Idioms located at numeral entries such as “give a hundred percent”, “one by one”…

It’s really important to know that modifying any components and functional words can lose the idiomatic meaning (Yong & Peng, 2007).

Theoretical background of idioms in Vietnamese

Definition of idioms in Vietnamese

According to Từ Điển Thành Ngữ và Tục Ngữ Việt Nam:

Thành ngữ Tiếng Việt là những tổ hợp từ ngữ cố định có cấu trúc từ hoặc câu nhưng hoàn toàn thuộc phạm trù cấp từ, được mã hóa hầu hết đều có tính chất cách điệu nghệ thuật, và chỉ làm một thành phần trong câu nói. (Nguyễn, 2010, p.5)

As Nguyễn (2007) has noted in his book, “thành ngữ là tập hợp từ cố định đã quen dùng mà nghĩa của nó thường không thể giải thích được một cách đơn giản bằng nghĩa của các từ tạo nên nó” (p. 8).

Features of Vietnamese idioms

Idioms are characterized by figurative and metaphorical meanings. Therefore, it’s too difficult to comprehend although we know the meanings of all their components. For example, “lấy thúng úp voi”, “gà để gà cục tác”, “đi guốc trong bụng”Especially idioms are originated from fairy tales, folk tales…such as “ba que xỏ lá”, “thằng chết cãi thằng khiêng”, “nợ như chúa Chổm”, “sư tử Hà Đông”… (Nguyễn, Nguyễn & Phan, 2009).

Idioms usually consist of more than 3 components whose counterpoint, alliteration and rhyme are combined with each other in many different ways. There are some idioms of comparison such as “nóng như lửa”, “khóc như mưa”, “nhanh như chớp”… Also, there are some idioms which are created according to counterpoint, alliteration such as “tai to mặt lớn”, “miệng hùm gan sứa”, “cùng hội cùng thuyền”, “ong bướm lả lơi”… Besides, some idioms are originally spoken words in everyday speech which are usually used again and again for a long time and then develop figurative meanings to become idioms, for instance “chở củi về rừng”, “theo voi hít bã mía”, “nước chảy chỗ trũng”, “đi guốc trong bụng”… (Nguyễn et al, 2009).

Theoretical background of English idioms of comparison

At first, we should find out the definition of idioms of comparison which are also called similes. There are a lot of definitions of simile. According to Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary, “simile is a word or phrase that compares sth to sth else, using the words “like” or “as”, for example “a face like a mask” or “as white as snow”; the use of such words and phrases” (Hornby, 2006, p.1369).

An idiom of comparison is also defined as:

the comparison of two nouns with different meanings, using the words like or as to make the connection. Friendship is like ice cream, fear moved like lighting, and leaves feel as slippery as fish are examples of similes”. (Tucker, 2002, p.41)

There is also a similar but shorter definition in The Challenge of Effective Speaking: “A simile is a direct comparison of dissimilar things using the word “like” or “as”” (Verderber, Verderber & Sellnow, 2008, p.197).

The meanings of similes are figurative. Take the simile “as tall as a tree” as an example. When you say: “Minh is as stubborn as a mule”, you mean Minh is so stubborn, not Minh is as stubborn as a mule. Therefore, the simile “as stubborn as a mule” is considered figurative.

Learners can sometimes be confused between similes and metaphors but they are really different:

A metaphor, like a simile, is a comparison between two essentially unlike things. In contrast to a simile, however, where an explicit comparison is made (The eye is like a lamp for the body), the metaphor makes an implicit comparison (The eye is lamp of the body). (Robert H. Stein 15)

Huff (2004) asserts that “the only difference between simile and metaphor is that metaphor does not use the words “like” or “as” to make the comparison” (p.98). In other words, two distinctly different things in a simile are connected by “like” or “as” while a metaphor “is an implied but in many ways even more direct than comparison because the reader is expected to identify the comparison without the word “like” or “as”” (Osborne, 1997, p.124). However, “because similes merely join two disparate ideas or images, they are generally less fertile than metaphors, which can evoke additional and fresh shades of meaning” (Ehrenhaft, 2008, p.145).

Theoretical background of Vietnamese idioms of comparison

In Vietnamese, there are 2 kinds of idioms of comparison: one employs the word “như”, “tựa”, “tày”, “bằng”, “tựa như” or “cũng như” and one doesn’t.

Based on similarities of characteristics of 2 things, 2 phenomena, 2 actions, the Vietnamese create a large number of idioms which use A to name or to modify B.

Eg: Mặt trái xoan: oval-shaped face.

Star: a famous and talented person (usually in art, sport, culture).

(Nguyễn, 2010)

The other kind of idioms of comparison includes the word “bằng”, “tày”, “tựa”, “sánh”, “như” or “cũng như” which divides an idiom into 2 parts.

Both of parts can be a noun, verb, phrase or clause. The second part whose function is predicating and complementing the first part is counted from comparative word.

Eg: In the idiom “tội tày đình”, “tày đình” is the complement of the noun “tội”.

In the idiom “chạy như bay”, “như bay” is the complement of the verb chạy.

(Nguyễn, 2010)

A contrastive analysis of comparison idioms in English and Vietnamese

Quantity comparison

There are about 700 idioms of comparison in English, for example, “as warm as sunbeam”, “to follow like a shadow”, “to work like a Trojan”,… There are a similarity in the number of idioms of comparison in English and Vietnamese. Some examples of Vietnamese idioms of comparison are “lạnh như tiền”, “xanh như tàu lá”…

Similarities of idioms of comparison in English and Vietnamese

Although the culture of two nations is different, ways of thinking and looking at the world of English and Vietnamese is somehow similar. Hence, both Vietnamese and English express ideas and concepts in the same way. In fact, a large number of Vietnamese idioms of comparison are similar with English idioms of comparison in terms of both concept and image to express.

English idioms Vietnamese idioms

As black as coal Đen như than

As black as crow Đen như quạ

As black as ink Tối đen như mực

As sweet as sugar Ngọt như đường

As black as soot Đen như bồ hóng

As brief as a dream Ngắn như một giấc mộng

As bright as day Sáng như ban ngày

As brilliant as stars Sáng như sao

As changeable as the weather Hay thay đổi như thời tiết

As cold as ice Lạnh như băng

As cheerful as a lark Vui như sáo

As cunning as a fox Xảo quyệt như cáo

As dark as midnight Tối như nửa đêm

As dumb as a an oyster Câm như hến

As fair as a rose Xinh như hoa

As fast as a hare Nhanh như thỏ

As fat as a pig Mập như heo

As fierce as a tiger Dữ như cọp

As firm as rock Vững như đá

As fleet as the wind Nhanh như gió

As fresh a rose Tươi như hoa

As gay as a lark Vui như sáo

As gruff as a bear Hỗn như gấu

As good (valuable) as gold Quý như vàng

As green as a leaf Xanh như tàu lá

As heavy as an elephant Nặng như voi

As hard as a stone Cứng như đá

As heavy as lead Nặng như chì

As hot as fire Nóng như lửa

As keen as a razor Sắc như dao cạo

As light as down Nhẹ tựa lông hồng

As light as a feather Nhẹ tưa lông hồng

As mum as an oyster Câm như hến

As pretty as a picture Đẹp như tranh

As quick as lightning Nhanh như ánh sáng

As quick as a flash Nhanh như chớp

As red as blood Đỏ như máu

As red as a beetroot Đỏ như gấc

As sharp as a razor Sắc như dao cạo

As silly as a calf Ngu như bò

As sour as vinegar Chua như giấm

As stink as a polecat Hôi như chồn

As swift as lightning Nhanh như chớp

As smooth as velvet Mịn như nhung

As slow as a snail Chậm như sên

As swift as an arrow Nhanh như tên bắn

As steady as rock Cứng như đá

As timid as a rabbit/ hare Nhát như thỏ đế

As thick as ants Đông như kiến

As transparent as glass Trong suốt như thủy tinh

As yellow as saffron Vàng như nghệ

As wet as a drowned mouse Ướt như chuột lột

As white as snow Trắng như tuyết

As white as a sheet Như tờ giấy trắng

Like father like son Cha nào con nấy

To fight like cat and dog Như chó với mèo

To stick like a leech Bám dai như đỉa

To stick like glue Dính như keo

To cry like a baby Khóc như đứa trẻ

To follow like a shadow Theo như hình với bóng

To swim like fish Bơi như cá

Differences of idioms of comparison in English and Vietnamese

The same content but different images to express

Images of idiomatic comparisons in twp nations are different result from differences in culture. Vietnam has the cultural tradition of the wet rice production. Therefore, animals have a strong attachment to Vietnamese daily life. That’s why Vietnamese idioms of comparison consist of images related to buffaloes which are an animal familiar with rice production agriculture. Buffaloes pull ploughs, work very hard everyday to help farmers in their farming. As a result, wanting to mention strength, people often refer to buffaloes. In fact, to talk about someone very strong, the Vietnamese have the idiom “khỏe như trâu” while the English have the idiom “as strong as a horse”. That’s because English people prefer horses to buffaloes. Horses can not only pull ploughs but also transport and entertain. They are really energetic and strong enough to help people in life.

In spite of that, it doesn’t mean that English people don’t consider buffaloes strong animals or Vietnamese people don’t regard horses as strong animals. That results just from the difference in culture.

Also, dragons are a kind of animal which is very close in fertile imagination of Vietnamese people. Because of that, the image as a dragon appear in the Vietnamese idiom of comparison “ăn như rồng cuốn” to talk about eating large quantities of food while the image of a horse is used in the idiom “to eat like a horse”.

Lamp, butter are so familiar with English life while sweet potatoes, pig are familiar with Vietnamese life, as a result there are differences in images to express their ideas of gentleness and fatness:

English idioms Vietnamese idioms

As gentle as a lamp Hiền như củ khoai

As fat as butter Béo như lợn

Besides, the differences in the ways of thinking and observing the world make differences in the images of idiomatic comparisons. Take some following examples to illustrate that:

English idioms Vietnamese idioms

As easy as ABC Dễ như trở bàn tay

As easy as pie Dễ như trở bàn tay

As easy as anything Dễ như trở bàn tay

As smooth as butter Mượt như nhung

As pale as a ghost Xanh như tàu lá

As lazy as a lizard Lười như hủi

As soft as wax Mềm như bún

As merry as a cricket Vui như tết

As cheerful as the birds Vui như tết

As glad as a fly Vui như tết

As happy as a child Vui như tết
As happy as a clam Vui như tết

As dark as midnight Tối như đêm ba mươi

As black as midnight Tối như đêm 30

As dark as midnight Tối như hũ nút

As close as herrings Chặt như nêm

As soundly as a log (Ngủ) say như chết

As cold as marble Lạnh như tiền

As dry as a biscuit Khô như ngói

As red as lipstick Đỏ như gấc

As thin as finger Gầy như bộ xương khô

As weak as a kitten Yếu như sên

As weak as a baby Yếu như sên

As black as a stack of black cats Đen như cột nhà cháy

As black as the ace of spades Đen như cú súng

As round as a barrel Tròn như quả bóng

As old as the hills Xưa như trái đất

As hot as mustard Cay như ớt

Like hot cake Đắt như tôm tươi

As silent as the dead Im lặng như tờ

As silent as the grave Im lặng như tờ

What is more, the differences in human make differences between English and Vietnamese idioms. For example, in Vietnam, there is the idiom “ghen như Hoạn Thư” to refer to a person who is dreadfully jealous. However, in English, the idiom “as jealous as Othello” is used to talk about a one’s jealousy. Another example is “sướng như tiên” and “as happy as a king”. Indeed, Vietnamese people consider a fairy the happiest one while English people consider a king the happiest one.

The same components but the dissimilar content

Every so often, some images of comparison can appear in both Vietnamese and English idioms but the meaning of the two whole idioms are quite different. That’s because the meaning of components differs in culture.

Indeed, using the idiom “rõ như ban ngày”, the Vietnamese want to indicate a event which has nothing fishy. Meanwhile English people use the idiom “as bright as day” to describe a light room. Besides, when the weather is fine and sunny with good natural light, English people say: “It’s as bright as day”.

Besides, wanting to compliment someone on his or her beauty of eyes, Vietnamese people say: “Mắt cô sắc như dao cạo”. Still, English people use the idiom “as sharp as a razor” to refer to one’s brainpower.

What is more, whilst Vietnamese people apply the idiom “chắc như đinh đóng cột” to something steady, “as hard as nails” in English idiom means a person who is quite strict.

Also, when Vietnamese people say: “Nó tốt như vàng”, they mean it’s worth buying the object because of its good quality. In contrast, “as good as gold” cannot be used to compliment an object. In other words, English people never say: “It’s as good as gold” but “The person is as good as gold”. The person can be an assiduous and submissive child or a well-behaved adult.

Pedagogical Implications for Teaching English Idioms of comparison

Learning English idioms is one of steps so as to help learners master English. English idioms of comparison are frequently used in daily life. Therefore, teachers should help their students learn idioms most effectively.

Firstly, it’s advisable for teachers to raise students’ awareness of similarities and differences between Vietnamese and English idioms of comparison. When teachers teach their students a certain English idiom of comparison, they should let them guess the Vietnamese idiom which is equivalent to that idiom, making a comparison and explain why they are similar or different. It’s really useful for them to have a long-term memory about that idiom of comparison.

Secondly, idioms of comparison as well as other idioms are taught and practiced in classroom but students rarely apply them to their daily speech. That’s why teachers should encourage students to use idioms of comparison in their daily life as frequently as possible. Learners will memorize idioms better if idioms of comparison are put into communicative contexts. Don’t make them learn by heart.

Thirdly, teachers should draw students’ attention to idioms of comparison which are most useful and most frequent. As there are so many idioms of comparison in English culture, about 700, students aren’t liable to memorize and apply all of them in their daily life. Students should be taught to know what idioms of comparison they should learn.


There are both similarities and differences between English and Vietnamese idioms of comparison. The same or different image can bear resemblance in the meaning of English and Vietnamese idioms of comparison. In addition, there are some idioms of comparison which have the same components but the meaning are quite different. Great as have the researcher made an attempt to do the research, there are some restrictions on the research out of the limited time and other unexpected factors. The researcher hopes that the research will a useful material for learners and teachers to learn or teach most effectively.


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