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The Contrastive Analysis Of Vietnamese And English Comparative Idioms

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Idioms are a part of every language which reflects cultural features of each nation. It can be broken into certain shared categories with identical characteristics. This research paper will focus on analyzing Vietnamese and English comparative idioms in terms of their formation. The thorough analysis of idiom formation in the two languages will lead to the pedagogical and translating implication.

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It is obvious that language plays an important role as a communicative device of human being. It also reflects the social and cultural features of any regions or nations. However, the major concern of linguistic researchers is on the macro scale of idioms not micro one with various sub categories like that of comparative idioms. While idioms act as a bridge to make the speech more meaningful, comparative idioms offer a vivid image in the utterances and reflect human’s observation as a result. However, it is the differences among each country’s cultural values that distinguish themselves from the rest and cause great distinct of comparative idioms. This paper will aim to clarify the main features of comparative idioms through the analysis of them in the two language Vietnamese and English through explanations and examples.

Definition of Idioms

Every word has a unique meaning to express a specific object or concept. However, there are cases in which words come in a group or expression and present a completely different meaning. This is called idioms. According to McMordie & Seidl (1988), an idiom is a group of words that form a new different meaning from each separate word. There are a large number of idioms in English. For examples, “make up someone’s mind”, “beat around the bush”, “go an extra mile”,…

Vietnamese linguistic researchers also come up with the explanation for this term. Nguyen (1996) stated that “Thành ngữ là những cụm từ cố định vừa có tính hoàn chỉnh về nghĩa, vừa có tính gợi cảm. ” Vietnamese language possesses a lot of idioms as well. For instance, “ăn no ngủ kĩ”, “bụng làm dạ chịu”, “kén cá chọn canh”,…


Definition. Among the figures of speech, simile seems to be the easiest one to identify and comprehend. Simile involves the joining of two different entities that share something in common. Simile is commonly used in everyday speech and writing. We can find a lot of masterpieces employing it to make the works more and more figurative. For example:

‘O, she doth teach the torches to burn bright!

It seems she hangs upon the cheek of night

Like a rich jewel in an Ethiope’s ear’ (Shakespeare, n. d. )

“But my body was like a harp and her words and gestures were like fingers running upon the wires. ” (Joyce, 1914)

Features of simile. “as”, “like” or “than” are function words used in this type of figure of speech. For examples, “sleep like a log”, “as cold as ice”,… In Vietnamese, simile can be formed by utilizing words like “là, như, hơn, tựa, bằng,…” For example, “đẹp như tiên”, “xấu như ma”, “ngủ như chết”,…

The comparison using simile does not put the comparing object and the compared one in the same semantic class. For example, “Jack is as cunning as a fox. ” It is obvious that there is no correlation in physical features between Jack and a fox. However, they share the same characteristic in which both Jack and the fox are sly. Take another example, “Jimmy has worked like a horse recently”. Jimmy is compared with a horse in term of working although they are not in the same semantic class in which Jimmy is human and horse is an animal. The aim of this comparison is to point out the similarity in the horse and Jimmy diligence

Comparative idioms

Definition. Idioms of comparison, or also called comparative idioms are those using simile to form the comparison. We can easily catch this figure of speech in speech on a daily basis, or literature, prose, poem,…

Features of comparative idioms. Comparative idioms are utilized to make the readers or listeners see a clear picture. It also helps concretize our ideas. That is the reason why almost all comparative idioms are easy to comprehend. Although comparative idioms are idioms with implication of simile, not all simile are comparative idioms. For example, “My love is like a red, red rose”.

Contrastive Analysis

English idioms of comparison

Thanks to the use of simile, English idioms of comparison have several particular structures that can be easily detected. The model below is the most familiar with all readers and speakers whenever they catch an idiom of comparison. The adjective reflects the feature of the noun from which produces a vivid image.

AS + Adjective + AS + (a/an/the) + Noun

Some examples that we often use are listed below:

  • as fair as a rose
  • as good as gold
  • as bitter as a gall
  • as cunning as a fox
  • as black as pitch

Using verbs in comparative idioms is also a common phenomenon. The speaker can use this kind of comparative idioms to describe an action of the others by comparing it to the one of something else.

Verb + LIKE + a/an/the + Noun

For instance:

  • eat like a horse
  • sleep like a log
  • work like a dog
  • sing like an angel
  • explode like a volcano

Besides, there are several other comparative idioms with the application of like/as, but the following part is flexible. It can be a clause, noun phrase or verb phrase. This kind of comparative idioms appears much in daily speech and writing.

(Verb) + LIKE/ AS + clause/ noun phrase/ verb phrase

For example:

  • like waving a red flag in front of a bull
  • have a memory like a sieve
  • go at a snail’s pace
  • Vietnamese idioms of comparison

Similar to English, Vietnamese also has a large number of comparative idioms using simile as a based structure. We often use the formula “A như B” in which A is an adjective and B is a noun when we deliberately emphasize something in our speech or writing. Moreover, we can understand the idioms without much thinking thanks to our previous perception about the compared words’ main feature. For instance:

  • đen như than
  • đẹp như tiên
  • trắng như tuyết
  • khỏe như trâu
  • kín như hũ nút

Vietnamese also has comparative idioms starting with a verb that is compared with another entity. This entity has a specific action, or behavior that bears resemblance to the mentioned verb. The general model for this case is “C như B” in which C is a verb and B is an entity. For example:

  • run như cầy sấy
  • ăn như lợn
  • cười như nghé
  • ngáy như sấm
  • khóc như mưa

There are cases that Vietnamese idioms of comparison only use “như + B”. For example, “như nước với lửa”, “như tay với chân”, “như gà mắc tóc”,. . . Those idioms do not need a comparing object as people live in the same cultures with shared values can understand the implicit meaning without explanations.

Vietnamese idioms of comparison also use other comparative words like “tày”, “thể”, “tựa”, “là”, “hơn”, “bằng”,… However, the frequency of those words appearing in idioms is normally less than the word “như”.

In certain circumstances, comparative idioms can be formed without using comparative words. For example, “Kẻ tám lạng, người nửa cân”. Although the word “như” is eliminated, readers can still understand the implicit comparison.

Similarities between English and Vietnamese comparative idioms

General meaning. Vietnamese and English has a huge source of comparative idioms. They are used in daily life and reflect each nation’s culture. More importantly, they possess stable structures and make our daily conversations more attractive with lively images, emotions and emphasis.

Correlation in translation. As human being do not live separately with other communities, there is some overlapping in the point of view which leads to citizens of the two nations rendering the comparative idioms in the same way. The table below shows such cases that both Vietnamese and English comparative idioms have the same meaning with identical images.

English and Vietnamese comparative idioms’ correlation in translation:

  • as black as coal – đen như than
  • as black as soot – đen như nhọ nồi
  • as black as ink – đen như mực
  • as slow as a snail – chậm như sên
  • as red as blood – đỏ như máu
  • as agile as monkey – lanh như khỉ
  • as heavy as lead – nặng như chì
  • as hot as fire – nóng như lửa
  • as sweet as honey – ngọt như mật
  • as swift as the wind – nhanh như gió
  • to fight like cat and dog – như chó với mèo
  • to follow like a shadow – như hình với bóng
  • to swim like a fish – bơi như cá

Differences between English and Vietnamese comparative idioms

Idioms with different images but same meaning. Culture is one of the main factors that distinguish citizens from various countries. However, humans as a whole often share some key features in lifestyle or thinking as we do not separate ourselves from the rest of the world. Moreover, corresponding with people from various cultures as well as exploring and discovering the new land seems to always be a desire of humans. Though the process of exchanging cultural identities, the world seems to be smaller with shared concepts. Therefore, although there may be certain differences in the images used in comparative idioms between English and Vietnamese, their meaning coincide each other at some point. English and Vietnamese idioms shared same meaning but different images:

  • as hot as an oven – nóng như đổ lửa
  • as yielding as wax – mềm như bún
  • as flat as a pancake – lép như trấu
  • as fit as a fiddle – khỏe như vâm
  • as gentle as a lamb – hiền như bụt
  • as easy as ABC – dễ như ăn bánh
  • as full as an egg – chật như nêm
  • as dark as midnight – tối như đêm ba mươi
  • as strong as a horse – khỏe như trâu
  • as tall as a giraffe – cao như núi
  • as stubborn as a mule – lì như trâu
  • as dry as a bone – khô như ngói
  • as pale as a ghost – xanh như tàu lá

Idioms with same images but different meaning. Each nation has their own values and percept the world in different ways. Therefore, there may be one idiom of comparison in English with an exact image used in Vietnamese, but the content is totally strange to each other.

A typical example is “as good as gold”. In English, this idiom aims to praise good behaviors of a child. Vietnamese also has the idiom “tốt như vàng”, which shares the same image with that of English. However, Vietnamese people do not use this idiom to implicate human’s characteristics but the good quality of objects.

Images of famous persons. People tend to assimilate the popular characters in Literature or History to form new and unique comparative idioms, which also contribute to the representation of the country culture. In daily utterances, Vietnamese people often utilize such images as “Cuội”, “chúa Chổm”, “Hoạn Thư”, “Tào Tháo”, “Trương Phi”, “Từ Hải”, “Tây Thi”,… to emphasize our meaning. It seems that Vietnamese people at least once in their lifetime hear about those characters and sometimes they use the image of those people in their utterances without knowing its origin. Some idioms popularly used are “nói dối như Cuội”, “nợ như chúa Chổm”, “ghen như Hoạn Thư”, “đa nghi như Tào Tháo”, “nóng như Trương Phi”,…

By contrast, English people would prefer “Othello”, “Croesus”, “Larry”, “Adam”, “Lazarus”, “Trojan”,… as a means to reflect their culture. Each of the mentioned character are connected to a particular event and person, which makes the utterances used those images unique to that culture. This is also a barrier for foreign learners as they have to do research about those characters and fully understand their characteristics in order to render the meaning of the idiom. “as jealous as Othello”, “as rich as Croesus”, “to work like Trojan”,… are remarkable examples to clarify this case.

Images of animals. Perception about the world is varied among cultures. That is the reason why one animal representing good luck in one culture can be that of the devil in the other one. Therefore, the image of every animal that is used in comparative proverbs varies among cultures.

In ancient Roman and some European countries, owl is considered to bring wisdom and protection, which is presented clearly in the idiom “as wise as an owl”. However, when it comes to Vietnamese culture, people look at them as a dirty animal. Therefore, they often use the idiom “hôi như cú” to indicate somebody is smelly and filthy.

Due to Vietnamese’s dependence on agriculture, the image of buffalo appears in a lot of idioms. People often use the good characteristics of the buffalo to compare with that of humans. Buffalo is known as an animal with strength and hard work, which is reflected lively in the idiom “khỏe như trâu”. In contrast, horse is popularly used as a means of transport and agriculture work in English culture. Therefore, to convey the same meaning, English people would use “as strong as a horse”.


Comparative idioms is a small part of idioms in both English and Vietnamese language. However, they are used commonly in daily speech and acts as a device to make our speech smoother and livelier. The analysis of comparative idioms based on their structures and content has revealed an interesting point in the affection of culture in English and Vietnamese idioms in which the compared objects represent the most dissimilarities. This research paper has provided an in-depth understanding of comparative idioms relating to cultural background and made an implication on its importance.


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31 October 2020

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