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Goat, sheep or ram, you're still right

I noticed the Jacksonville Chinese New Year's event was celebrating the Year of the Ram, but I've also seen 2015 referred to as the Year of the Goat and the Year of the Sheep. Which is it: goat, ram or sheep?

David E., Medford

Whether it's Starbucks trumpeting the Year of the Sheep on a gift card or the Southern Oregon Chinese Cultural Association welcoming the Year of the Ram with a parade in Jacksonville, it turns out they're both correct.

The issue isn't a matter of competing zodiacs, but rather a simple case of indirect translation.

You've probably heard that Eskimo tribes have some 50 words for "snow" (a separate controversy among linguists and anthropologists — that number seems to vary from five to over 100 depending on what languages and dialects you bunch together). The point is that English doesn't always offer a clear word-to-word translation, as is the case with the Mandarin word "yang," which more literally is a horned animal that encompasses both sheep and goats.  

In case you're wondering how folks in China could possibly get by in such a world, the word "shanyang" refers to goats, and the word "mianyang" refers to sheep, and "gongyang" refers specifically to a ram.  

In the zodiac, the animal is simply "yang," and searching the word in Chinese image search engines nets little consensus.  A blog post by Victor Mair, professor of Chinese language and literature at the University of Pennsylvania, notes that people in northern China think of "yang" more as sheep and those in southern China leaning toward goat, though even that's not a hard and fast rule.

Send questions to “Since You Asked,” Mail Tribune Newsroom, P.O. Box 1108, Medford, OR 97501; by fax to 541-776-4376; or by email to youasked@mailtribune.com. We’re sorry, but the volume of questions received prevents us from answering all of them.