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Nomination of mental illnesses in languages of different types.

1. Introduction

The purpose of this article is to compare the nomination of mental diseases in English, Russian and Chinese. The names of mental disorders show us the diversity of naming mechanisms in different languages and national specifics of the worldview fragment which is connected with such names. For this study, the words were selected not from special dictionaries, but only from current ones, because the general tendencies of nomination and mentality specifics are connected with common nonterminological vocabulary.

2. Names of mental illnesses in current English, Russian and Chinese

The specificity and importance of the concept 'soul' in the Russian linguistic worldview is well known; it has been repeatedly and variously described (here we refer only to the conference in Warsaw, dedicated to the concept 'soul', and the book published after this conference [Kapelus, Maslowska, Pazio-Wlazlowska (eds.) 2016]. It should be noted that only in Russian, mental illnesses received a generalized name [phrase omitted] (literally 'an illness of soul'). Everyday common nominations, like [phrase omitted] 'mental handicap', [phrase omitted] 'dementia', etc. show that the Russian word [phrase omitted] is synonymous with the words [phrase omitted] and [phrase omitted] 'intelligence, mind', when we are talking about diseases. In other contexts the soul and heart are equated. The name [phrase omitted] (literally 'an illness of psyche') is also used only in the Russian language: it is created by analogy with [phrase omitted] on the basis of the derivative from borrowing (< Greek psyche 'soul').

In many other languages, the common names of mental and nervous diseases are based on the absence, lack, defect of the mind--a concept of "mind, intelligence" is their nominating basis. In particular, this is so in English: mental affection, disease, illness, disorder, alienation, handicap, disability, deficiency; unsoundness of mind, illness of mind, feeble-mindedness < feeble-minded, weakness of mind, intellectual impairment, etc.

Both in Russian and in English, there is the possibility of generalization: a particular concept can be denoted by the general one. In Russian, [phrase omitted] 'mentally defective man' can be called simply [phrase omitted] 'a sick man'; Eng. insane (> insanity) goes back to Lat. insanus 'crazy, abnormal' < in 'not' + sanus 'healthy' (> Eng. sane 'healthy') [Online Etymology Dictionary].

Semantics and compatibility of Eng. soul does not differ fundamentally from Rus. [phrase omitted], except for the specificity of the Russian lexeme, which has been widely discussed.

Russian [phrase omitted] and English soul correspond to two words in Chinese: [phrase omitted] [xinling] < [phrase omitted] [xin] 'heart' + [phrase omitted] [ling] 'spirit'; [phrase omitted] [jingshen], which was borrowed from Japanese [phrase omitted].

The history of the word with Japanese origin is as follows. In accordance with the Taoist tradition, three treasures are emphasized, and must be "protected" and "nourished" throughout human life. The first one is Jing ([phrase omitted]), which can be translated as 'semen' or 'essence'. It is a special substance (a kind of energy) that carries information about the structure and certain characteristics of the physical human body. On the basis of this concept of Taoism, Japanese created the word [phrase omitted] 'soul', which came into Chinese later.

The second treasure is Qi ([phrase omitted])--vital energy (vital force) that circulates in the human body, and allows all organs and systems of the body to function.

Shen ([phrase omitted]) is the third treasure. This term can be translated as 'Spirit'. It is Shen that makes us reasonable, thinking, capable for self-improvement, and this is the third Chinese lexeme, which correlates with Rus. [phrase omitted] and Eng. soul.

From the above mentioned borrowing from Japanese we can trace the Chinese word [phrase omitted] [jingshenbing] 'mental illness' < [phrase omitted] 'soul' + Chinese suffix [phrase omitted] [bing] 'sickness' (1).

However, the following nominations are more frequent. The concept of "mental retardation" is denoted in Chinese by the lexeme [phrase omitted] 'mental retardation' [zhilizhang'ai] (simplified [phrase omitted] [zhizhang]) [phrase omitted] [zhili] 'intellect' + [phrase omitted] [zhang'ai] 'hindrance'. Chinese [phrase omitted] [chidaizheng] 'dementia' comes back to [phrase omitted] [chidai] 'stupidity' + suffix [phrase omitted] [zheng] 'disease'. Its synonym is [phrase omitted] 'dementia' [shizhizheng] < [phrase omitted] [shi] 'loss' + [phrase omitted] [zhi] 'intelligent' + suffix [phrase omitted] [zheng] 'disease'.

In all three analyzed languages, the names created by the native means of each language are only used for the general notion of "mental illness, mental retardation". The designation of particular, specific mental diseases, as usual, are borrowed words. This general tendency is due to the fact that the nature and etiology of mental illness were usually ignored by the majority of the language speakers--their goal was to denote the fact of illness in general.

Here are some examples of the names of specific mental or neurological diseases in English and Russian, which come back, as a rule, to Latin or Greek roots--they are often internationalisms. As a rule, such names are medical terms, for example, Eng. oligophreny 'congenital mental retardation, dementia', different degrees of which are denoted by words idiocy, imbecibility, debility--its Russian equivalents are [phrase omitted]. This list is very long: Eng. dementia (< Lat. dement-, demens 'crazy' < de- + ment-, mens 'mind') - Rus. [phrase omitted] 'degradation of mental functions, resulting from brain damage'; Eng. hypomania--Rus. [phrase omitted] 'an easy degree of mania'; Eng. bipolar disorder--Rus. [phrase omitted] (calque of the Latin expression) 'maniac-depressive psychosis'; Eng. kleptomania--Rus. [phrase omitted], and many others. There are also a series of international disease names which origins can be traced back to proper nouns, for example, Eng. Lou Gehrig's disease--Rus. [phrase omitted] (Henry Lou Gehrig was a famous American baseball player who suffered amyotrophic lateral sclerosis) [Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary]. Eng. Munchausen syndrome--Rus. [phrase omitted] is named after the literary character of Baron von Munchausen, who liked to draw long bow. Eng. Parkinson's disease--Rus. [phrase omitted] (> Eng. parkinsonism--pyc. [phrase omitted]) is named after English physician James Parkinson. The French neurologist Jean Charcot suggested this name in honor of the British doctor and author of "An essay on the shaking palsy", whose work was not properly appreciated during his life.

In Chinese, the general trend of denoting specific concepts by borrowing remains, but it is realized differently--often through loanwords from Japanese. For example, Chinese [phrase omitted] [baichi] 'idiocy' was borrowed from Japanese.

There are many other Japanisms among Chinese medical terms. Chinese (simplified) [phrase omitted] [jiepi], traditional [phrase omitted] 'misophobia' = 'a pathological fear of contamination and germs, avoidance of contact with surrounding objects' < Japan. [phrase omitted]. The hieroglyph [phrase omitted] [jie] has the meaning 'cleanliness', and [phrase omitted] [pi] means 'eccentricity, strangeness'. The productive Chinese suffix [phrase omitted] [pi] with the semantics of 'eccentricity, strangeness' is often used for the terminology of mental illnesses; it often appears as a part of terms like [phrase omitted] 'kleptomania', [phrase omitted] 'compulsive hoarding', or 'hoarding disorder', [phrase omitted] 'picacism' = 'the desire to eat something inedible'.

Chinese (simplified) [phrase omitted] [shenjingbing] 'psychosis', traditional Chinese 'psychosis' consists of word [phrase omitted] [shenjing] 'nerve' + [phrase omitted] [bing] 'sickness'. The meaning of 'psychosis' was borrowed from Japanese [phrase omitted] 'psychosis'. The very word from the traditional Chinese [phrase omitted] can be traced back to the Chinese [phrase omitted] 'the god, the spirit' [phrase omitted] 'a book, a text', and in archaic Chinese it meant 'the mysterious book or text', i.e. it was not related to medicine. The medical meaning of [phrase omitted] 'nerve' was created by Japanese doctor Sugita Genpaku (Japan. [phrase omitted]) by means of a semantic translation of Dutch zenuw [[phrase omitted] 1996]. In the early twentieth century, the word with this new meaning came into Chinese medical terminology--at that time the dictionary of the Chinese language was actively replenished with Japanese lexemes. A number of other Chinese psychiatric terms are also connected with the word [phrase omitted] [shenjing] 'nerve'.

Chinese [phrase omitted] [shenjingguannengzheng] 'neurosis' is a compound word consisting of [phrase omitted] [shenjing] 'nerve' (semantic borrowing from Japanese) + [phrase omitted] [guanneng] = [phrase omitted] 'function' + Chinese suffix [phrase omitted] [zheng] 'syndrome / illness'. The term [phrase omitted] 'neurosis' is most often used in Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macao, and on the mainland of China they prefer to use the word [phrase omitted] [shenjingzheng] 'neurosis', which has the same meaning.

Simplified Chinese [phrase omitted] [shenjingguomin] 'hyperesthesia' = 'high sensitivity', traditional Chinese [phrase omitted] [shenjing] 'nerve' + [phrase omitted] [guo] = [phrase omitted] [guoyu] 'excessively, overly, overmuch' + [phrase omitted] [min] = [phrase omitted] [mingan] 'sensitive' is borrowed from Japanese. In modern Chinese [phrase omitted] is polysemantic: the first meaning of it is the medical term 'hyperesthesia', and the second one is 'skeptical (person)', 'paranoid (person)'.

Chinese [phrase omitted] [shenjingshuairuo] 'neurasthenia', consisting of the word [phrase omitted] [shenjing] 'nerve' + [phrase omitted] [shuairuo] 'weak', also was borrowed from Japanese [phrase omitted]

The name of the concept "autism" was borrowed from Japanese, too. Simplified Chinese [phrase omitted] [zibizheng] 'autism', traditional Chinese [phrase omitted] 'autism', which includes characters [phrase omitted] [zi] 'self' + [phrase omitted] [bi] 'close' + [phrase omitted] [zheng] 'disease' go back to Japanese [phrase omitted] 'autism'.

Chinese [phrase omitted] [konggaozheng] 'acrophobia' = 'irrational fear or phobia of heights' is not related to Japanese. The word goes back to the Chinese character [phrase omitted] [kong] 'fear' + [phrase omitted] [gao] 'height' + [phrase omitted] [zheng] 'syndrome / disease', it is the semantic calque of the internationalism acrophobia (< Greek [phrase omitted] 'peak, summit, edge' and [phrase omitted] 'fear' + Chinese suffix [phrase omitted] [zheng] 'syndrome / disease').

There are also some special names of mental illnesses in Chinese that can be traced back to the traditional Chinese medical terms, for example, [phrase omitted] [yibing] 'hysteria' = [phrase omitted] < [phrase omitted] [yi] 'hysteria' (the term from traditional Chinese medicine) + suffix [phrase omitted] [bing] 'sickness'. The other term from traditional Chinese medicine is [phrase omitted] [zhanwang] 'delirium' < [phrase omitted] [zhan] 'to rave' + [phrase omitted] [wang] 'ludicrous, absurd', i.e. the disease is named metonymically according to the characteristic symptom--the patient's incoherent speech.

Other metonymic transfers are also commonly used: mental diseases are nominated not only as problems with the mind and intelligence (Russian [phrase omitted] 'crazy'), but also as problems with organs 'containing' the intelligence: Russian expressions [phrase omitted] 'with a sick head', [phrase omitted] (verbatim 'his head is limp'), [phrase omitted] (verbatim 'not friendly with one's head'); English go out of one's head, crack one's brains. Obviously, this is due to the metonymic nomination of the mind through the name of the organ that is "responsible" for it.

Often a mentally ill person or a person with inadequate behavior or a fool is designated by the same lexeme: Rus. [phrase omitted] 'crazy', colloquialism ncux 'psychopath', Eng. crazy 'mentally ill person' [right arrow] 'person with inadequate behavior'. Examples of the same semantic development also exist in Chinese: [phrase omitted] [shenjingbuzhengchang] 'nervous, troubled, abnormal (person)' can be traced back to [phrase omitted] [shenjing] 'nerve' + [phrase omitted] [buzhengchang] 'abnormal'. The Chinese colloquialism [phrase omitted] [fengzi] 'madman, loco, loony' contains both meanings: 'mentally ill person' and 'person with inadequate behavior' (< [phrase omitted] [feng] 'crazy', 'inadequate behavior' + [phrase omitted] [zi] Chinese suffix without semantics).

Semantic transfer 'mentally ill person' [right arrow] 'a fool' is represented in Russian names of patients suffering from specific types of mental illnesses: [phrase omitted] 'idiot', [phrase omitted] 'moron'; Eng. idiot, imbecile; Chinese [phrase omitted] [shazi] 'imbecile', [phrase omitted] [shagua] 'moron'. In Chinese, this semantics may also be transferred by lexemes like [phrase omitted] [baichi] 'idiocy (sickness)', 'stupid' (Japanism); [phrase omitted] [ruozhi] 'mental handicap (illness / disability)', 'stupid' (< [phrase omitted] [ruo] 'weak' + [phrase omitted] [zhi] 'intelligence, mind'); [phrase omitted] [zhilizhang'ai] (often abbreviated as [phrase omitted] [zhizhang]) 'mental handicap', 'retard, moron' < [phrase omitted] [zhili] 'intelligence' + [phrase omitted] [zhang'ai] 'hindrance'. The shortened word [phrase omitted] [zhizhang] 'mental handicap, intellectual incapacity' ([right arrow] 'a fool') came into Chinese through semantic translation from English intellectual disability.

3. Conclusion

There are several common trends in the nomination of mental illnesses in languages of different types.

Firstly, the native nominative means of a particular language are used for the nomination of mental illness in nonterminological names, but when naming specific mental diseases, usually, borrowing is preferred. This statement is not as true for English as for Russian and Chinese, because some of English general terms for mental disorders are loanwords from Latin (insane) or French (disease).

Secondly, in all analyzed languages there are such semantic metonymic transfers as: 1) the genus-species synecdoche--mental illness can be nominated through naming a concept of "disease"; 2) mental illness can also be nominated as a problem with the organ which is responsible for intelligence.

Thirdly, there are other frequent semantic transfers: 'mentally sick person' [right arrow] 'person with inadequate behavior'; 'mentally ill person' [right arrow] 'fool, stupid'.


Kapelus, Magdalena, Maslowska, Ewa, Pazio-Wlazlowska, Dorota (ed.). 2016. Swiat oczyma duszy. Antropologiczno-jezykowe wizerunki duszy w perspektywie micdzykulturowej. Tom 2. Warszawa: Wydawnictwo Instytutu Slawistyki Polskiej Akademii Nauk.

Lees, Andrew J. 2007. Unresolved issues relating to the shaking palsy on the celebration of James Parkinson's 250th birthday. Movement Disorders. Vol. 22. Suppl. 17. P. 327-334.

Maslowska, Ewa, Pazio-Wlazlowska, Dorota (ed.). 2016. Dusza w oczach swiata. Antropologiczno-jezykowe wizerunki duszy w perspektywie miedzykulturowej. T. 1. Warszawa: Wydawnictwo Instytutu Slawistyki Polskiej Akademii Nauk.

Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary. 2008. 11th ed., Springfield, Merriam-Webster. Online Etymology Dictionary. ( Accessed 2018-03-210).

[phrase omitted] [Li, Yangzheng]. 2011. [phrase omitted] [A theory of Taoist 'Jing', 'Qi' and 'Shen']. [phrase omitted] [The international association of Taoist Studies, Taipei]. Accessed 2018-03-210).

[phrase omitted] [Huang, Heqing]. 1996. [phrase omitted] [The origin of the term Nerve]. [phrase omitted] [Research collections], Yuanghua, Wang (ed.). Vol. VII. Shanghai: Shanghai Far Eastern Press. ( Accessed 2018-03-210).

Alena Rudenka

Per. Kazarmenny

5a-49, Minsk, 220030


Xiang, Fang


34-218, Minsk, 220004


Alena Rudenka, Fang Xiang, Belorussian State University, Belorussia

(1) Chinese [phrase omitted] [bing] 'illness' is treated in this article as a suffix, because in modern Chinese it can not be used alone. Independent use of [phrase omitted] [bing] is possible as a shortened variant of [phrase omitted] [jibing] 'illness' or as an archaism.

[Please note: Some non-Latin characters were omitted from this article]
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Title Annotation:English, Chinese and Russian
Author:Rudenka, Alena; Xiang, Fang
Publication:SKASE Journal of Theoretical Linguistics
Article Type:Report
Date:Sep 1, 2018
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