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What is Anthropomorphism? (Meaning & Examples)

What is Anthropomorphism?



What’s anthropomorphism?

Toy Story. Bambi. Pinocchio. The Jungle Book. Animal Farm.


Notice something in common with these classic titles? “What is anthropomorphism?” would be correct, for all of our Jeopardy fans out there. Anthro-po-mor-phism describes when we assign human characteristics or traits to nonhuman entities, (like nonhuman animals, i.e., most animal species of the nonhuman variety), inanimate objects (your iPhone), and the environment surrounding us.

It’s not as complicated as it sounds. In fact, we oftentimes incorporate anthropomorphism to help simplify what might otherwise be a complex or contentious topic (for example, as in the case of the novella Animal Farm by George Orwell). Ostensibly, it’s been used for centuries to make the nonhuman world “[more] relatable and emotionally engaging”. As a literary device, it spans genres from folklore and mythology to literature, art, and modern media.



Meaning of anthropomorphism

Anthropomorphous is an adjective that comes from the Greek word anthrōpomorphos, meaning “of human form”. It’s a compound of anthrōpos, meaning “human being” + morphē, “form”, according to etymonline. As a noun, anthropomorphism (pronounced anthruh-puhmorfizm) originally referred to, “the ascription of human qualities to a deity”. However, by the mid-1800s, the application of anthropomorphism as a phenomena broadened to include “all areas of human thought and action, including daily life, the arts, and even sciences.”

To say that anthropomorphism extends to all areas of human thought might sound like a stretch, but ostensibly it can occur both consciously or subconsciously. If you’ve ever been frustrated because your phone battery died abruptly, did you take out your frustration on your phone? If you’ve ever felt annoyed towards technology, or any household object for “not cooperating”, whether you realize it or not, you are anthropomorphizing objects by engaging with them as though they were human.

As a literary device and technique, anthropomorphism appears in art, literature, and film to make characters more relatable, and so we can examine human themes and issues in a more separate and safe space.



Why do we anthropomorphize?

While most see anthropomorphizing as a natural human tendency that is deep-seated, there are still various rationales which explains why we anthropomorphize. The Scottish philosopher, David Hume, suggests that we do so for intellectual purposes; i.e., “in order to explain an unfamiliar and mysterious world by using the model that humans know best, namely themselves”. (Brittanica, anthropomorphism).

A different view is proposed by the psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud. According to Freud, humans anthropomorphize for emotional reasons: “to make a hostile or indifferent world seem more familiar and therefore less threatening” (Brittanica, anthropomorphism). Based on this, we can say that we anthropomorphize for any or all of the following reasons:

To make sense of what’s unfamiliar: It’s human nature to try and make sense of the world around us by inferring from what we already know. Humans are emotional and social animals by nature, so it makes sense that we assign our own reactions/behaviours/emotions to what occurs around us (human or not), to better understand and make sense of what may otherwise be perplexing or unnerving circumstances.

As a coping mechanism: This is similar to the above, and perhaps is an extension of the same point. When it comes to making sense of the unfamiliar, anthropomorphism allows us to find comfort in the “unfamiliar” by being a familiar point of reference. For example, when we assign human emotions to natural phenomena, such as a tornado or a hurricane, and say that, “this hurricane is coming with a vengeance”, this ascribes the weather with human feeling and emotion.

Hurricanes and tornadoes aren’t vengeful, and don’t have intentions in general. Still, sometimes it’s comforting to ascribe natural disasters with human affinities, since it might help better explain our worldview.



As a literary device and creative technique: When it comes to movies, literature and media, anthropomorphism is so common that we hardly think twice about it. Authors may employ anthropomorphism in stories to make a moral lesson easier to understand and digest, especially for younger audiences. It’s also used to make characters more relatable, engaging and convey character depth and complexities.



Anthropomorphism vs. personification

Personification: When I look out at the grass, sometimes it looks as if it were in a waltz with the wind.

Metaphorical or figurative language that describes nonhuman organisms or entities counts as personification. The Google search result definition on personification is, “the attribution of a personal nature or human characteristics to something nonhuman, or the representation of an abstract quality in human form”. Admittedly, this sounds almost indiscernible from anthropomorphism; still, they notably differ. The following passage is from the first page of George Orwell’s novella, Animal Farm, which is a clear yet pointed use of anthropomorphism in literature:

Word had gone round during the day that old Major, the prize Middle White boar, had had a strange dream on the previous night and wished to communicate it to the other animals. It had been agreed that they should all meet in the big barn as soon as Mr. Jones was safely out of the way.

Animal Farm, George Orwell



The character’s that the story depict are humanlike in their form and way of being (recall the etymology of anthropomorphism meaning, “of human form”). Old Major in Animal Farm exhibits or possesses the same traits and behaviours that we do as humans, albeit in the story. The takeaway point is personification occurs when figurative language describes nonhuman things as though they were human.



Anthropomorphism in literature and media

1. Aesop’s fables: The Tortoise and the Hare

Aesop’s fables are short stories that contain dialogue between “humans, animals, plants and gods concluding to moralistic lessons”. One universally known fable is the story of “The Tortoise and the Hare“, which teaches the value of perseverance. Here is an example that shows anthropomorphism in the dialogue from “The Tortoise and the Hare“:

A Hare was making fun of the Tortoise one day for being so slow.
“Do you ever get anywhere?” he asked with a mocking laugh.
“Yes,” replied the Tortoise, “and I get there sooner than you think. I’ll run you a race and prove it.”

The Tortoise and the Hare, Aesop’s Fables

We, along with anyone else reading the fable will know that animals such as tortoises and hares don’t engage in conversation, let alone make fun of each other. However, using anthropomorphism in stories such as fables helps make the lessons more digestible, especially for younger kids, and perhaps also more memorable.

2. George Orwell’s Animal Farm

Animal Farm is a story about anthropomorphic farm animals that stage a revolution, and struggle for power and control. From the outset, the farm animals are introduced as possessing human characteristics and traits. Old Major, who is a pig and central character in the story, encourages the other animals on the farm to revolt against the men (aka the human beings) who run the farm. Animal Farm utilizes anthropomorphism to satirize political and social systems, and to make Orwell’s criticisms of such systems more easily comprehensible and understood by readers.

3. A.A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh

In the children’s book series, Winnie the Pooh, the animals in the Hundred Acre Wood, such as Winnie-the-Pooh, Piglet, and Tigger, are anthropomorphized, with “each having their own unique personalities and emotions”. The reasons for anthropomorphism when it comes to children’s books are plentiful, but include the aim to incite children’s imaginations, curiosity and teach valuable lessons in a straightforward way.

Criticisms about anthropomorphism

While anthropomorphism is a valuable literary and artistic tool, it is not without its critics. Some argue that it oversimplifies complex issues or can reinforce stereotypes and biases. Additionally, anthropomorphizing animals may lead to misunderstandings about their actual behavior and needs, which can have real-world consequences.

Read about other literary devices



Sources

  1. Harper, Douglas. “Etymology of anthropomorphism.” Online Etymology Dictionary, https://www.etymonline.com/word/anthropomorphism. Accessed 14 December, 2023.
  2. Wikipedia contributors. “Animal Farm.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 11 Dec. 2023. Web. 15 Dec. 2023.


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