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What Is the Difference Between Anthropomorphism and Personification?

A writer can describe the wind as angry to express the extent of a storm.
Anthropomorphism commonly refers to the act of ascribing human traits to animals.
Anthropomorphism and personification are often used in literature to share lessons of commonality.
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  • Last Modified Date: 10 October 2014
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The difference between anthropomorphism and personification is a subtle one, as each term refers to a similar assignment of human characteristics to a non-human entity. Anthropomorphism is a literary device that an author uses to give traditionally human feelings or actions to an animal, plant, or inanimate object. For example, the sentence, "The wind blew angrily, expressing the full extent of his violent rage," applies this concept, because the wind retains its non-human form while taking on human emotions, intentions, and a masculine pronoun. Personification works similarly and occurs when the writer allows a non-human entity to fully embody human traits. The Easter Bunny is an example of personification, as an animal becomes a total embodiment of human characteristics and abilities.

Authors frequently use anthropomorphism in writing to represent abstractions or metaphors in the form of a traditional object or animal. This device encourages readers to think about the subject in a new way. Historically, it has also contributed to the efforts of environmentalists and animal rights activists. These groups use this device to make people think about the environment and animals differently, with the idea that these entities have inherent value similar to humans. It is also sometimes used by groups like animal rights activists, who ask people to understand animal capabilities of reasoning, emotion, and feeling.

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Personification is most frequently used in folklore, traditional stories, and children's literature. In these stories, authors give a name, set of actions, and a personality with motivations and desires to an animal, plant, or other inanimate object. Through this device, writers are able to universalize human traits and ideas. Stories that use personification as a literary device are typically written to teach people or to impart moral lessons. By universalizing feelings, authors help readers to understand that common emotions and feelings are shared by people throughout the world.

Anthropomorphism and personification are used frequently in both culture and literature to share lessons of commonality and to help readers create bonds with those around them. It is often taught that all personified characters are anthropomorphic, though not all anthropomorphic characters are personified. Many authors go to the extent of using personification because it clearly gives human emotions to a non-human entity, which might provide a clearer reading for audiences. Others prefer anthropomorphism for its subtlety, as some readers might dismiss personified entities as being childish or contrived. While each literary device differs in its application, anthropomorphic entities of any type can be used to further describe and illuminate a scene.

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anon932446
Post 6

I appreciate this post as I've been perplexed by the difference between these two terms and wanted to figure it out.

With all due respect, however, I think this post has the meanings precisely reversed.

The author writes:

"For example, the sentence, 'The wind blew angrily, expressing the full extent of his violent rage,' applies this concept [i.e., anthropomorphism], because the wind retains its non-human form while taking on human emotions, intentions, and a masculine pronoun. Personification works similarly and occurs when the writer allows a non-human entity to fully embody human traits."

In fact, the "morphe" in "anthropomorphism" derives from the Greek word for "shape" or "form." "Anthro," of course, means "human." It would thus make sense, at least on a linguistic, etymological level, that anthropomorphism, not personification, occurs when a non-human entity fully embodies human traits, including a human *form*. Conversely, then, personification occurs when human characteristics are ascribed to non-human entities, but *without* altering their (non-human) form. Hence, personification would be the correct term for the attribution of human emotions, intentions, etc., to entities like the wind, as well as to more abstract entities like Love, Beauty, etc. (again, without giving them a human shape or form).

This view would make personification the broader of the two terms, and anthropomorphism a (narrower) kind of personification.

I've encountered this use of the terms in a book by a leading scholar of ancient Greece describing Hesiod's cosmogenesis. The first entities to appear in Hesiod's account are Chaos, Gaia, Tartaros, and Eros, which the scholar describes as "personified" primal powers. The next generation of gods, the Titans, which are the first to have human-like form, are referred to by the scholar as the first "anthropomorphised" entities.

Perhaps the meaning of these terms varies by genre, but etymologically it seems to me to make sense for anthropomorphism to be the less abstract term of the pair.

Any further thoughts on this, and how I may be missing something, would be greatly appreciated. And thanks again for your post, which has helped me clarify the conceptual differences at play.

irontoenail
Post 3

@browncoat - I think that most personification comes from human empathy, rather then from pareidolia. I mean, people are able to feel empathy for almost anyone and anything, that's why we make such great social animals.

And kids are the purest form of that. Little girls play tea parties with their teddies and other toys because they genuinely think each toy has feelings that need to be catered for.

Writers and advertisers use this as a shortcut to getting people to care about something. One of my favorite examples of personification is the novel Black Beauty, in which a horse is given the thoughts and emotions of a human. The author was hoping to highlight the abuse that horses of the time were subjected to, and it really worked because for the first time, people were looking at horses as though they might have the ability to suffer. Horses, of course, can suffer in their own way, but being able to see it from a human perspective makes it easier to understand that.

browncoat
Post 2

@Mor - There's actually a word for that. Pareidolia is the tendency to see patterns in abstract phenomena, like seeing faces on inanimate objects. People do it all the time, they will pick out faces and figures in the most abstract patterns. That's one of the reasons that Jesus always seems to turn up on burned pieces of toast. People will see face after face in the burned bits and eventually one of them will look appropriately holy.

I don't know if it influences people or not, but it does relate to anthropomophism. All sorts of stories have come from it, like the "man in the moon". That came from people seeing what looked like a face on the moon and deciding that it had to mean something. Link that up with the many anthropomorphism examples involving the moon, like myths where it's a woman or a rabbit, or whatever, and you have a new story to tell.

Mor
Post 1

This tendency to anthropomorphize objects in order to manipulate human feelings about them isn't limited to stories. I read an article recently about how even car manufacturers will do this with their cars.

The front of a car looks like a face because of the front bumper and the two lights. A car manufacturer actually went to the trouble of figuring out what kinds of faces people would prefer to associate with what kinds of cars. So, for example, with a small, commuting car that might sell to women or older people, they make sure it looks like it's happy.

With a sports car they make sure the car looks like it's aggressive or angry. And this isn't something that they started doing because of the movie Cars either.

I suppose this is an example of anthopomorphism while that movie is a good example of personification, because there they actually made the cars into individual sentient creatures rather than just putting expressions on their "faces".

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