Monday Linguistic Corner—Animal Onomatopoeia

Why are animal sounds different in different languages?


...Or, yip?

What does a fox say?

Language Rules

The words that we use to describe the sounds that animals make are generally considered to be onomatopoeic.  In other words, the words tend to sound like the noises made by the animals.  

An Dutch cat says, "miauw."
A French cat says, "miaou."
An Irish cat says, "meow."
A Romanian cat says, "miau."
An Icelandic cat says, "mjà."
A Japanese cat says, "nya-o."

So, why are some words for animal sounds so different in different languages?

As it turns out, it's the same reason that sounds, in general, are expressed in different ways in different languages.

It depends largely on the spoken language rules.  In Japanese, for example, words cannot begin with a "kw" sound, so the noise that ducks make cannot be "quack."

It's "ga-ga!" (Tokyo dialect).

And, because the "d" and "L" sounds do not occur next to each other in the Japanese language, the sound that a rooster makes in English is not possible.

"Cock-a-doodle-doo!" = "Ko-ke-kok-ko-o!" 

My gramma Betty's rooster & turkeys

Check out this entertaining Vimeo to hear native speakers make common animal sounds...HERE

Cultural Usage

Cultural usage also determines the incorporation of words into a language.  

In Turkish, there is no sound for the noise that a pig makes because that particular animal sound is not an important aspect of Turkish culture.  In other languages...

A Japanese pig says, "boo boo."
A pig in Poland says, "chrum chrum."
A French piggy says, "groin groin."
Pigs in Sweden say, "nöff nöff."  

For the same reason, there is no common identifying sound for a camel in either British or American English.

In fact, most of the world's languages do not have an identifying sound for a camel.  After camels were introduced into the outback in Australia, the sound that they make became a part of the Aussie lexicon.  

:::: grumph ::::

The Origins of Language

When we think about the differences in words used to identify animal sounds, we get back to why people came up with these words to begin with.  

How we perceive and imitate the sounds that animals make depends on our native language, what we were taught, and the significance of different animals in our culture.

Perhaps these words came about as a result of a human effort to understand and communicate with animals.  For early hunters, accurate animals calls would have improved the chances of  bringing in prey for meat, milk, clothing, and tools.

Early humans would have reached out to other humans by imitating sounds that had meaning.  The noises that animals made identified specific kinds of animals, and this information would have been an important part of their survival.  

Based on animal language studies, it is known that certain animals adapt their calls to their environments.  Birds, for instance, adapt their songs and calls to the sounds that they hear around them.  

Humans in one part of the world may have been hearing and imitating sounds differently than the same animal sounds heard in another part of the world.

It's a fun experiment to listen to the sounds that animals make again, as an adult.  Do they sound like the words that are used in the dictionary to describe them?

An big American dog says, "woof-woof!"
A big dog in Turkey says, "hov-hov!"
A big Spanish dog says, "guf-guf."

Small birds in England "tweet."
They "pip pip" in Sweden and Denmark.
They "tziff-tziff" in Hebrew. 

For more interesting info on this topic go to...

"Why do pigs oink in English, boo boo in Japanese, and nöff nöff in Swedish?" by Gary Nunn, 17 November 2014

"Where Does Language Come From?  Five Theories on the Origins of Language," by Richard Nordquist, updated 6 June 2015

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