Here’s a question for you: In what world do “baraag,” “toot,” “toerroe,” “baaa,” “paoh-paoh” and “u-u-u” all mean the same thing?
It’s in the wild world of animal sounds and how they’re expressed in different human languages.
Those sounds I just made? They’re all words for the sound an elephant makes when it trumpets, expressed, respectively, in English, Finnish, German, Italian, Japanese and Russian. And this phenomenon, whereby an animal sound is expressed quite differently in different languages, isn’t limited to elephants.
For example, in English, we think of a mouse going “squeak.” But in German, it goes “piep-piep.” And in Japanese, “chu chu.” In English, we think of dogs going “woof” or “ruff,” but in Danish, they go “vov vov.” In German, “wau wau.” In Russian, “gav-gav.” And in French, “ouah ouah.”
The diversity is so great that it inspired Derek Abbott, a professor at the University of Adelaide in Australia, to put together a giant online spreadsheet just to list them.
“When I was a child,” Abbott said, “it frustrated me that I couldn’t find these types of words in a dictionary. That drove me to start creating my own list.”
He did this by polling scientists he meets at international conferences and asking them what would be written in the text balloon coming from the mouth in cartoons of various animals.
So far, 27 scientists from 17 different countries have answered him. Despite the strangeness of the request, “They are always delighted to help,” Abbot said.
Animal Sounds Are Onomatopoeias
So, what gives? Why do different languages have such different versions of what are essentially the same sounds? Isn’t everyone around the world just imitating observable natural phenomena?
Yes – and no.
The words for the sounds that animals make are onomatopoeias. That means they are formed from an existing sound and are intended to imitate that sound. For example, “plink” is an onomatopoeia. It’s based on the real-life sound of water falling on a hard or metallic surface. “Crunch” is also an onomatopoeia. It’s based on the sound of something dry, like leaves or crackers, being compacted.
But onomatopoetic words aren’t created in a vacuum. They’re created using the existing sound system of a language. A sound system, also known as a “phonemic system,” is the collection of sounds and sound combinations that are used over and over again in a given language.
For example, the sound system of Spanish includes the rolling “r” you hear in the words “perro” and “roja.” That sound doesn’t exist in English. German includes a vowel sound made of “oe” you can hear in the name “Goethe.” That sound doesn’t exist in English either. And some African languages include clicks and stops that are heard in hardly any other languages worldwide.
These sound systems are learned very early in life. Even before babies can speak real words, their babbling mimics the sounds and intonations they hear every day.
In fact, that is why adults who learn a second language have such a hard time speaking it without the accent of their native language. The muscles of their vocal organs have been conditioned since birth to form the sounds that are distinctive to their language. It can be almost impossible to train them to perform the movements needed to express new pronunciations.
Phonemic Systems Restrict the Way Onomatopoeias Can Sound
All of this helps explain why different languages have developed different words for animal sounds. In short, the phonemic system of a particular language puts a boundary around how onomatopoeic words can be formed. To put it another way, our animal sounds are really “interpretations” filtered through the limited number of phonemes our languages possess.
Linguist Arika Okrent has a YouTube video that provides some great examples of how this works.
In Japanese, she notes, “words can’t begin with a ‘qu-‘ sound. So a duck can’t say ‘quack-quack.’” Instead, the sound of a duck in Japanese is rendered as “ga-ga.”
Likewise, she notes, Japanese “doesn’t allow the combination of a ‘d’ and ‘l’ sound, so roosters can’t cry ‘cock-a-doodle-doo.’” Instead, in Japanese, they say “ko-ke-kok-ko-o.”
Another linguist, Anthea Fraser Gupta, points out that in Mandarin Chinese, words can’t end with an “f” sound. So dogs don’t say “woof” in Chinese. They say “w-a-n-g.”
Words for Animal Sounds Also Reflect the Role of the Animal in Culture
Words for animal sounds also, to an extent, reflect the role that animals play in a given culture.
Derek Abbott tells us that one of the things that surprised him when making his spreadsheet of animal sounds was the “obsessive diversity” of dog sounds in English. There’s woof-woof, ruff-ruff, yap-yap, arf-arf, bow wow, and yelp and yip. Other languages have many fewer words. Greek, for example, has just one: gav-gav. Dutch has two, and they’re almost identical: waf-waf and woef-woef.
We don’t know exactly why this is, but it could be because of the outsize role that dogs have played over the years in the lifestyles and cultures of English-speaking countries.
Similarly, Swedish is the only language on Abbott’s chart to have a sound for the noise a moose makes: “broel.” This may be because there are more moose in Sweden per square kilometer than in any other country in the world.
So, that’s your tip for today. The names we give animal sounds aren’t straight-up imitations of those sounds. They’re interpretations of those sounds, filtered through the phonemes of a given language. That’s why each language’s interpretation of those sounds may be different.
Image Credit: iStock.