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Frogs Don’t Say Ribbit, So Why do We? How Languages Represent Animal Sounds

What animals make the following sounds: “oink-oink” “knor-knor” “groin-groin” “boo-boo” and “nöff-nöff”?

Trick question – all these sounds are made by a pig, albeit in English, Dutch, French, Japanese, and Swedish, respectively. If you listen to a pig in Sweden and a pig in Japan, though, they sound the same.

The sounds that animals make are some of the first words we learn to speak and read as children. But why do different languages interpret animal sounds so differently?

We Use the Sounds We Know

The words we use to express the sounds animals make are onomatopoeias – vocal imitations of the thing the word represents. Other examples of onomatopoeia are the “fizz” of soda or the “bang” of a swiftly closed door. These are based on real sounds, but they are created within the existing phonemic (or, sound) system of a given language. For example, the Czech phonemic system includes a letter that doesn’t exist in English, ř, which sounds sort of like saying “r” and “z” at the same time, with the tip of your tongue at the top of your palette. Another example is the rolling Spanish “r” you hear in the word “roja” or “barrio.” The phonemic system we learn early in life (babies imitate the sound systems around them before they even begin to speak real words) conditions our vocal organs to form its sounds and is the reason why it can be very difficult to speak languages learned later in life without an accent.

The phonemes available in a language put a limit on how its onomatopoeic words are formed. A video created by linguist Arika Okrent provides examples of how this works. In Japanese, since words can’t begin with a “qu-“ sound, a duck can’t say “quack.” Instead, in Japanese, a duck says “ga-ga.” It’s not just sounds that a language doesn’t have, however, but also sounds that the language relies heavily on that factor into the expression of animal sounds. French, for example, has a large inventory of nasal and guttural sounds that offer pigs a very visceral “Groin-Groin.”

A Multilingual Database of Animal Sounds

Derek Abbot, a professor at the University of Adelaide in Australia, has put together the world’s largest multilingual spreadsheet of animal sounds. It is a work in progress, attempting to shed light on an area of “academic neglect” that has not been addressed seriously before (even formal dictionaries tend to exclude these types of words), he told The Guardian. As Abbot travels to conferences around the world, he asks other scientists “what would the speech bubble above the animal say in a comic book?” The results show much variation, but certain similarities that are just as interesting.

One of the findings that most surprised Abbot is the fact that in every language in his survey except one, the sound a bee makes contains either an ‘s’ or a ‘z.’ Japanese is the outlier, the Japanese interpretation of the sound a bee makes is “boon-boon.” Japanese is also the only language where the sound a cat makes doesn’t start with ‘m’ (Japanese cats say “nyan-nyan”).

Another surprise was the “obsessive diversity” of dog sounds in English. Most languages have just one dog sound. Russians distinguish between large dog sounds (“gav-gav”) and small dog sounds (“tyaf-tyaf”). But in English, we have “yap-yap,” “ruf-ruf,” “woof-woof,” “arf-arf,” “bow-wow,” and “yip-yip.” Abbot posits that this diversity of sounds may stem from a cultural idiosyncrasy – English-speaking countries tend to have the highest dog ownership per capita. Along the same lines, only Swedish has a word for the sound 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. The same language can also be used differently between different countries. In Australia, where camels have been introduced, we find the camel noise “grumph.” Abbott has not come across any sounds for camels in the US or the UK.

A thesis study at Karlstads University investigated how sounds that start as imitative onomatopoeia can gradually move towards more symbolic interpretations over time. According to this theory, our sounds for small, light animals like tiny birds have more vowels from the beginning of the alphabet to emphasize higher tones (“cheep-cheep” or “tweet-tweet” in English, “pip-pip” in Swedish and Danish), while larger animals like dogs and cows make sounds with vowels from later in the alphabet (a large dog says “woof-woof” in English and “hov-hov” in Turkish).

Bird Words and Bee Ballads

Birdsong and sounds specifically have been a subject of interest to poets and naturalists for centuries. The writer and poet John Bevins collected and standardized a compendium of the most wonderful and bizarre of these in his book Aaaaw to Zzzzzd: The Words of Birds, which reveals the rich history of attempts at collecting bird sounds, from musical composition through recording devices and bird organs. Before recording equipment existed, he writes, the only way to capture birdsong was on paper. Since phonetic transcription (“bird words”) was such an imprecise method, a 15th century scholar named Athanasius Kircher (who also invented the cat piano) developed his own system of musical notation for birdsong. He went on to use this notation to support his theory that there was a harmonic relationship between music and the motions of the planets. Unfortunately, bird notations performed by musical instruments are so approximate as to be unidentifiable.

As far back as we have records, humanity has been trying to reproduce animal sounds in music and words. Many traditional cultures incorporate imitation of animal sounds in ritual and song, classical composers such as Jannequin, Biber, and Rimsky-Korsakov (with his beloved “Flight of the Bumblebee”) have mimicked animal sounds, and children’s nursery rhymes make heavy use of them. But do speakers of different languages actually hear animal noises differently?

This seems far-fetched for words like “cock-a-doodle-doo,” but not for “ruff ruff” – Japanese does not have a letter “r” in its alphabet. Multiple studies suggest that people who have not been exposed to a specific linguistic sound in their youth have considerable difficulty hearing or reproducing it as adults. So, we may not be “hearing” our animal companions very clearly at all.

The sounds we ascribe to animals reflect many filters – the phonemic possibilities and stylistic conventions of our language, the role the animal plays in our culture, and the frequencies and sounds to which our ears are attuned – and ultimately reveal more about ourselves than about the animal making the sound. Luckily, animals tend to find other ways of communicating – my cat, for example, practices a very effective targeted puking to communicate her displeasure.

Learn more about ALTA’s language services, including translation, interpreter training, interpretation, and testing.

Maria Diment was born in Russia and currently lives in Atlanta, Georgia, where she works in the Translations Department at ALTA Language Services.

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