Animal noises from around the world: moo

For the third in my series of blogs on animal noises from around the world I will be looking at the noise a cow makes:

‘Moo’

A Cow
A Cow

The mooing sound of a cow appears to have a much longer history in the English language than the ‘oink’ of a pig. The Oxford English Dictionary states that ‘moo’ was first recorded in the sixteenth century and Chambers Dictionary of Etymology dates it precisely to 1549.

The noise a cow makes in English is generally described as ‘lowing’ (which derives from the Old English ‘lowen’) for example in the 1885 Christmas carol ‘Away in a Manger’ – “The cattle are lowing, the baby awakes”. However, the imitative word (and the word usually taught to children) is ‘moo’.

Such is the link between the cow and its mooing sound that children are sometimes encouraged to call cows ‘moo-cows’ as attested by the many Edwardian children’s books with moo-cow in the title for example ‘Moo Cow Tales’ by Rosamund Nesbit, published in 1905.

Around the world ‘moo’ or its variants are widely used reflecting its longevity and the strongly onomatopoeic nature of the word. Japan, Russia and Greece all use ‘moo’, while Spain, Portugal, Denmark, Sweden, China, Italy and Germany all use the similar ‘muuu’. Differences can be seen in French, where they use the more elaborate ‘meuh’ and Korean where two syllables ‘um me’ are used.

The cow’s ‘moo’ is an enduring sound in the English language, unlike some animal noises that have changed over time or have a number of alternatives. Likewise around the world most languages use a similar sound. This indicates a strong historical usage of the sound. This simplicity and agreement is rare amongst animal sounds, as we shall see with next week’s noise  – the neigh of a horse.

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