For the last in my series of blogs about animal noises around the world I will be examining the meow of a cat:
To end our discussion on onomatopoeic animal sounds we finish with the sound that engenders the most agreement around the world – the ‘miaow’ of a cat. The only thing that tends to differ is the phonetic spelling of the word.
In English two spellings are widely used ‘miaow’ or ‘meow’ both of which can be traced back to the early seventeenth century. Chambers Dictionary of Etymology demonstrates how the noise has developed. The first recorded imitative sound for a cat is ‘mew’ found in 1596 in Shakespeare’s Henry IV. Then came ‘miau’ found in 1634 and probably deriving from the French ‘miaou’. Finally comes ‘meow’ first recorded in 1873 (although I have found it earlier as ‘mee-ow’ in the 1843 American book New Nursery Songs for all Good Children).
German, Swahili and Portuguese all use ‘miau’ whereas Spanish, Italian and Mandarin use ‘miao’. The French spelling is like a mixture of the two ‘miaou’. In Russian it is ‘miaow’, Danish ‘miav’ and Swedish ‘mjau’. The Japanese use ‘nyao’ and Greek ‘niaow’. The most creative spelling prize goes to the Filipinos who use ‘ngiyaw’ and the only language to use a slightly different sound is Korean where they use ‘ya-ong’. However, generally here at last is an animal sound that in both written and imitative form is little changed the world over.
As our tour through the animal sounds of the world draws to a close we might consider what we have learned. The imitation of animal sounds are archaic, following no rule or reason, but what we can note is that it is in childhood that these noises are learned and put to most use.
It is from much-loved rhymes and children’s stories that the sounds become regularised and committed to paper, bringing their arbitrary noises into common usage. With the all-pervasive nature of American movies and the globalisation of children’s brands it seems increasingly likely that the quirky linguistic differences in animal sounds may disappear as more children worldwide consume the same stories and a standard is set.
Do you think animal noises will become standardised? Please leave a comment!