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!
To imitate the barking noise of a dog most modern English children would use ‘woof woof’ a sound which first emerged in the early nineteenth century. It is not unusual for ‘arf arf’, ‘ruff ruff’ or, when describing a small dog, ‘yap yap’ to be used, however ‘woof, woof’ appears to be the most prevalent in modern children’s literature. Pre-nineteenth century ‘bow-wow’ was much more widely used. ‘Bow-wow’ was first recorded in the 1570s and a nursery rhyme from The Real Mother Goose published in 1916 indicates the common usage of bow-wow –
Who’s dog art thou?
Little Tom Tinker’s dog,
Yet today most English children’s books and comics now use ‘woof woof’ – for example in Enid Blyton’s classic ‘Five on a Treasure Island’ (1942), Timmy the dog frequently utters a ‘woof’.
In French, they use ‘wouah wouah’ and this has been the case since at least the 1930s when Tintin’s faithful canine companion Snowy was often found barking at baddies or indicating a clue in this fashion. Similarly the Dutch use ‘woef’ or ‘waf’, the Spanish ‘wou wou’ and the German’s ‘wuuf’. The Scandinavian languages use a ‘v’ sound instead of the ‘w’ thus a Danish dog says ‘vov’ and in Swedish it is ‘voff’. Croatian also uses a ‘v’ sound, employing ‘vau vau’, which in turn is similar to the Italian ‘bau bau’.
Interestingly the Greeks and Russians agree that a dog barks ‘gav gav’, whereas in Turkey they opt for the similar ‘hav hav’. In Japan a dog says ‘wan wan’ and in Mandarin ‘wang wang’, whereas the Korean’s opt for the very different ‘meong meong’ and in Thai they use ‘hong hong’.
It is interesting to note that only Italian (‘bau bau’) uses a sound like ‘bow-wow’, which was more commonly used in pre-nineteenth century England. It is possible that like in English the modern dog sound has changed in other languages too and perhaps become more generic as characters such as Snowy became known around the world. A ‘woof woof’ type sound is the most widespread dog sound yet, as discussed above, alternatives persist.
What noise do you use for a dog? Please leave a comment!
The crowing of a rooster is an especially distinctive sound. Each language has tried to capture the undulating call to varying degrees of success.
In English the somewhat archaic ‘cock-a-doodle-doo’ has a long history of use. According to the Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes ‘cock-a-doodle-doo’ first appeared in print in a pamphlet in 1606 (Chambers Dictionary of Etymology gives an earlier date of 1573). It can also be found in the nursery rhyme ‘Cock-a-doodle doo, What is my Dame to do?’ which was printed in Mother Goose’s Melody in c.1765. The same sound appears in the 1853 English translation of the Brothers Grimm Household Stories in the tale of ‘Old Mother Frost’ (Frau Holle) and also in ‘The Musicians of Bremen’ (in the original German it is ‘kikeriki’).
In French ‘cocorico’ is used. The French have very strong associations with the cock, as the Gallic rooster is a national symbol. Thus the French sometimes use the cry of ‘cocorico’ to cheer on the French sporting sides. This sound seems to be a fairly good approximation of a rooster’s crow as similar sounds are used in many languages, for example Greek ‘keekeereekou’, Croatian ‘kukuriku’ and Russian ‘kukareku’. Japanese uses ‘kokekokko’, Swahili ‘kukrikukuu’, Dutch ‘kukelekuu’, Spanish ‘kikiriki’, Italian ‘chicchirichi’ and Swedish ‘kuckeliku’.
A few languages demonstrate a completely different interpretation of the sound – in Mandarin a rooster is said to say ‘wo wo wo’ and in Thai it is ‘egg-e-egg-egg’ –despite this anomaly it is interesting to note that the rooster’s crow is one of the few animal noises that seems to have a general linguistic consensus across the globe.
What noise do you use for a cockerel? Please leave a comment!
The horses’ neigh has a very clear etymological root and can be traced back to the Old English ‘hnægan’ via the Middle English ‘neyen’ and the Middle High German ‘neggen’. Chambers Dictionary of Etymology notes that it can be found as early as 1382 in the Wycliffe Bible as ‘neighen’.
With most animal sounds in the English language there is a descriptive word – bleat, low, bark, but then a different imitative word – baa, moo, woof. With neigh it can be used as both descriptive and imitative. However, if you ask an English child what noise a horse makes they are as likely to imitate the clip clopping of the horses’ hooves as to make a neighing noise.
It would seem that in many other languages, although the root of their descriptive word may be similar to neigh, the sound they actually use differs. For example in Dutch their descriptive word is ‘neijen’, yet the noise a horse makes is the undulating ‘hiehihihi’. A similar sound is also used in Japanese ‘hi hi’, French and Portuguese ‘hi hi hi and Italian ‘hiiiii’’. In Danish they use the imitative ‘pruuh’ and in Swedish ‘gnägg’. In Russian they use a completely different sound for a horse ‘ee-goh-goh’.
Literary horses make a variety of noises from a whicker to a whinny to a snort therefore it is unsurprising that there is no universal agreement on one single sound. In one of the most famous children’s stories about a horse – Anna Sewell’s ‘Black Beauty’ which was published in 1877 – the eponymous horse is said to neigh, snort and whinny at different points in the book suggesting that in terms of noises the horse is not a one-trick pony.
What noise do you use for a horse? Please leave a comment!
The mooing sound of a cow appears to have a much longer history in the English language than the ‘oink’ of a pig. TheOxford 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.
In contrast to the happy agreement on what noise a sheep makes is the variety of noises offered up for the sound of a pig. In English when imitating a pig we generally make a snorting noise through our noses, however when committed to paper a pig is said to ‘oink’.
According to TheOxford Dictionary ‘oink’ was first recorded in the 1940s. This indicates that ‘oink’ is a fairly modern take on the pig’s grunt. If we look at traditional nursery rhymes, such as This Little Piggy (which according to The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes was first written down in c.1728), we notice that the pig goes ‘wee wee wee, all the way home’. Further, as etymologist Anatoly Liberman discusses in his work Word Origins, in Beatrix Potter’s The Tale of Little Pig Robinson (which was published in 1930 but penned years earlier) when Pig Robinson is kidnapped he shouts ‘wee wee’ “like a little Frenchman”.
Pigs are also sometimes said to squeak, TheOxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes contains this rhyme from 1832:
This little pig says, I want wheat
This little pig says, where will you get it?
This little pig says, father’s barn
This little pig says, I can’t get over the door-sill
This little pig cries, Squeak! Squeak!
This then would suggest that in English ‘oink’ has only superseded ‘wee wee’ or ‘squeak, squeak’ in recent history. In 1979, children’s author Roger Hargreaves wrote a story about a pig called Oink – the book is part of a series where each character is named after their onomatopoeic animal sound – suggesting that ‘oink’ was in common usage by this time.
It is interesting to note then that in other languages ‘oink’ or similar is also used. In Spanish they use ‘oing’, while German, Italian and Portuguese also use ‘oink’. Another similar sounding word is the Danish ‘øf’.
Perhaps due to the indistinct grunting noise a pig makes, the alternatives around the world differ wildly. In Japan pigs are said to grunt ‘boo boo’, while in Mandarin they say ‘heng heng’, and Russian ‘hru hru’.
In Dutch the verb ‘knorren’ is used to describe the noise a pig makes and they are said to grunt ‘knor knor’. The French use ‘groin groin’ (this can also be used for wild boar as seen in the Asterix comics by Uderzo and Goscinny).
In Korea a greater attempt at the guttural sound of a snort is used ‘ggul ggul’, whereas in Croatian they imitate a more high-pitched squeal with ‘squick’. When written down these sounds often seem far removed from an actual pig’s grunt, but if you say them aloud through your nose (go on, don’t be shy) then they become much more imitative.
The pig sound has caused substantial linguistic divergence across the world although it seems likely that this difference occurs mainly in how the varying languages choose to write a pig sound. I suspect that if a child from anywhere in the world was asked to imitate a pig they would simply snort through their nose.
How do you make a pig noise? Please leave a comment!
Ever since reading Tintin books whilst on French exchange and noticing that in the French edition Snowy does not bark ‘woof woof’ but instead ‘wouah wouah’ I have been fascinated at how different languages communicate onomatopoeic animal sounds.
A couple of years ago I decided to do some research and after badgering friends, teachers and friends of friends to offer up their bilingual friends, I was able to discover more about how animal sounds differ around the world. From this research I wrote a sample chapter for a book that never came into being.
It seemed a shame to waste all that information so I thought my blog might be the perfect place to share it. Over the next few weeks I will be publishing blog posts focusing on a different animal sound each week. I hope you enjoy part one on sheep:
Picture a dog. Imagine the dog has caught sight of a cat and is now barking enthusiastically. Visualise those doggie speech bubbles floating through the air. If you are an English-speaker I bet the dog was barking ‘woof, woof’. Yet ask a French, Japanese or Russian person and they will argue it is barking something else entirely.
Why is it that these onomatopoeic animal sounds show such differences around the world?
Consider how we learn animal sounds. They are often one of the first sounds we are taught as children. Even before we can say the word ‘dog’, we are taught to mimic its bark. Countless children’s books and nursery rhymes revolve around animals and the noises they emit.
As a parent myself I know how it becomes an impulse almost every time I see an animal to parrot the noise at my children and delight in them sounding it back at me (so much so I frequently finding myself mooing at cows even when there are no children around).
So it is from our parents that we first learn to associate certain animals with certain sounds. However, family history and circumstance may dictate one child learning that a dog says ‘arf arf’ while another household (perhaps populated by a pet Yorkshire Terrier) might be taught ‘yap yap’ but more on dogs later.
Ultimately, as we are ushered into formal education and made to join in with a rousing rendition of ‘Old MacDonald’ the animal noises we learn become standardised until we are all singing from, sometimes literally, the same hymn sheet.
Thus from our early years it becomes second nature to connect a certain sound to each animal, so much so that it seems quite wrong when we come across linguistic alternatives.
The pantheon of animal sounds can reveal interesting divergence and at times convergence across the nations. Let us begin then with a sound that inspires widespread linguistic agreement: the bleat of a sheep.
In English we use the slightly nebulous ‘baa’. My research has indicated that we are the only language to use this exact sound. Swedish uses the visually similar ‘bää’, however the ä sound in Swedish is pronounced more like ‘ai’.
‘Baa’ has a long historical root in the English language – records suggest that as far back as the 1580s a child’s toy in the shape of a sheep was named ‘baa’. The much-loved and enduring nursery rhyme ‘Baa Baa Black Sheep’ probably accounts for Britons’ strong attachment to the word. The rhyme was first noted in written records in Tom Thumb’s Pretty Song Book c.1744 but is likely much older than this, The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes suggests it originates from c.1275 when an export tax on wool was introduced. In 1888 Rudyard Kipling used the rhyme as the title for an autobiographical short story. All this has probably ensured a particularly strong association and agreement that in the English language sheep bleat ‘baa’.
The rest of the world (and I have to say, they have a point) mainly err towards sheep making a ‘beeee’ or ‘meeee’ sound – so why have the English stuck with ‘baa’? I wonder if in part it is to differentiate between the sound that a sheep makes and that of a goat (a differentiation which probably only became useful for singing songs such as ‘Old MacDonald’ where each animal needs their own distinct sound). Goat and sheep are both said to “bleat”, yet a goat in English would say ‘naa’, therefore a sheep needs to be noticeably different, hence ‘baa’. It is interesting to note that according to the American Heritage Dictionary in American English ‘baa’ is used for both sheep and goats.
Globally the main linguistic difference comes in whether the sheep is perceived to bleat with a ‘b’ sound or an ‘m’ sound. In most Asiatic languages the ‘m’ sound is used. The Japanese say ‘meeeh’, in Korean it is ‘me-e’, Mandarin ‘mie’ and Thai ‘mae mae’.
However, most European languages opt for a ‘b’ sound thus Russian – ‘be-e-e’, Dutch ‘beeeh’, Italian ‘beh’, Spanish, Portuguese, Greek and Croatian all using ‘beee’.
This seems to prove that sheep universally emit a clear noise that has inspired general linguistic agreement.
What noise do you use for a sheep? Have I made any mistakes or left out an interesting linguistic difference? Please leave a comment!