Animal noises sound different in other languages

Animals vocalize more or less the same way, whether they're in France or America – so why do they “speak” so differently in human languages?


One of my favorite parts of studying French was learning that Francophone ducks say coin coin (“kwan kwan”), not quack; pigs make a guttural groin groin (“grwan grwan”) instead of oink; and cows produce a wonderfully scornful meuh. Ducks, cows, and pigs vocalize more or less the same way, whether in the south of France or in the middle of America – so why do animals “speak” so differently when we translate their sounds into human languages?

Our terms for animal noises are onomatopoeias, words formed to reflect the sound of the action or thing they represent. Bees buzz in English because the word sounds like their swarming; water splashes because the term echoes the noise of tossing a stone into a lake. My favorite onomatopoeic word is the Macedonian грчи (“grchi”), pronounced something like “hrrrrrchee.” Any guesses as to its meaning? I’ll tell you at the end. 

Sometimes our varied vocabulary for animal sounds simply reflects differences in what people are hearing them say. Dutch cows, for example, go boe, which rhymes with the English moo. English and Dutch speakers are attuned to a similar vowel sound in bovine vocalizations, but hear different consonants at the start. Having grown up with moo, I feel that this is a better imitation; having listened to many minutes of cow sounds on YouTube, though, I can attest that some cows do get closer to boe. I even found one that seemed to be saying hamba, as they do in Bengali.

Animals usually make a variety of sounds, and some linguistic differences in what they say can be attributed to different cultures settling on different noises as archetypal. The French groin groin, Hungarian röf röf, and Mandarin heng heng imitate the deep snuffling and grunting noise pigs make when looking for food. On the other hand, English, Spanish, and Croatian chose pigs’ high-pitched, excited, or angry squeals as their identifying vocalization, and thus pigs say oink, oinc, and squick, respectively, in these languages.

Inherent features of human languages also determine what sorts of things animals can say. Every language has a limited set of sounds (phonemes) it can use to construct its words. American swine would never say ggul-ggul, as Korean ones do, because English lacks the “gg” sound. Japanese words cannot begin with a “kw” sound, which rules out “quacking” for its ducks; instead they say ga-ga. Nor can “d” and “l” sounds appear together, so Japanese roosters would never crow cock-a-doodle-doo – it’s ko-ke-kok-ko-o. As language writer Samantha Enslen puts it, “our animal sounds are really ‘interpretations’ filtered through the limited number of phonemes our languages possess.”

As for grchi, it means “to snore.”

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