Woof, Blaf, or Voff? Animal-Speak Across the World

Paging Dr. Doolittle

All animals speak the same language, whether they’re in Angola, Alabama, or Argentina, right?  Well, according to PsychologyToday.com, "there is no universally accepted sound that humans use to represent dog barks." So, how did we come up with the words to describe a dog's sound? Or other animal sounds for that matter?

Well, speech patterns, tonalities in both vocabulary and sound, and the usage of onomatopoeia seem to be key factors. And, this didn't just happen in the English language. There are words for animal sounds in every language across the globe . . . . and everyone seemed to interpret those sounds in unique ways. Time for some globe-trekking.

Our faithful companions

Let’s explore the language of dogs a bit more. Can you see how people who speak other languages came up with these dog words? In addition to English's woof, bow-wow, and bark, the Danish use blaf, Iceland uses voff; we have bau from Italy (not a stretch!), ham in Romanian, guau in Spanish, and meong or mung in Korean.

Meong? To an English-speaker’s ears, it sounds like a natural segue into the feline world, which is next.

Felines from France to Finland

While a dog’s bark is meong in Korean, their cat’s meow is yaong. In French, a cat might coyly utter a miaou, and in Finnish it’s both miau and kurnau. A Hungarian cat might miaaau, and in China it’s mao.

A quick survey shows a large number of non-English cat sounds do start with the letter m. Here are a few that don’t (but they all coincidently start with n): In Greek, it’s naiou, in Japanese it’s nyan, and in Estonian, it’s nau. Either way (or n), there seems to be much more agreement across the globe about what a cat sounds like.

The international donkey

In English, it was long ago decided that a donkey brays (from the Old French word brait, meaning "cry"), and the onomatopoeic word for this cry is, hee-haw. Who are we to argue?

To ears in the United Kingdom, it’s more like eeehoou (or perhaps, eeeyore—remember Winnie the Pooh, it's all making more sense!) and to those in Italy, it’s ioh ioh. Germans express it as iaah iaah and in French it’s hihan. Give a good nasally blow in two syllables, and truthfully, almost anything could work.

Hissing and buzzing creatures

It may not surprise you to learn that the sounds of snakes and bees are expressed pretty universally around the globe. The hiss of a snake is almost always expressed as sssss, while our friend the bee is represented by a combination of b’s and z’s in many languages (the Dutch even include the letter u, for buzz, as we do).

In Greek, it’s zoum and in Russian it’s zh-zh-zh, while the Japanese go for boon boon. Wait, what?

Don't croak

When we hear a frog doing its thing, it's represented as something like ribbet. In Dutch, German, Greek, and Danish, you’ll hear it represented with more of a duck sound: spelled, variously, as kwak, quaak, and kvaek. Closer to the word croak, the French use croa croa and the Spanish, croac.

Our small-winged friends

In English, words like chirp, cheep, and tweet express the way we hear a variety of small birds. Russian speakers hear fiyt-fiyt, Turkish speakers jiyk jiyk, while both Swedes and Danes hear pip pip. In Hebrew, a bird goes tziff tziff, and in French, it’s cui cui. Chip chip in Italian may come closest to the English representation, though.

How does the cock crow?

In Hindi, it crows kukdooku, in Spanish kikiriki, and Korean ko-ki-oh. In Syrian, we get cooo-coo-cooo and in Japanese kok-e-kok-ko. The Urdu language expresses their rooster sound as kuklooku. So, what are we English-speakers doing with a doodle in the middle of ours? Beats us.

If it quacks like a duck

In German, Hebrew, and Urdu, you’ll hear the familiar quack. But in Hungarian, we get háp, in Danish a bit of hip-hop flavor with rap, and in French, coin coin. The Greeks hear the letter p somehow, and use pa-pa-pa for their own duck-speak.

Do turkeys really gobble?

The gobble gobble of English-speaking turkeys seems a little odd when you look at other representations. Let’s start with Turkey (because they would seem like the defining source in turkey-speak), where it’s glu glu. In Spain, you’ll hear clou clou, and in Greece, glou glou. In Mexico, it’s goro goro goro.

So . . . gobble gobble? We might be the ones to be questioned here.

Pig lingo

A pig’s oink is represented with a wide variety of sounds and spellings in the international world. In Swedish and Finnish, it’s nöff, in Albanian it’s hunk, and the Japanese hear a b, using buu or buhi. Germans go with grunz, the Dutch with knor, and the French with something approximating groin groin. In Polish, you’ll hear chrum chrum.

Any way you spin it, these pig words all seem legit. Nöff said.

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