If you were curious, it is not dogs who are multilingual, but us. Perhaps the most important sense of humans, hearing, is vital for us to understand and communicate with the world around us. Therefore, in order to describe sounds surrounding us, we make use of onomatopoeic words. According to the Oxford Dictionaries, onomatopoeia is the “formation of a word from a sound associated with what is named”. But although a particular sound is probably heard similarly by people from different cultures, it is often expressed by the use of distinct associations of consonants and vowels. In this article, we will speak about the similarities and differences resulting from different language and cultural heritage in expressing physical and natural phenomena around us, with an emphasis on sounds made by animals.

Probably the funniest field where we make use of onomatopoeic words is the “translation” of animal sounds into human speech, most commonly used in comic books or books for children. Since their first year of life, children learn the sound animals make even before learning the actual name of that animal. However, it is not advisable to order quack-quack in a restaurant, instead of duck meat. Instances of onomatopoeia, in this case, are helpful in the early stages of communication for little humans who cannot yet express themselves correctly.

But what it interesting to note is how these exact sounds differ from language to language. As shown below, while for certain animals the sound is similar in most cultures, there are also comparatively different onomatopoeic words used to describe the sound other animals make. For instance, English speakers learn to imitate cats by saying meow and to call them by using the expression here, kitty kitty, while Romanian speakers use miau and pis, pis, respectively. Onomatopoeia such as miau or meow represents in fact words associated with the sound cats make to express themselves, and the sound is similar in most languages: miau in Spanish, myau in Russian, mjau in German, miao in Italian, meo in Vietnamese and miaou in French – easy to notice that all of them start with the same nasal sound, i.e. /m/, and are very similar in pronunciation. There is also the case of sounds produced by cows, where we have moo in English, muh in German, meuh in French and so on, all of them starting with /m/, the sound we associate both cows and cats with. In exchange, we use the English exclamation cock-a-doodle-doo for the sound a rooster produces, which is way funnier and much more melodic than what a rooster may actually make, whereas a French rooster would go cocorico and a Romanian one would go cucurigu. Although sounds are not quite similar, and vowels differ, all of them contain the plosive /k/, used to denote the loud noise made by the farm bird. This is similar to the sound produced by ducks, expressing themselves with quack-quack in English, coin-coin in French, cua-cua in Spanish and mac-mac in Romanian, all of them containing the plosive /k/ at the beginning or end of the word, so even though different in composition, onomatopoeias have a similar sound pattern. One example of onomatopoeia featuring no relation between sounds, and probably the strangest of all examples, is the sound made by bees. While in most languages the bee’s famous sound is represented by a word containing /z/ or /s/, in Japanese, nevertheless, a bee goes boon-boon; it is thus very surprising not to have any /z/ at all.

Although used to describe the same sound (i.e. the sound generated by dogs), there is no universally accepted sound used by humans to represent dog barks. Hence, English speakers use woof-woof, while the Dutch hear blaf-blaf and Romanian dogs go ham-ham. The only thing that seems unanimously agreed upon about dog barks is that dogs apparently speak twice.

According to Merriam-Webster, onomatopoeia is “the naming of a thing or action by vocal imitation of an associated sound”, so it may develop from a verbal imitation of a sound or from an entire word with detailed denotations. Although variations are obvious, we can also identify a sort of equally interesting uniformity with many sounds, and this diversity reflects the uniqueness of different tongues. It is actually one of the many joys of exploring the linguistic features of other tongues. What is certain is that multilingual onomatopoeia is natural and human – it says far less about animals than about our language. Just think about the fact that even though we hear the same sound, we are able, through language, to express different shapes of that sound.

In conclusion, it is very important to know that words cannot reproduce noises exactly, so onomatopoeias are a version of those noises conditioned by language. Therefore, different language heritage equals different expressions of sounds. They fit the patterns of each language, in order to make the learning process easier. Thus, the fact that every language has its own ways of representing sounds not only makes the learning process of children easier and funnier, but also enriches vocabularies from around the world.

If you are interested in finding out how animals express themselves in different languages, please visit the page below: http://www.boredpanda.com/animal-sounds-different-languages-james-chapman/.


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