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How do non-English speakers make animal noises?

Dear Cecil:

The cow goes "moo." The sheep goes "baa." What do little kids in Africa learn instead? What does the wildebeest say, for example?

Bill Kinnersley, via the Internet

Illustration by Slug Signorino

Cecil replies:

This is your lucky day. I’ve just been reading a book on this subject by Hank De Zutter, an English professor and honorary chairman of the zoophilology department here at the Straight Dope Institute of Knowledge. Hank writes the kind of book the world of science could use more of: big type, lots of pictures and a title like Who Says a Dog Goes Bow-wow? I have counseled Hank that if he’d called his book Differential Ethnic Perception of Animal Vocalization he would have been awarded a chair at Harvard by now. But he says he’s happier in the kids’ department. “Sure my readers get into childish arguments,” he says, “but at least they’re not over tenure.”

Anyway, to your question. Hank has scanned his animal-sound database for reports on the wildebeest, but in vain. “No gnus,” he says. In fact, he’s a little suspicious of some of the reports he got on other African animals. But let him tell it:

Many [African sources], when asked what various animal sounds were, simply imitated the sound, actually snorting — quite accurately, I might add — like a pig, but laughing at the idea of spelling that snort. That didn’t keep them from trying, but it did make me wonder whether I was getting improvisation, not linguistic heritage. A Nigerian diplomat speaking Yoruba insisted that a Nigerian pig says “moo-moo.” A Ghanaian speaking Twi says the same pig makes a sound like “hu-hu.” Take that pig to the Netherlands though, and natives there will say it goes “knor-knor,” and in China it says “hu-lu.”

The Dutch, it seems have an unusual way of hearing animals spelling what they hear. While most languages hear some kind of “moo-moo” or “mu-mu” from the cow, the Dutch hear a cow say ‘boe” or “boeh,” which to me sounds a little like a “beuh.” The Ethiopian I consulted said a cow there says “e-bah,” making me wonder just how many cows there might be in Ethiopia.

Your correspondent also mentioned the lamb, which most languages render into some kind of braying sound that start with either a B or an M, producing either “ba-a-a” or “ba-a-ay,” or “ma-a-a” or “ma-a-ay.” Most of my African sources said a lamb there said “ba-a-a.” My Zimbabwean source, a poet and actress, says that in her native language of Ndebele a cow indeed goes “moo” and a lamb or sheep goes “maaa.”

But there are exceptions. Someone who speaks the Indonesian language of Suhaswoto said the lamb sound in that language sounds something like “em-beck.” My favorite weird animal sound is the Iranian rooster, who is said to crow “goo-goolie goo-goo.”

In general onomatopoeia is not what it’s cracked up to be. A balloon doesn’t pop with a “bang” or a “pop” in the German spoken by some Swiss. A Swiss-German balloon explodes with a “schnalz.”

For more, see Who Says a Dog Goes Bow-wow? by Hank De Zutter (Doubleday, 1993).

Cecil Adams

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