Previous Next

"Oink Oink" or "Rof Rof"? Photo by Claire Rowland.

Language differences aren’t just about what we say, but also what we hear. Jenny Williams gives a run-down of how animal noises are made around the world, and explores what they tell us about where we–and our words–came from.

Be sure to RIGHT CLICK on the links and open in new tab to automatically play audio samples of animal noises spoken by children around the world, courtesy of The Quack-Project.

IT’S THE THIRD DAY of my intensive German language course and the ice has yet to break. Despite our collective struggles with noun genders and irregular verbs, the atmosphere isn’t yet collegial; hailing from a dozen different countries, we sense, perhaps, more cultural barriers than bridges. We are timid and reticent, afraid to fumble.

But something has to give. At the next break, as some lean back in their chairs and others get up for a smoke, I clear my throat to get the room’s attention.

“I have an important question for everyone,” I say. A dozen very serious faces stare back. “What,” I continue, “does a dog say in your language?”

Immediately the atmosphere brightens, as one by one my classmates describe their versions of a dog’s “woof.” Then we move on to other pets, livestock, wild animals. Things get a little silly. People who have been too shy to speak are suddenly interrupting others to get in their version. When the break is over, the Kosovian girl who’s said nary a word all week leans over my desk. “Don’t you want to know my noises too?”

Indeed I do. It wasn’t until recently that I realized how varied animal sounds are across languages—some so different it’s hard to imagine they’re referring to the same noise—and I’ve become fascinated by those deviations.

It's no wonder he can't understand you. Photo by iamruby.

Cows, it turns out, are fairly predictable: In English, cows “moo”; in Dutch, they “boe”; and in Icelandic, they “mö” (as my Icelandic informant says, even their cows speak in umlauts!). Mongolian cows combine both “b” and “m” sounds in a robust “umboo,” and Bengali cows similarly “hambaa.”

Widen the spectrum to other livestock and things get a little more interesting. In English, German, and Afrikaans, pigs say “oink oink”; but in Dutch it’s “knor knor,” and Norwegians say “nøf nøf.” Cantonese swine make a guttural “hēng” while Polish piglets offer an adorable “chrum chrum.” Indonesian pigs say “ngoik ngoik,” Kosovans “hunk hunk,” and Russians “hrgu hrgu.”

Think dogs “woof” all over the world? Not in Tunisia, where they “hab hab hab”; Afghanistan, where they “ghav ghav” and Algeria where they “haw haw“; or Kosovo, where they “ham ham.”

With “cock-a-doodle-doo,” English has—by far—the most outlandish (dare I say ridiculous?) version of a rooster’s song. But Norway’s nearly unpronounceable “kykkilyky” comes close. Incredibly, languages as far apart as Tagalog (“cocorokok”), Portuguese (“cocoro coco”), Persian (“kukukuu”—from my Afghani informant), Albanian (“kikirikiku”), and Hebrew (“kukuriku”) use nearly the same pattern of sounds.

Sometimes, one sound is enough. Photo: Stuart Richards.

From a linguistic point of view, such similarities make sense. Onomatopoeia—basically, when a word sounds like the thing it represents—is present in every language, and though examples like whoosh, crack, and whip are more commonly referenced, animal noises are often just as imitative. “Hoo hoo” (as an owl says in many languages) really does sound like an owl. Bees “bzzz” or “zzz” in almost every language I researched (Japan’s “bunbun” being a notable exception). There’s just no more realistic way to say it.

So, what’s it all mean?

Though the origins of human language are murky, many linguists believe onomatopoeic sounds—along with signs and grunts—kickstarted spoken language. Over the millennia, as communicaton evolved and languages diversified, those sounds moved away from direct representation and became more symbolic and arbitrary. Hence, hens that may have once “gut gut gut”ed in Afghanistan began to “kakaka” in Sweden, then “cluck” in America. And inevitably along the way things got a little confused: while ducks “quack” in English and “vak” in Turkish, for example, in Germany it’s geese that “quäk quäk,” and in Iceland it’s frogs that go “kvak” in the night (to bring it full circle, their ducks “bra bra”—who knew?). At least Mongolians keep things simple, with both sheep and goats wailing “maiii maiii” across the steppes.

A sad, misunderstood cow. Photo by Jon Mick.

Another linguistic theory associates high tones and front vowels, such as i, with “words symbolizing small size and brightness, e.g. thin, light, petit.” Low tones and back vowels, such as u, are often found in “words representing large size, darkness, and coarseness, e.g. gloom, hunk, and muck.” Is this why small animals often use the ee sound—birds “twiet twiet” (Dutch) and “ćwir-ćwir” (Polish), and mice “squeak” (English) and “piep” (Dutch)—while larger animals, like the cow, groan in us and oos? Alas, the theory falls apart with an animal such as a horse, which “eeyaa”s in Mongolian and “i-hahaha”s in Polish.

But who cares about theories when there’s noises to make! For additional languages and help with pronounciation, these websites are great:

The Quack-Project
Animal Sounds Around the World
Derek Abbott’s Animal Noises

Finally, I turn it over to you: What do animals say in YOUR language?

Research note: While there are a number of animal noises websites out there already, I wanted to stick with sounds I collected personally from native speakers of each language; thus there are likely slight variations with spellings and pronunciations, since phonetics are difficult to transcribe and translate.

Language Learning

 

About The Author

Jenny Williams

Jenny is the Director of the Glimpse Graduate Program at MatadorU. Her stories, essays, and poems have been published in numerous print and online publications, including The Best Women's Travel Writing, The Sun Magazine, and Pology, among others. After completing her MFA in fiction at Brooklyn College, she moved to a small medieval town in Germany, where she currently lives with her partner and their dog.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Joshua-Johnson/100001526442445 Joshua Johnson

    The single coolest thing I have read in a fortnight! 

  • nik

    I was looking for a story like this! Thanks I was really curious what other language’s animals sounded like too!
    All I know for Japanese is that mice say “chuu-chuu”, cows say “mo”, lions and tigers “gao” frogs “gero gero” or for big ones “kero kero”, horse “hihi-n”, dog “wan-wan”, cat “nya”, turtle “mu” , rooster “kokekkoko”,  birds go “pichu pichu”.

    • http://www.jennydwilliams.com Jenny Williams

      Thanks for the additions, Nik! I love that Japanese differentiates between big and little frogs…

  • Anne_Merritt

    What a cool story! It never occurred to me how silly the English rooster’s “cock a doodle doo” sounds until I heard the French “coco ricco” and Thai “ekki ekki ek.” Far more accurate. 

  • Meredith Hoog

    This brought back great memories! I also lived in Marburg for a few years and during my time studying German, one of the first things I was taught by my German friends was the proper way to say “kikeriki”. Nothing is as helpful as knowing the sound a rooster makes!

    • http://www.jennydwilliams.com Jenny Williams

      Meredith–how cool that you were in Marburg! I just arrived a few weeks ago, so everything’s still brand-new (likewise my command of the German language…). If you have any food/drink/activity recommendations I’d love to hear ‘em!

  • j9

    I’m curious what you think about animals with full vocabularies of varied noises? My dog, for instance :)

    • http://www.jennydwilliams.com Jenny Williams

      My friend, your dog is an exception to every rule.

  • Candice

    Hahaha, this is so awesome! I hadn’t even thought about it before. 

  • Callumrobsonsu

    Oh! I’m thrilled to have come across this, as it is partly what I’m doing for my third year University dissertation!  Looking at phonological iconicty, and focusing on the similarities presented in animal noises, i.e. voicing present in words for bee, so bu[z] (English), su[m] (German), and bu[n]bu[n] (Japanese). I can send you more information if you wish. My email address is ‘callumrobsonsu ‘at’ hotmail ‘dot’ co ‘dot’ uk’, or I’m on twitter @callumrobson. Great article, very useful, and helpful related links!  

    • http://www.jennydwilliams.com Jenny Williams

      Glad to be helpful! What a cool dissertation topic. (And I can tell already that your knowledge of linguistics is much further advanced than mine!)

  • Ninjis

    In the Finnish language, dogs say “hau”, cats say “miau”, pigs say “röh röh”,  ducks say “kwaak”, bees “surr”, roosters say “kukkokiekuuu!”, hens say “kot kot”. There are also verbs related to talking/making sounds in an animal-like manner, sometimes attributed to ways people talk or shout e.g. “haukkua” (like a dog barking, commonly used as a synonym for criticizing someone or something aloud), “maukua” (like a cat meows, used when someone is talking in a begging or whining way) and  “kotkottaa” (like a hen making noise, commonly attributed to nagging, especially by mother figures or such).

  • Cyma_malik

    hi, im  from Pakistan….
    this is the country of marvellous landscapes.

  • Linda Poort

    Haha, this is so true! I have laughed about this several times with my international friends while living in The Netherlands!

  • Mari

    Even describing how a laugh sounds has different spellings, in Spanish they type “jaja” for our English “haha”.  My little sister was convinced that Spanish speakers actually laughed, using English pronunciation, like “jajajaa!” Until I informed her of course, haha.  But her confusion is easy to understand! When my Argentinean friend first e-mailed me it took me a minute to realize what that “jaja” meant. And even when she writes in English she uses “jaja”! 

  • Simonolivas54

    I am trying to find the sounds of some animals in words in English

  • Larry Gillig

    the animals in your photo are speaking Hungarian.

  • TM

    What does the FOX say?

You don’t have to sweat the prices in Paris or the dreary winter forecasts in...
My host mother sensed my obstinacy against her mother tongue.
Studying Japanese? Check out these solid tips from fellow language learner Jessica Aves.
When linguists refer to "untranslatable" words, the idea is not that a word cannot...
Associate Editor Michelle Schusterman reviews Mango Language's new program aimed at...
Anne Merritt shares her 5 goals for learning Korean in 2011. Learning a language? Join...
I studied 20 hours a week, and after five months I was fluent enough to get my first job.
I returned to the US with a Chinese husband and a heaping rice bowl of expressions in...
40 ways to wish your friends and family a happy 2012.
The ultimate goal of Duolingo is to translate the web, one page at a time.
How to compare people to cucumbers, and when, exactly, to flick your neck.