Publish at February 09 2022 Updated February 17 2022

The mystery of animal onomatopoeia

Why does the French rooster sing "cocorico" and the English rooster cock-a-doodle-doo?

Is language unique to humans? This question was posed by Hélène Bouchet, Camille Coye and Alban Lemasson, three researchers at the CNRS in Rennes, Brittany, in 2015, based on vocal flexibility under social influences in non-human primates.

Others before them had already considered the subject, following the example of Descartes who affiliated the animal with a machine. Since then, mentalities have evolved and animals have regained "humanity"! If justice has given them back their rights, science has recognized that they have a soul and emotions. So why not a language?

On this subject, have you ever noticed that, from one language to another, the onomatopoeias describing the cries of animals are different? How and why? Is it just a cultural perception or are the sounds themselves different? Do you give your tongue to the cat? Don't show your fangs, paw like velvet because in this freezing cold weather, you don't have to be a wimp to discover these animal-linguistic subtleties!

Tour of the animal world

Here's an exercise I love to do with my students: that of the animal world tour! The goal is simple, to discover the different sounds that animals make in their country and culture. Crazy laughter guaranteed !

  • For example, if for us the cat makes "miaou", it is replaced by "meow" in English, "miau" in German, Spanish and Portuguese, "miao" in Italian and "miāo" in Chinese. Here, the sounds are relatively close, no problem.

  • The dog, on the other hand, makes "Ouaf ouaf" for us. English speakers hear "woof woof" and German speakers "waw waw" (pronounced vaov vaov). There too, it's still okay. But it gets complicated on the Italian (bau bau), Spanish (gau gau), Portuguese (ão ão), Arabic (haw haw), even Chinese (wang wang) side!

  • The pig: in French, it's "groin groin", "oink oink" in English, and, to take it a step further, "wǔ wǔ yī" in Chinese, "nöff nöff" in Swedish and "chrum chrum" in Polish!

  • If the French-speaking duck goes "coin coin", its Catalan counterpart goes "mec mec", "rap rap" for Danish, or "gaa gaa" for Japanese!

  • One last one for the road, probably the most surprising, the French national emblem: the rooster and its famous "Cocorico". The Chinese hear "Ō ō ō", while the Icelanders complicate their lives with "gaggalagaggalagó" or the famous English "cock-a-doodle-doo"!

Do animals "sound" different in every culture or is it just our perception that differs?

Sensory perception

I have two cats: one Quebecois and the other French. When they meow, I hear the same "meow", and without an accent, please!  The Russian Samoyed, a breed of dog, will not bark in English when imported to the United States... No, a priori because nothing has been proven yet, animals are not bilingual, trilingual or polyglot.

First of all, it should be noted that in each language, we transcribe what we hear. However, everything depends on the limits of the phonetic system of the said language. We therefore interpret the sounds made by animals according to the phonemes we know and hear, which explains why, from one language to another, we do not transcribe animal onomatopoeias in the same way: simply because the phonemes vary from one language to another!

It is worth noting that an Australian professor, from the University of Adelaide, Derek Habbot, has studied this subject in order to show how much the onomatopoeia reflects the role of the animal in question in the culture.

His research thus showed that the English demonstrated a real "obsessive diversity" for dogs by granting the latter by less than five different onomatopoeias ("woof, yap, bow wow, ruff, and growl"), where the majority of other languages had only one. This would be explained by the fact that English-speaking countries would have the most dogs per capita...

Another convincing example of his studies, on a local scale this time, which concerns the camel, or rather the dromedary. This African animal is nevertheless very present in the Australian Outback, where it has been introduced since the end of the 19th century and even represents the largest wild colony in the world with more than 750,000 individuals! In short, if Australians naturally have an onomatopoeia for the sound that this camelid produces ("grumph"), our French language can't say the same! For us, the camel... blather, period. Ditto for our Swedish friends and their national moose, which is an integral part of their daily life, and its sweet sound of "broel". No, don't look it up, in French we don't know what sound it makes, a moose!"

Finally, even if, in truth, the duck doesn't make "coin-coin" or "kwak-kwak", it's really a matter of perception and comprehension, as far as our phonological system allows us. What if, after all, we're the ones who don't understand what animals say?

Sources and illustrations

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  • What they don't understand




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