Fun facts about how humans make animal sounds
If you follow aiaTranslations on Facebook, you may have noticed the adorable illustrations of animal sounds in different languages that we’ve been posting from time to time. Also seen on sites like Buzzfeed, they were drawn by James Chapman, an artist who creates “illustrations of onomatopoeia from around the world”.
But Chapman’s not the only one to be inspired by this subject. There are countless articles, lists, studies, drawings, forum posts, diagrams, recordings, and songs about how human make animal sounds around the globe – and no wonder. Animal sounds are pretty fun to make (try mooing at your desk and not laughing), and they’re at once specific and universal: Because we learn them when we’re young, they’re engrained in us. Finding out that other languages don’t express animal sounds in the same way often comes as a shock – but you know, at the same time, that it’s not anything really important. Still, when you travel or watch foreign TV shows or movies, you may be surprised to find yourself reassured by the fact that animals themselves actually make the same sounds everywhere
Here are some fun facts (many of which come from this fascinating Guardian article) about the different ways we humans interpret animal talk:
– The sound a cow makes starts with “m” in every recorded language except Urdu (speakers of this language hear “beah”).
– The typical cat vocalization also starts with “m” across the linguistic board – except in Estonian (“näu”), Korean (“yaong”), and Japanese (“nyan” — yes, that’s (sort of) where beloved meme Nyan Cat got his name). Side note: You may think speakers of these languages just aren’t in tune with cats, but actually, there are about 100 known feline vocal sounds. I’m kind of a crazy cat lady, and I’ve definitely heard sounds that could be transcribed like these.
– Gary Nunn, the author of that Guardian article I mentioned, points out that animal sounds can also say something about culture. For example, English is the language with by far the largest number of dog sound onomatopoeias, and Anglophone countries have the largest number of dog owners.
– The Bow-Wow Theory claims early humans developed the concept of speech by listening to animal and nature sounds.
– Of course, animals don’t always just make one sound at a time: studies have shown that many, like dolphins and prairie dogs, have complex language systems. Others downright sing, including birds, whales, and frogs. There’s actually an entire academic field of study devoted to animal songs, called zoomusicology.
– In terms of human songs, most of us grew up singing “Old MacDonald had a Farm” – and English-speakers aren’t the only ones; there are versions of this song in a number of languages around the world, including Spanish, Slovenian, Arabic, Chinese, Hebrew, and Finnish. Many childhood speech and development experts point out that it’s an important step for a child to associate an animal and the sound it makes. So believe it or not, “Old MacDonald” was more than just a fun tune to sing in kindergarten – it was a vital part of mastering your native language!
Learning about animal sounds in other languages can be more than just a passing amusement. The next time you see one of James Chapman’s animal sound illustrations – or a list or other comparison of animal sounds — think of it as a way to challenge your linguistic and cultural prejudices. Forget what you grew up with: which animal sound seems closest to the noise the animal actually makes?
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