Cows Don’t Always Say Moo: The Noises Animals Make In Different Languages

Different animals make different types of noises to communicate.

It’s pretty much the first lesson we learn in life: dogs go “woof”, cats say “miaow” and cows go “mooo”. But these nursery certainties are only a partial truth. It turns out that the noise an animal depends on the language that’s trying to represent it. 

That’s not to say that animals have regional accents or dialects (though different animal populations do sometimes make different calls). Rather, the way we interpret their noises varies across language and culture. 

This makes sense when you think about it. Even within English, an animal’s calls can be written in several different ways. The dog, for example, might bark, yip, yap, ruff, ruff-ruff, woof, howl, growl or say “bow wow”. Around the world, people interpret these noises very differently.

What Does The Dog Say?

Dogs are one of the cutest beings and can be seen doing 'woof'.

Dogs, as our closest companions, seem to provoke the most linguistic variety. Dutch dogs are in close harmony with their English cousins, saying ‘waf’ or ‘woef’, though they can also ‘blaf’. Spanish mutts makes a ‘guau’ or ‘jua’ sound, though a Catalan dog will ‘bau’ or ‘bub’ and the hound of the Basque will use the Scrabble-friendly ‘txau, txau’ or ‘zaunk, zaunk’. Romanian canines will ‘ham’, while Turkish dogs put out a ‘hev’ (similar to the Hebrew Hav). If we move beyond Europe, the noises become even more diverse. Chinese dogs are thought to say ‘wow-wow’ or ‘wang-wang’, perhaps in sympathy to Japanese hounds, who might emit a ‘wan-wan’. A Malaysian pooch will say ‘gong, gong’, while an Indonesian dog will ‘guk, guk’. And spare a thought for the Korean dog, whose call of ‘meong’ sounds distinctly feline to the English-attuned ear.

A Cultural Caterwaul 

And what of the cat? It seems the miaow is recognised all over the world, with little variation. Common spellings and transliterations include ‘miauw’ (Dutch), ‘miaou’ (French), ‘miaau’ (Afrikaans), ‘niaou’ (Greek), ‘ngiau’ (Malay), ‘myau’ (Russian), and ‘ngiyaw’ (Filipino). One exception is again in Korean, where the cats call out ‘yaong’ or ‘nyang’. Otherwise, though, cats can move around the world without getting lost in translation.

Sounds Of The Farm

English pigs can be seen saying 'oink' or grunting.

In contrast to cats, pigs seem to talk in many flowery tongues. English pigs either ‘grunt’ or ‘oink’, but just across the water in Denmark they’d rather ‘øf-øf’, while the Dutch stymate might ‘knor knor’. Albanian hogs ‘hunk’, while Japanese hogs ‘boo boo’. The French porcine utters a ‘groin groin’ (which, thankfully, Peppa Pig did not attempt when her French pen pal came to visit).

Cows seem to offer a distinctive mooo, mu, muh or moe in most of the world’s paddocks. There are exceptions, however. The divergent Dutch go for more of a ‘boe’ sound. Bengali cows wrap their lips around a two-syllable ‘hamba’, while the Tagalog language of the Philippines specifies an ‘ungaa’.

Horses make a sound that does not easily lend itself to written language (in his famous novel Gulliver’s Travels, Jonathan Swift makes much of this, naming his intelligent horses Houyhnhnms). As such, the horse’s vocalisation has been interpreted in many ways. English speakers usually call it a ‘neigh’, while Hungarians have something similar, only more extended as ‘nyihaha’. The Japanese opt for the related ‘hihiin’, while the Danish go for a short, sharp ‘vrinsk’. Oddest of all must be the Russian interpretation, which is something like ‘i-go-go’.

The Birds And The Bees

Which buzz words would you have to master to become an international beekeeper? Most languages use something similar to English, to represent the continuous single-tone hum of the bee. Turkish speakers, for example, would use an easily relatable ‘Vzzzz’ for the apian noise. German bees are more likely to go ‘sum’, while Japanese insects give out a ‘buun’. The Korean bee opts for ‘boong’.

Birds are a little trickier to explore, because the animals make such a diverse range of noises across species, from whistles to shrieks to melodic songs. Most languages, however, have a generic bird-noise word, much as ‘tweet, tweet’ or ‘chirp’ functions in English. Many European languages get close to the latter, such as ‘tjiep’ in Dutch or ‘chip’ in Italian. Swedish and Norwegian birds make a delightful ‘pip-pip’ sound, though, while Greek avians say ‘tsiou, tsiou’. Chinese birds, meanwhile, say ‘ji ji’ while Japanese birds make a ‘chun-chun’.



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