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What sound does a French duck make? (Or onomatopoeia in different languages)

Hearing is important for humans to understand the world around them and it lies in our nature to want to describe what we hear. To do this, we frequently make use of onomatopoeias. But what exactly is an onomatopoeia? It is ‘the formation of a word from a sound associated with what is named’. Examples of onomatopoeias that we come across in everyday life are ‘moo’, ‘bang’, ‘splash’, or ‘oink’. As these examples indicate, there is a variety of sounds that are ‘translated’ into human speech using onomatopoeias: from human exclamations and machinery, to physical and natural phenomena such as the sounds animals make.

The word onomatopoeia itself derives from Greek and came into the English language via Latin in the 16th century. It literally means ‘word-making’ (from the Greek onoma, onomat = name and –poios = making). Every onomatopoeia makes use of the sound inventory of the given language. This means that onomatopoeias for the same sound will differ in various languages. For example, in English the onomatopoeia for chewing is ‘om nom nom’, whereas it is ‘mampf’ in German.

Ouch, aua, aïe! Different ways to articulate pain

Let’s have a look at some other examples. In English-speaking countries, you are very likely to hear people scream ‘ouch’ when they get hurt. A French person, however, would voice their pain differently, screaming out ‘aïe’; and a German person would say, ‘au’, ‘aua’, or ‘autsch’. Another example that illustrates the differences is the dripping of water from a leaking tap: the sound of water hitting the surface of the sink will be more or less the same no matter where you are, but the onomatopoeias used to describe it will not. In English, we would say ‘drip drop’ to describe the dripping. In French it would be ‘plic ploc’ and in German it would be ‘plitsch platsch’. What is noticeable here is that all three languages use the same initial sound – a plosive. This makes sense insofar as the ‘p’ in a way conveys the sound of the water hitting the surface. Thus, although the actual words are different, we would probably still be able to understand what someone was trying to explain when pointing at a tap and saying ‘plic ploc’ – and this is exactly what makes onomatopoeias so useful.

With a meuh meuh here, and a coin coin there…

Another area where we come across onomatopoeias is the ‘translation’ of animal sounds into human speech. Very often, children will learn the onomatopoeia for an animal sound before the actual name of the animal. For example, rather than calling a cat a cat, a child is very likely to call it a ‘meow’ because it associates the animal with the sound it produces. As the various translations of the famous children’s song Old MacDonald Had a Farm show, the onomatopoeias for animal sounds vary across the world. One factor that should be remembered is that some animals only exist in certain countries. There is also a possibility that animals belonging to the same species sound different depending on where you are. For example, an Asian starling will not sound exactly the same as a European starling, and different onomatopoeias can be used to describe their song.

Certain animal sound onomatopoeias are very similar across many languages. In English, a cat makes a ‘meow’, in German it is ‘miau’, in French ‘miaou’, in Spanish ‘miau’, and in Chinese ‘miāo’. Just like in the ‘leaking tap’ example, the translations are not identical, but they all use the same sound, in this case the nasal sound /m/, to describe the sound produced by a cat. The same is the case for cows: most languages use an onomatopoeia similar to the English ‘moo’ (German ‘muh’, French ‘meuh’, Spanish ‘mu’, and Japanese ‘mō mō’). It is the sound quality of the letter ‘m’ that mirrors the sound produced by both cats and cows and what we tend to associate with them.

Cock a doodle what?

The onomatopoeias used to describe the sound produced by a rooster are comparatively different. In English we would say ‘cock a doodle doo’ (which quite frankly sounds more melodic than any sound a rooster could ever produce). For once, the Germans use a word that is shorter than in English, ‘kikeriki’. A French rooster says ‘cocorico’ and an Arabic-speaking one will sound something like ‘kuku-kookoo’. Whereas the vowels differ in these examples, all of them contain a plosive (/k/). Once again, this is the quality of the sound produced by a rooster translated into human speech: loud and piercing. Another example where this is the case is the different onomatopoeias for the sound of a duck: ‘quack’ in English, ‘coin coin’ in French, ‘cua cua’ in Spanish.

Moving away from farm animals, there still seems to be a pattern across most languages. In English, the onomatopoeia for the sound produced by a snake is ‘hiss’, and it is ‘zisch’ (pronounced /tsɪʃ/) in German. Both languages, and many others, make use of the alveolar fricative /s/, which imitates the hissing of a snake’s tongue and has a sibilant quality compared to others sounds we use, such as /m/, /n/, or /j/.

All of these examples show that whereas the actual onomatopoeia might be different in various languages, they often share a similar sound pattern. Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean that you can just order ‘quack’ when you are in a restaurant abroad; for your own safety, I would strongly recommend that you make sure you can name any animals that you would like to eat.