by Geoffrey Barto
We've all heard about French and German. We've also seen cartoons about cats speaking dog and vice-versa. But there's another dimension! French cats and English cats don't talk the same way either.
Languages aren't just about speaking. They're also about hearing. When you hear something, what your mind registers depends on how your language divides up sounds. This is why it's hard to learn to understand a new language. You may know the grammar, the syntax, the vocabulary. But the sounds are another story. The language may have sounds that to you are identical but within it are completely different. Or it may not distinguish between sounds that to you are completely separate.
One of the places where the differences in sound sets among languages comes through is in the way different languages represent animal sounds. Those who read the funny papers may have an inkling of this from Hagar the Horrible, in which Helga's duck says "kvack" and Hagar's dog says "voof" sometimes. But the authors weren't just making up a funny joke when they started using this gag. They were revealing something that those who take language study seriously have come up against for ages.
If you're an American who wants to communicate the idea of a cat to someone who doesn't speak English, what do you say? "Meow," of course. And it will usually work. The French say, "miaule," the Italians, "miao," the Greeks "niaou," the Chinese "miao," and so on. Most languages have pretty broad agreement on what cats sound like and your American "meow" will get the point across (don't try "mew," it's not quite so widely acknowledged).
Man's best friend, the dog, is trickier. Let's look at what barking translates into. We know that in English there are several possiblities: "arf," "woof," "bow wow," "ruff." "Woof will probably get you the farthest. It's kind of like the Dutch "woef," the French "vaf vaf," the Icelandic "voff" and the Norwegian "voff." "Woof" and "bow wow" seem to run together in other languages: There's the French "ouah ouah," the German "wau wau" (also "wuff wuff"), the Italian "bau bau," the Polish "hau hau" and the Brazilian "au au." On the other hand, the Albanian "ham ham," the Arabic "haw haw" and the Chinese "wang wang" (also the Thai "hoang hoang") may seem completely... foreign... to you.
So if you're studying a foreign language and you're not sure you're getting the pronunciation right, don't feel bad. Even cats and dogs don't know the right way to mewl or bark when they go overseas.
For a lot more great info on animal sounds, visit Georgetown University's Animal Sound Pages.
Return to gbarto.com's language pages