The cow goes..."Hamba"?

"Onomatopoeia," in addition to being a great spelling bee word, is the term used to describe those words that are supposed to reflect an actual sound accurately. Examples of these words include "splash," "thud," and "boom." They also encompass words used to describe animal sounds. However, different languages represent animal sounds differently, sometimes with a surprising amount of variation. In Language History, Language Change, and Language Relationship, Hans Heinrich Hock, et al. write that

While ordinary speakers (i.e. non-linguists) may be convinced that there is a clear connection between sound and meaning, at least in onomatopoiea,....linguists are just as firmly convinced that even here the relation is to some degree arbitrary. To support this view they can point out that other languages can employee different onomatopoetic means to express the same animal sound." (p. 228)

For instance, to an English speaker, a bird may say "tweet, tweet," while a Czech speaker will represent this sound as "jek jek," and a Spanish-speaker will swear that it's "pio pio." An English speaker will likely say that a cow says "moo," whereas a Bengali speaker will probably claim that a cow says "hamba." As for what a pig might say, the disparity indicates a real Tower of Babel. That grunting sound is interpreted by Croatian speakers as "rok-rok," English speakers as "oink oink," Chinese speakers as "hu-lu hu-lu," Japanese speakers as "buubuu," and Swedish speakers as "nöff."

Sometimes even two different dialects of the same language can produce two different representations. UK English speakers usually represent the sound a baby chicken (a chick) makes as "cheep cheep," while US English speakers often prefer "peep peep." Spanish-speaking Spaniards tend to think that a sheep says "bee," while Spanish-speaking Argentines generally feel that "meeee" is a more exact rendering of the sound. Similarly, a pig says "gruinh" to some European Portuguese speakers and "óinc-óinc" to Brazilian Portuguese speakers.

You can find more examples in this rather extensive list.

This variation in ways to mimic animal sounds could potentially cause difficulties when trying to use puns or other plays on words to a speaker who is not familiar with the terms used in a particular language. For instance, a cute greeting card with a picture of a happy cat and the caption "You're purr-fect!" might appear confusing and unfunny to a native Hungarian speaker who is used to hearing a cat's purr as "doromb."

Even humans' "primal" exclamations can vary from language to language. If you stub your toe, you may, as a reflex, cry out "Ouch!" if you're an English speaker, "Eina!" if you speak Afrikaans, and "Aie!" if you're a French speaker.

(posted by language fan and friend Silas McCracken)

No comments: