What animal says ‘quaak‘? – Hint: it is not misspelling of the noise ducks make. In Germany, it is the frog that makes the ‘quaak’ sound, and not any kind of bird at all.
We sometimes joke that animals are speaking different ‘languages’ in different countries, but of course they sound the same everywhere. There is a huge variety in the words we use to describe those noises, however. Sometimes it might seem that people can’t even be describing the same creature! For the pig, for example, there is ‘buu-buu’ (Japanese), ‘groin-groin’ (French), ‘oink’ (English), and ‘khryu-khryu’ (Russian).
All of these words are onomatopoeias – words meant to imitate the sound we hear. Words like thump, clap, chug, clink, slap, and rustle are all onomatopoeias.
Why does this happen?
If an animal makes the same sound worldwide, how does this wide variety emerge? Part of the answer lies in the sounds that are available in a given language. The rolling ‘r’ sound from Spanish, for example, does not exist in English. Likewise, the sounds ‘ui’ ‘eu’ (pronounced roughly ‘au’ and ‘oh’) in Dutch are very difficult to differentiate in English.
The availability of different sounds means that the onomatopoeic descriptor can take on different aspects of the noise an animal makes. Most languages, for example, have some form of ke-ke-li-ke for the rooster, which very much imitates the sound a rooster makes. Turkish stands apart because a high ‘u’ sound exists. Their ü-ürü-üüü sounds even more like a rooster crowing – a far cry from English’s ‘cock-a-doodle-do’.
The variety of sounds an animal makes also depends on the amount of interaction we have with that animal. This is why in English there are plenty of words for what a dog says (woof, bark, growl, etc.) but not for an elephant or camel.
Engineering professor Eric Abbott has compiled a publicly available spreadsheet of animals noises. He has compiled this list by asking academics from other countries what noises specific animals make while at conferences. Click through to his page to see if there are any fields you can help fill in! We have taken the liberty of highlighting a few more of our favorites in the images below: