Friday, February 28, 2014


Will we ever be able to communicate with our friends—hold that—our kinfolk, the animals? It seems highly unlikely, but that does not mean that they don’t have some sort of language among their own kind. Meanwhile it is of interest to note our attempts to capture their language in our language, if for no other reason out of respect for their individuality.

It is clearly difficult to reproduce those animal sounds, which strike different nationalities differently. That may not be surprising; what is surprising is how peculiar some nations’ perceptions are, but also how many similarities there exist after all.

One of my professors once spent some time eliciting and examining these renderings from his students, and covering the blackboard with them. I can’t go that far, but do wish to speculate about those that I do know, the degree of plausibility attesting to different degrees of sensitivity to language of any kind from nation to nation. And that is a matter of indisputable interest.

Animal sounds can be rendered as a verb or a noun, or a mere exclamation, as in the Anglo-American version of a pig’s alleged oink-oink. This seems to me particularly misguided, its persistence a proof of, dare I say it, pigheadedness. No pig would be caught dead saying oink, an arbitrary coinage by tone-deaf observers.

What do pigs (highly intelligent animals, by the way) really sound like? Germans hear it as “quieken” or “quieksen,” which may be apt, although it makes a creature built like an Italian tenor sound like a soprano. I prefer the Hungarian verb, “roffogni,” with its masculine roughness, although based on an admittedly unscientific assumption, even if I did once, as a boy, briefly enjoy a piglet as pet. I am ultimately partial to the Russian version, which is “hryu-hryu,” with the vowel sound as in foot, not boot.

Almost unique agreement, or near-agreement, prevails about the cat sound: meow to us, “miau” in German, and “miaou” the Franch noun, although French also has the more Racinian—or is it Molieresque?--sounding verb form “miauler.” Italian offers the noun “miagolo” and the verb “miagolare,” which gives the sound a Tuscan, not to say Dantesque, quality.

Serbian, if I recollect correctly, calls it “mrnjao,” with the j pronounced as our y. (More about that r anon.) Only Hungarian wants to be different with its verb “nyavogni,” although a remote resemblance remains. What matters, however, is the universal similarity, attesting to our close attention to this beloved pet. Of interest too is the earlier English rendering of the cat verb as “mew,” from the Middle English “meuen,” as in Hamlet’s “The cat will mew.”

There is no such agreement about the other cat sound, which English renders not unpersuasively as purr. Here the French too does nicely with the verb “ronronner,”  the repeated “ron” syllable conveying the monotony of the purr. Notable is the presence of the apt r-sound, also in the German “schnurren,” although that “sch” is clearly more Teutonic than feline.

Interestingly, there is no such near-unanimity when it comes to our other domestic pet, the dog, onomatopoetically the bowwow. What there is, however, in most languages is the plosive b, as in bark, “bellen “ (German), and “aboyer,” (French). But not so in the Serbian “lajati” or the Hungarian “ugatni,” which strike me as off target. Here too the Spanish departs, what with the verb “ladrar” and the noun “ladrido.” Only the two a’s in the verb seem moderately apt.

Moving out of the house into the yard, we find some correspondences again. Thus the rooster’s crowing is “krahen” in German; the French roosters actually sing, “chantent,” with a droll lyric, “cocorico,” which becomes in German “kukuriku,” and in English, rather too fancifully, cock-a-doodle-do. There is also some agreement about the donkey’s braying, heehaw in English, “ia” (pronounced ee-ah) in German.

Regardless of differences, though, it is nice that there are words in all these languages for animal sounds. This is not so obvious when you consider that every language has certain words for which there are no equivalents in other ones.

Take the verb frown, for which you would expect every major language to have  its one-word term. Not so. In both French and German it takes three words to convey that, translatable literally as wrinkle the brow. Can anything be concluded from such a phenomenon—say, that frowning comes more readily, more naturally to English speakers? I rather doubt it. Well, maybe to the British, but not to us happy Americans.

What it seems to mean is that different nations have latched on to different things to focus their atention on and coin a word for. Indeed there are words for which there is not even a three-word equivalent. I think of the wonderful Hungarian term for an irresistible melody, “fulbemaszo,” literally crawling into the ear, four words.

Or what about the German “zum knochenkotzen,” something not just vomitory, but so awful it makes you vomit solid bones? Or take a word that is so germane to a language, so perfect in it, that another language just takes it over as is. Thus the French “gaffe” and “faux pas,” both of which synonyms have become adopted by English, which did not have their equivalent, though misstep would do. Yet it was appropriate to go for those French words, French people being such an elegant, formal, ceremonious sort, as to be especially sensitive to breaches of good behavior.

Amusingly, sometimes a borrowing from another language results in a mistake. Thus the Hungarian took over “smoking” from the British, thinking misguidedly that it meant tuxedo, or what we prefer to call dinner jacket. It also took over, with the correct meaning, the dish called ham and eggs, but turned it into “hemendeks.” Similarly, it adopted football (i.e., soccer) with the Magyarization “futbal,” informally “ foci.” Serbian came up with “fudbal,” while German made it truly Germanic as “Fussball.”

But let us get back to animals. Here the letter r tends to sound especially ferocious, hence the roar of the lion becomes a “rugissement” in French. But the English is not that specific: roars can come from all kinds of nonleonine sources  And the German verb, “brullen” is a sound emitted by an unhappy infant as readily as by a lion’s maw.

Now for something very curious. While other German songbirds sing, “singen,” the nightingales do something else, “schlagen.” But that verb primarily means to beat, yet why on earth would that delicate, most musical song of the nightingale be a beating? Nightingale, by the way, is a comely word, as is the German “Nachtigall,” similarly based on the fact that nightingales sing at night. Some parallel obtains in Romance languages, too, where the French nightingale is a “rossignol,” and the Spanish one a “ruisenor,” with a tilda on the n, which may subsume “ruido” (sound) and “senor” (gentleman) implying that this bird and its sound are aristocratic.

English has two very good, onomatopoetic words for bird language: chirp and twitter, the latter even better in German: “zwietschen.”  And the horned owl, in German, is the “Uhu,” a real hoot. But other owls, in any language I can think of, have no onomatopoetic names, unless you make something of the “ou” in the French “hibou.”

Most birds in many languages simply cry, which is very human of them. I can think, however, of one amusing divergence, what the thrush does in Hungarian: he whistles: “fucsul,” with umlauts on both u’s. That conveys a whistle sovereignly, but does a thrush really whistle? In Hungarian, he apparently does, and so does the canary, for which the term surely fits.



  2. I'm reminded of a comment Quentin Crisp once made on Letterman's show: when asked if he had any pets, he replied, "Oh, no -- I already have enough dumb animals in my life."

  3. Mr. Simon's latest provides a very interesting and entertaining safari through the menageries of language. Some random thoughts in response:

    The evolutionary biologist Stephen J. Gould wrote an essay in which he likened the evolution of words to the seemingly protean morphology of insects -- etymology meets entomology.

    Mr. Simon mentions the "Hungarian term for an irresistible melody, “fulbemaszo,” literally crawling into the ear..." -- an interesting parallel to the modern neologism of the "ear worm" meaning "a catchy piece of music that continually repeats through a person's mind after it is no longer playing"; though not always pleasantly irresistible.

    In a way, one of the themes of Mr. Simon's study here is the odd mystery of words sounding and/or looking like what they denote. Sometimes this seems obvious; other times this phenomenon is subtler: the French word (originally from a Caribbean dialect) colibri for hummingbird has always seemed elusively apt, somehow. One cannot scientifically explain such a consonance; it may defy all naturalism.

  4. A Hungarian friend points out that the sense of fulbemaszo is more like wriggling into the ear, not crawling, which can connote creepiness.

    As for owls, the Spanish distinguish between the two groups of owls -- búhos, the True Owls, and lechuzas, Barn Owls. Clearly búho (pron. BOO-oh) is onomatopoeic.

    Lastly, isn't fütyül the word for the bird's whistling?

  5. I'm sure Julie Andrews and daughter ("The Great American Mousical") will appreciate your scholarship.