We Translate On Time

How do dogs bark in Spanish?

July 2nd, 2019

"How do dogs bark in Spanish?" At six years old, I clearly remember my father asking me this question, and I responded that obviously they say 'woof' because all dogs speak the same language. But actually, they don't. Dogs don't say 'woof-woof' in Spanish, they say 'guau-guau'; in Turkish, they say 'hev-hev'; and in Mandarin, they say 'wang-wang'. Birds, similarly, are not all tweeters. In fact, in both Spanish and Portuguese they say 'pío-pío' and 'piu-piu' respectively, while in French they say 'cui-cui'. So, why is it that some animals make different noises in different languages? 

It all comes down to onomatopoeia. The sounds that we associate with different animals come from our attempt to imitate them, thus showing how our languages have developed differently: after all, we are all hearing the same original sound. The various language phonemic systems around the world enable speakers to create different sounds. This means that speakers will use different sounds to replicate what they hear based on the pre-existing sounds of their native language, using sounds that are easier to make. For example, sounds such as 'ão' in Portuguese and 'rr' in Spanish are non-existent in English, and so would not be used to mimic an animal sound. Indeed, in Japanese, bees do not make the 'zz' sound that they do in most other languages, but instead make the noise 'boon-boon', as the letter 'z' does not exist in Japanese. Interestingly, however, many languages seem to agree that cats make a similar sound to 'meow': with 'mjau' (Swedish), 'maio' (Italian), and 'meo' (Vietnamese). There are, of course, exceptions to this, for example in Japanese cats say 'nyan'. 

Despite the limited research carried out on animal sounds, some linguists believe the sounds created for animals can also demonstrate aspects of a country's culture. For example, the amount of words in the English language to mimic a dog's bark, such as 'yip', 'yap', 'ruff', 'woof', 'bow-wow' etc, is far greater than in most other languages, where, in some cases, only one word exists. This could be because English-speaking countries tend to have higher rates of dog ownership, and as such, have come up with a wider variety of sounds. In a similar vein, Australia's extensive camel population means that the sound 'grumph' has been assigned to them, whereas in England, where there are limited camels, no real sound exists. 

Who knew that not all dogs said 'woof'.




by Nicola Spruyt