There is something so entertaining about hearing animal sounds in other languages—cats all objectively say "meow," right?! In fact, how languages represent animal sounds can teach us a lot about pronunciation in different languages—and whether animals sound the same worldwide.

Animal sounds are a kind of onomatopoeia, and here's how they work!

What is onomatopoeia?

When we create words that imitate natural sounds, those words are called onomatopoeia. For example, buzz, boom, crash, and meow are all onomatopoeia because they attempt to imitate a real sound from out in the world: the sound of a bee, a loud explosion, the sound of something breaking, or a cat asking you for food at 5 a.m. The word onomatopoeia comes from the Greek ὀνοματοποιία—a compound of ὄνομα (ónoma, "name") and ποιέω (poiéō, "I make"). The term was coined by the Greek philosopher and scientist Aristotle!

How languages think of sounds

Presumably, the sound of a cat in Greece is basically the same as a cat in Pittsburgh, or ones on the streets of Rio, or those guarding the pyramids in Giza. So why don't all languages represent those meows in the same way?

Every language uses its own set of (human) sounds in its words, and each language also has particular rules about how to combine sounds and where they can go in words. For example, words in Spanish never start with the combination "sp" (they have to have an "e" before the "s"), and even though English speakers can make a "ng" sound in the middle or at the end of a word, no English words start with this sound. 

These sound rules also shape the way languages represent animal sounds!

The language you speak also shapes which sounds you hear, and how you imagine animals sounding when they make noise. So the way a language represents the noise a pig makes can tell us about what sounds exist in that language and how they form words!

For example, in English, the noise a pig makes (oink!) contains the sound combination [ɔɪ], reflecting that this is an acceptable combination of sounds in English, as in the word oil. But not all languages have those 2 particular vowels, and even if they do, they might not be allowed to be combined that way! In Polish, the noise a pig makes is chrum, where the first sound is sort of between a "k" and a "h"—a sound that doesn't exist in English! (And maybe if we had it, we'd think pigs were saying chrum, too.) 

Even for as different as animal sounds can be across languages, we can compare them to discover surprising similarities. Let's take a look at a few more words for pig sounds:

Language Pig sound
English oink
French groin
Indonesian ngok
Polish chrum

There are actually a few similarities here! All contain a vowel made in the middle of your mouth (with your tongue not too high and not too low), a nasal sound like "m" or "ng," and at least one consonant made at the back of your mouth near your throat, like "k." We could hypothesize that people all around the world are using our human sound-production machinery (lips, teeth, tongue, throat) in strikingly similar ways to imitate the sound emanating from a pig's snout—even if we all combine those sounds differently.

Animal sounds in other languages

This list isn't just the quirky ways different languages imagine animal sounds—it's a list of onomatopoeic words!

Language Dog Cat Rooster Pig Duck Bee Owl
Arabic هاو هاو
(haw haw)
مياو مياو
(meo meo)
كوكو كوكو
(koko koko)
واك واك
(wak wak)
Chinese 汪汪
(wāng wāng)

(ō ō)
(hēng hēng)
(gā gā)
(wēng wēng wēng)
(gū gū)
Czech haf haf mňau kykyryký chro chro káč káč bzz hú hú
English woof meow cock-a-doodle-doo oink quack bzzz hoo hoo
French ouaf miaou cocorico groin-groin coin-coin bzzz hou-hou
German wau wau miau miau kikeriki oink oink quak quak summ hu-huu
Greek γαβ γαβ
(gav gav)
νιάου νιάου
(niáu niáu)
χρόιν χρόιν
πα πα
(pa pa)
Hindi भौं भौं
(bho bho)
ओई ओई
(oi oi)
कैं कैं
(kain kain)
ऊक ऊक
(uk uk)
Hungarian vau-vau miáu kukurikú röf-röf háp-háp zzzz huhú
Indonesian guk guk meong kukuruyuk ngok kwek bzz kukuk / ku ku
Italian bau bau miao chicchirichì oink qua qua zzz --
Japanese ワン
Korean 왈왈 or 멍멍
(walwal or mung mung)
(wing wing)
부엉 부엉
(bu-eong bu-eong)
Polish hau hau miau miau kukuryku chrum chrum kwa kwa bzz hu hu
Portuguese au-au miau cocoricó óinc-óinc quá-quá bzz uuh-uuh
Russian гав-гав
Spanish guau miau quiquiriquí grrr cuac bzz uh uh
Thai โฮ่งๆ
(hong hong)
(meow meow)
เอ้กอี๊เอ้กเอ้ก or กุ๊กๆ
(ek ee ek ek or goog goog)
(ood ood)
(gaab gaab)
(hueng hueng)
ฮู ฮู
(hoo hoo)
Turkish hav hav miyav ü ürü üü oink vak vak vızz bubuh / gugguş
Ukrainian гав-гав
Vietnamese gâu gâu meo meo ò ó o ụt ịt cạp cạp zzz cú cú

Onomatopoeia is a hoot!

Animal sounds are a fun window into how languages combine sounds—and how we all think of our furry friends!