There’s a section in a David Sedaris essay where he explains one of his go-to icebreakers when he travels to foreign countries: asking the locals what sound a rooster makes.
“In Germany, where dogs bark ‘vow vow; and both the frog and the duck say ‘quack,’ the rooster greets the dawn with a hearty ‘kik-a-ricki,’” he writes. “Greek roosters crow ‘kiri-a-kee,’ and in France they scream ‘coco-rico,’ which sounds like one of those horrible premixed cocktails with a pirate on the label. When told that an American rooster says ‘cock-a-doodle-doo,’ my hosts look at me with disbelief and pity.”
This is fair. Actually listen to a rooster crow, and it becomes clear that the noise we’ve assigned it bears very little resemblance to what’s coming out of its mouth. But all those other examples — kik-a-ricki, kiri-a-kee, coco-rico — get at the essential weirdness of the way we describe animal noises: German, Greek, French, and English have all attempted to approximate what a rooster says, but a rooster can’t say all those things. Someone has to be wrong. Human language wasn’t built to accommodate animal noises — and as the Washington Post wrote in a story published this week, our various attempts have illuminated some interesting points about how language works.
The Post highlighted the work of Derek Abbott, an engineer at the University of Adelaide in Australia who put together a database of animal sounds from languages around the world. The diversity, the paper noted, can be explained in part by how prominent a role an animal plays in a given culture. Our dogs, for example, can say arf or woof or bow wow or yip or yap — you get the idea — but we have only one word for the sound a camel makes. (It’s grumph.)
We’re also limited both by own own anatomy and by the rules of our language, bees being a perfect example of both. Research has shown that the insects don’t actually produce a “zzzz” sound, but our voices aren’t capable of mimicking the real thing, so we improvise. In English, though, “zzzz” can’t be a word on its own — “If I want to make a word out of it, I need to provide it with a vowel,” linguist Byron Ahn told the Post — so we added the “u,” and then the “b” somewhere along the way.
And in Japanese, where the “n” sound is the only consonant that can be used to end a word, bees say “boon-boon” — which, Abbott said, raises the question of how much language influences the way we process sound: “A scientific question that needs to be answered is: Are the Japanese hearing a ‘Z’-like sound in the first place but have no interpretation, or are they actually hearing the ‘Z’ differently in the first place due to their conditioning?” he told the Post. And on a much simpler level, perusing the database — especially the hard-k syllable mishmashes of the rooster column — yields some pretty delightful nuggets.