“It isn’t pigs that are multilingual, it’s us,” said Guardian writer Gary Nunn in a recent language column on onomatopoeia, the phenomenon of words that resemble the sound of the source they describe. He described why pigs say “nöff nöff” in Sweden, “boo boo” in Japanese and “groin groin” in French – and we discover it might explain why Swedes say “hurdygurdy”.
The way we describe language noises varies across the world and, as Gary Nunn argues, reflects the unique flavour and panache of different languages as well as their origins. In essence, the words used for animal sounds reflect a country’s makeup and culture.
According to Professor Derek Abbott from the University of Adelaide Russian doesn’t have a word for crocodile sounds and Swedish is the only language with a word for the noise a moose makes (bröl). The English language on the other hand has more words for dog sounds than any other language.
If you think about it, it’s hardly surprising; there are most probably more moose in Sweden than there are crocodiles in Russia, and USA does have the highest dog ownership per capita. When there’s one dog for every four Americans, it seems only natural that more dog related words appear in the English language.
The question about animal sounds is tied up in the debate around the source of language because the trouble is that no one knows where language originated. It is considered one of the most difficult problems in science today and there are lots of theories about how we all got chatting – one of which suggests we mimicked animals.
But why then do horses sound different in different languages? They’re fairly similar in Spanish (ihiiii) and Italian (hiii) but in Hungarian they seem to be of a very different breed (nyihaha) – or are they?
One of the theory’s flaws is that these animal noises don’t necessarily derive from natural sounds; many are more recent inventions, influenced by culture. This becomes even more evident when we look at how we describe the noises of other mammals, namely humans.
It isn’t just animal noises that we portray using onomatopoeic words, we also imitate languages we don’t speak. Thanks to a certain muppet chef, English speakers often say Swedish sounds a lot like “hurdy hurdy hurdy gurdy”, a comedy language.
In English speaking countries Germans are often mocked for their clipped sounding words and the French for their supposed “lip curling” way of speaking.
Is this because the Swedes are funny, Germans angry and French pompous?
Or actually, is it based on stereotypes? Here, we see the argument for this – is it because Germans frequently are cast as the bad guys in Hollywood films? Or because Swedes are known for being somewhat eccentric considering their love for furniture and fermented fish?
Chances are that the answer has less to do with the real mentality of France, Germany and Sweden and that it instead lies somewhere embedded between history, old stereotypes and pop culture, in the way nationalities are portrayed and perceived in English culture. This isn’t just the case in the UK or USA; no matter where in the world you go, words used reflect that language’s history and culture.
Gary Nunn argues that multilingual onomatopoeia say far less about the subjects, in his case animals, than it does about us.
“When you consider we’re hearing the exact same sound but producing different representations of that sound, it reveals how malleable we’ve made our different tongues.”
This, we argue, is why in this day and age, when machine translations are becoming more and more common, translation is still best done with human ears and eyes, by field experts and by those that understand a country’s makeup.
It’s not the pigs that are multilingual, it’s us.
Pigs sound different in different languages and so they should. Translate it correctly and prove to your international market that you know the local lingo. Contact Talking Heads to find out how you can benefit from our multilingual services today.
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