Consider the dog.
He exists the world over, in various forms and sizes, but his signature sound doesn’t translate all that well.
In Swedish, the sound of a small dog barking is rendered as bjäbb-bjäbb; in Turkish, hev hev; in Japanese, kian kian. Imagine a somewhat larger dog, and the words change yet again: to vov-vov, hauv hauv, and wan wan, respectively. Americans might say a small dog goes arf arf and a medium-sized dog ruff ruff.
Granted, a Swedish Vallhund is not an Anatolian Shepherd or a Japanese Spitz. But variations in dog breeds can’t fully account for these differences (for what it’s worth, you can find Swedish Vallhunds in Oklahoma). Instead, they speak to a larger phenomenon: Words formed from a sound and intended to imitate that sound—what linguists refer to as onomatopoeia—fluctuate around the world even when the underlying sound is roughly the same in each place. Sometimes there’s remarkable consistency across these words (most cows go something like moo) and sometimes there are curious outliers (America’s exceptional gobble gobble for a turkey). Other times it’s a free-for all; witness the grunting pig, which goes knor knor, oink, groin groin, and hrgu-hrgu as he trots around the world.
And the thing about it is, we don’t really understand why this fluctuation occurs. It has something to do with the alchemy of humans in different times and places striving to mimic noises in the world around them, and to incorporate this mimicry into distinct linguistic systems and cultural contexts. But what exactly?
“No rigorous studies have been done” on comparing onomatopoeia across cultures, Derek Abbott of the University of Adelaide in Australia told me by email. “Academics like me are still at the rudimentary ‘stamp collecting’ phase where I am making a collection of sounds.”
Some have hypothesized over the years that language originated with the imitation of natural sounds—a notion sometimes referred to as the “bow-wow theory.” But whatever the answer to this question, onomatopoeia explains only a sliver of the words we use. As John McWhorter recently wrote at The Atlantic, “No theory will ever account for why the words in a sentence like ‘He couldn’t even get halfway over that wall!’ are the way they are. Language is too changeable to allow us that pleasure, standing as we are at the end of a possibly 150,000-year timeline since human speech began.”
By day, Abbott is a professor of biomedical engineering. But for fun, in the course of his travels, he has amassed a giant spreadsheet of animal sounds in different languages (from which the examples above are drawn). He thinks of the words he compiles as “what would be written in the text balloon coming from the mouth of an animal” in a comic book.
Four years ago, Ke Nguyen, a video editor in London, took a different tack by consulting friends and volunteers recruited through Gumtree, a Craigslist-like site in the U.K. The result was this delightful video. (Onomatopoeia junkies beware: Judging from the video’s comments section, the Canadian and Brazilian participants may not have gotten all their animal sounds right.)
James Chapman, an illustrator who just completed a Ph.D. at the University of Manchester, has embraced the mystery in all this. First on Tumblr, and now in a recently released book funded through Kickstarter, he has spent a couple years chronicling onomatopoeia around the world, glorying not in explanation, but in variation. Plus, it’s illustrated.
It’s an unlikely project for Chapman to undertake. His Ph.D. is in physics, not linguistics. And he doesn’t speak any foreign languages (“I speak dog in other languages,” he offers). He told me he got interested in the subject after visiting a friend in South Korea, where he was baffled to learn that dogs there say mung-mung.
A bit of trivia here: The name of the ravenous main character in the game Pac-Man is based on paku paku, the Japanese word for the sound of eating.
Chapman pointed out that what looks like variation in onomatopoeia is sometimes simply a rearranging of discrete sounds: clap clap in English becomes plec plec in Portuguese.
I asked Chapman whether his research had led him in any bizarre directions.
He recalled one sprawling Google search for the duck sound in Estonian. “I ended up coming across one [video] that was a man chasing a duck and making the duck sound in Estonian, and I thought, ‘This is a very strange video.’ It had, like, three views.”
“That was a life-questioning moment,” he added.