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Language Extends Beyond Words

Elephant sounds

It is likely that at some point in your life, you have heard or even started a conversation about what animals sound like in different languages.

This might have lead to some slightly ridiculous questions being raised such as, “Would an American dog be able to communicate as well with a French dog as it would with another American dog?” and so on. It could also have lead to a brief discussion on how sounds differ in languages. Take this question, for example: “Do American cats make a different sounding meow than French cats?”


It turns out that a lot of languages agree on the sounds cats make. A French cat will “miaou”, an English cat will “meow”, a Vietnamese cat will “meo” and a Russian cat will “myau”. Unsurprisingly, the similarities between animal sounds in different languages apply to more than just cats.

The sound a rooster makes is generally understood to feature at least three syllables and a repeated “ck” sound as the Japanese “kok-e-kok-ko”, Korean “ko-ki-oh” and English “cock-a-doodle-doo” demonstrate. However, this isn’t to say sounds in different languages are always similar.

Unlike cats and roosters, the sound of a pigeon differs widely from language to language. Does a pigeon “po po” (Japanese), “kurr” (Icelandic) or “gulya” (Russian)?

Cultural Matter

While most people often think of language as simply referring to words, the sounds we make in each of those languages is in fact also a cultural or linguistic matter. Sounds that express surprise can differ wildly between languages: whereas the inclusion of “God” is frequent, from the Arabic “Ya Allah” to the English “Oh my God,” the French “Ah la vache” can puzzle beginning learners due to its literal translation being along the lines of “holy cow”. For English speakers, this expression of surprise might seem a tad dated or old-fashioned but the phrase is regularly used among French speakers.

Similarly, when you snore, do you “hurr”(Bulgarian), “kho kho” (Vietnamese) or “ron pchi” (French)?

Expressions used after sneezing also vary from country to country. In China, to be caught sneezing can be embarrassing. There, an apology rather than another person’s blessing follows a sneeze.

Conversely, languages such as Japanese, French and Spanish include a particular phrase following a person’s sneeze that varies depending on the time of day. Take a look at this Listen & Learn collection of sneezing sounds and listen to how differently a sneeze sounds in different languages.

Universal Sounds

Sneezing is, of course, universal. Just as all cats will meow, every person will sneeze. Yet while a significant amount of languages feature a similar noise for a cat, many differ on the sound made when one sneezes.

It is curious then that certain universal sounds such as the sound made to express physical pain can be similar amongst many languages while the sound to represent a camera shutter or the sound a pigeon makes can differ to a large extent.

Check out the different sounds languages use to say ‘ouch!’ here and note how similar many of them are, despite being spoken in countries on the opposite end of the planet. The Arabic “aakh” sound, the Chinese “aiyõ” sound and Greek “aoutς” sound all bear a vague resemblance to each other.

These small details illustrate exactly why Listen & Learn emphasizes the importance of our qualified, native-speaker language instructors. Are you ready to truly master a new language, including all its new words, animals sounds, and fun exclamations? Contact us and get started today!