Pet sounds: Do animals speak different languages?

by Claire Niven


Can animals get lost in translation? Find out why animal noises sound different in different countries.

Cows that go boo

In the Netherlands, cows say boo. Which may come as a shock to English people, who wouldn’t say boo to a goose (i.e. they are timid).  

In England, cows say moo. Which may come as a shock to Dutch people, who wonder why English cows are tired all the time. Moo means tired in Dutch, you see. (More accurately it’s boe and moe but why let spelling get in the way of a joke?)

Make the right noises

Cows are not multilingual, and dogs don’t woof differently in different countries, but it comes down to how we, as humans, interpret the sound. The origin of language is an unresolved subject among linguists, but it was once thought that our ancestors copied the sounds of nature and that this could have been our first attempt at speech.  One theory called bow-wow theory even goes some way to suggest that these imitative abilities could have contributed to the evolution of language.

Onomatopoeia is the process of creating a word which mimics the sound it describes. We imitate what we hear, and we attach these noises to animals using a delightful variety of words. We simply have different ways of describing different sounds, depending on our language and our culture.

Global animal communication is confusing, and it’s not just cows who moo in a different language. Dutch pigs don’t oink, they knor, chickens say tok tok and dogs blaf. Further afield Italian dogs go bau bau and Spanish ones guf guf, while ducks say coin coin in French and kyra kyra in Russian. Surprisingly, it would be easy for a Japanese pig to get along with a Dutch cow, because they say boo tooWhich brings us to that most impenetrable question: “What Does the Fox Say?”

Animal names

So, if animal sounds can get lost in translation, what about animal names? The Dutch word for leopard is luipaard and translates as lazy horse; an armadillo is a gordeldier, which means belt animal; and a ladybird is a lieveheersbeestje which translates as little animal of the Dear Lord.

Old MacDonald, the celebrated English farmer, and the winner of Boer Zoekt Vrouw (popular Dutch farmer TV dating show) were chatting one day. “What do you call a horse in Dutch?” Old MacDonald asked his friend. “A paard” answered the Dutch farmer. Old MacDonald replied: “So, what do you call two horses?”. “Paarden” said the farmer. “I said.. ‘What do you call two horses?’”

For some more horsing around (i.e. frivolous time-wasting), check out this Kuikentje Piep video. It gives an exhaustive account of Dutch animal sounds. But be warned, there is a chance that the song will get stuck in your head for a long time... or until the cows come home.

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