Word Nerd: Do Korean Cats Mew?

11 Apr

All words are sounds. And some sounds are words – oink, quack, neigh, pow, bam, biff. A sound-word is called an onomatopoeia (on-uh-mat-uh-pee-uh). Like great yoghurt, olives and moody gods, the term is Greek.

A lot of this linguistic phenomenon imitates nature – the call of animals and birds, the cry of babies, and sounds we make involuntarily – sneezes, laughter, even farts. Onomatopoeias are imitations. Because they reproduce sounds it is easy to presume that they are universal. That cows moo as cats meow and dogs bow-wow. And everyone can be led to believe that their imitation is the most authentic one. If that were true, onomatopoeias would be universal.

But are onomatopoeias the same across languages? No.

We forget that our mother tongues condition not only how we imitate and share sounds, but also how we listen to them. So a native English speaker will hear a cockerel differently from a Hindi speaker, who, in turn, will hear it differently from a Russian speaker. That said, the word for the bird’s call will likely be an onomatopoeia in all languages.


So while onomatopoeias exist in all languages, cows don’t moo in all languages. Neither do we universally go atchoo when we sneeze. This means you are allowed to go hapsu if you are Turkish. Bless you, if you do.

Also, because it is the internet, let us take cats for an example. The humble housecat, which meows in English, meos in Vietnamese, says yaong in Korean, and nyan in Japanese! And they don’t even have an excuse for being so obtuse, unlike the frog, which varies its sound according to species (ribbid, croak, etc).

(Check out illustrator James Chapman’s quirky work on international onomatopoeias here.)

Language is our way of trying to capture our environment. Naturally, each individual might be given to think his or her way is the best, the truest way of retelling the world’s story. Linguistic phenomenon like onomatopoeias are a good example of that exercise. We think we’ve got it sorted. And then we come upon nyan-cats.

By: Skendha Singh

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