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As onomatopoeia, the words used for animal sounds are often quite similar across many languages. However, there are non-trivial differences, even for something as common as the croak of a frog.

I was wondering if these differences could generally be grouped (or explained) according to language family or if it's basically just chance (eg, the term that caught on due to some local story or song).

Another way to put this is to ask to what extent the animals actually sound different to speakers of different languages (without getting too philosophical).

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    A great deal has to do with the phonology of the language, and what features are prominent; they'll normally appear in animal onomatopoiea. I would seriously doubt any language family involvement, unless some phonological features are prominent throughout the family. Also, sound symbolism is going to influence this in some direction, but the vector is pretty random. – jlawler Apr 5 '13 at 21:15
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    Incidentally, frogs make a wide array of sounds. Only a single species actually goes "ribbit", the Pacific Treefrog indigenous to the US west coast. Despite this, "ribbit" is the frog onomatopoeia of choice for most English speakers around the world. The reason is because early Hollywood movies used the frog's distinctive call as a stock sound effect. This explains why English's frog onomatopoeia is noticeably different from other languages'. – acattle Apr 6 '13 at 1:12
  • @acattle Interesting, didn't know about that. :) – Alenanno Apr 6 '13 at 8:27
  • @acattle: Hadn't really considered the "regional dialects" of the animals themselves. I had assumed that my native language had selected/reinforced one particular interpretation of frog sounds but maybe it's just that that's what they sounded in my home town. Or, more likely, some combination of the factors. – igelkott Apr 6 '13 at 8:43
  • Here is a site with animal sounds as rendered in various languages. I wish they used IPA instead of English pseudo-phonetic transcription. eleceng.adelaide.edu.au/Personal/dabbott/animal.html – James Grossmann Apr 8 '13 at 2:32
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Onomatopoeia is non-arbitrary, but that doesn't mean it's immune to the normal processes that happen to any arbitrary word—including:

  • arbitrary historical choices of onomatopoeia (like @acattle commented about "ribbit" above; copy-pasting):

Incidentally, frogs make a wide array of sounds. Only a single species actually goes "ribbit", the Pacific Treefrog indigenous to the US west coast. Despite this, "ribbit" is the frog onomatopoeia of choice for most English speakers around the world. The reason is because early Hollywood movies used the frog's distinctive call as a stock sound effect. This explains why English's frog onomatopoeia is noticeably different from other languages'.

  • inheritance through language families, like any other cognate

There looks to be a pan-Slavic [h]am [h]am onomatopoeia for "eating food", for example (English nom nom or yum yum), which doesn't appear elsewhere in the Wikipedia list (although Turkish ham hum is close.)

  • compliance with language-specific phonotactics

Turkish takes *mjau for "meow", and ends up with miyav. A lot of languages don't have initial /mj/ clusters; Turkish seems to make that official even for meowing. (Turkish doesn't have initial /m/ at all natively, admittedly; but /mj/ is a bigger hurdle than just /m/.) The final -av is another concession to Turkish phonotactics.

  • areal diffusion

The Modern Greek sneeze, for example, /apsu/, is pretty obviously borrowed from the Turkish (and more onomatopoeic) /hapʃu/; dropping /h/ and /ʃ/ > /s/ is just fitting /hapʃu/ to Modern Greek phonotactics. I have heard, to my profound shock, my cousin-nephew in Athens spontaneously utter /auts/ "ouch", when the Greek exclamations I knew were /ax, ox/. The fact that /twit/ for bird noises is shared between English and Dutch, but not German, points to either common heritage, or English influence on Dutch via comics (which I suspect for Finnish tviit and Tagalog twit).

I only realised the Greek/Turkish link of /apsu/ last year, and I was shocked, because I assumed onomatopoeia was completely non-arbitrary. But there you have it. Onomatopoeia does get culturally conventionalised, and is subject to the same borrowing and diffusion as any meme, let alone any lexeme. Just like kids drawing houses with chimneys, even if they've never seen a chimney.

And not that I'm equipped to answer your final question, but if you pressed a bilingual in Greek and English like me, I would not be able to tell you that Greek [ɲau] is more or less authentic a realisation of a cat's vocalisation than the [mjau] that occurs just about everywhere else. (Latvian in any case is happy to use both: mjau, ņau.)

  • "The final -av is another ..." case of misread letters (v for u)? Cat noises can be nearly perfectly immitated (in the ear of mere humans anyway) but cannot be written without losses in fidelity. – vectory Jun 2 at 5:28
  • German has zwitschern "to twit, to snitch", no doubt it preceded that consonant shift. It's not used immitatively, though, "z" /ts/ doesn't lend well to that. We have tschiep instead (read cheap) – vectory Jun 2 at 5:33
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When I married my husband, from Cuba, I was SHOCKED to find out that the dogs there spoke Spanish! They didn't say, "woof-woof" or "bow-wow," but "jao-jao" (translated: how-how!) That's actually closer than bow-wow! I don't know what other animals say. I just laughed so hard at that realization, that I never went any further.

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