The cat’s mneow: animal noises and human language

The cat’s mneow: animal noises and human language

As is well known, animals on the internet can have very impressive language skills: cats and dogs in particular are famous for their near-complete online mastery of English, and only highly trained professional linguists (including some of us here at SMG) are able to spot the subtle grammatical and orthographic clues that indicate non-human authorship behind some of the world’s favourite motivational statements.

Recent reports suggest that some of our fellow primates have also learnt to engage in complex discourse: again, the internet offers compelling evidence for this.

But sadly, out in the real world, animals capable of orating on philosophy are hard to come by (as far as we can tell). Instead, from a human point of view, cats, dogs, gorillas etc. just make various kinds of animal noises.

Why write about animals and their noises on a linguistics blog? Well, one good answer would be: the exact relationship between the vocalisations made by animals, on one hand, and the phenomenon of human spoken language, on the other, is a fascinating question, of interest within linguistics but far beyond it as well. So a different blog post could have turned now to discuss the semiotic notion of communication in the abstract; or perhaps the biological evolution of language in our species, complete with details about the FOXP2 gene and the descent of the larynx

But in fact I am going to talk about something a lot less technical-sounding. This post is about what could be called the human versions of animal noises: that is, the noises that English and other languages use in order to talk about them, like meow and woof, baa and moo.

At this point you may be wondering whether there is much to be gained by sitting around and pondering words like moo. But what I have in mind here is this kind of thing:

These are good fun, but they also raise a question. If pigs and ducks are wandering around all over the world making pig and duck noises respectively, then how come we humans appear to have such different ideas about what they sound like? Oink cannot really be mistaken for nöff or knor, let alone buu. And the problem is bigger than that: even within a single language, English, frogs can go both croak and ribbit; dogs don’t just go woof, but they also yap and bark. These sound nothing like each other. What is going on? Are we trying to do impressions of animals, only to discover that we are not very good at it?

Before going any further I should deal with a couple of red herrings (to stick with the zoological theme). For one thing, languages may appear to disagree more than they really do, just because their speakers have settled on different spelling conventions: a French coin doesn’t really sound all that different from an English quack. And sometimes we may not all be talking about the same sound in the first place. Ribbit is a good depiction of the noise a frog makes if it happens to belong to a particular species found in Southern California – but thanks to the cultural influence of Hollywood, ribbit is familiar to English speakers worldwide, even though their own local frogs may sound a lot more croaky. Meanwhile, it is easy to picture the difference between the kind of dog that goes woof and the kind that goes yap.

But even when we discount this kind of thing, there are still plenty of disagreements remaining, and they pose a puzzle bound up with linguistics. A fundamental feature of human language, famously pointed out by Saussure, is that most words are arbitrary: they have nothing inherently in common with the things they refer to. For example, there is nothing actually green about the sound of the word green – English has just assigned that particular sound sequence to that meaning, and it’s no surprise to find that other languages haven’t chosen the same sounds to do the same job. But right now we are in the broad realm of onomatopoeia, where you might not expect to find arbitrariness like this. After all, unlike the concept of ‘green’, the concept of ‘quack’ is linked to a real noise that can be heard out there in the world: why would languages bother to disagree about it?

 

First off, it is worth noticing that not all words relating to animal noises work in the same way. Think of cock-a-doodle-doo and crow. Both of these are used in English of the distinctive sound made by a cockerel, and there is something imitative about them both. But there is a difference between them: the first is used to represent the sound itself, whereas the second is the word that English uses to talk about producing it. That is, as English sees it, the way a cock crows is by ‘saying’ cock-a-doodle-doo, and never vice versa. Similarly, the way that a dog barks is by ‘saying’ woof. The representations of the sounds, cock-a-doodle-doo and woof, are practically in quotation marks, as if capturing the animals’ direct speech.

This gives us something to run with. After all, think about the work that words like crow and bark have to do. As they are verbs, you need to be able to change them according to person (they bark but it barks), tense, and so on. So regardless of their special function of talking about noises, they still have to operate like any other verb, obeying the normal grammar rules of English. Since every language comes with its own grammatical requirements and preferences about how words can be structured and manipulated (that is, its own morphology), this can explain some kinds of disparity across languages. For example, what we onomatopoeically call a cuckoo is a kukushka in Russian, featuring a noun-forming element shka which makes the word easier to deal with grammatically – but also makes it sound very Russian. Maybe it is this kind of integration into each language that makes these words sound less true to life and more varied from one language to another?

This is a start, but it must be far from the whole story. Animal ‘quotes’ like woof and cock-a-doodle-doo don’t need to interact all that much with English grammar at all. Nonetheless, they are clearly the English versions of the noises we are talking about:

And as we’ve already seen, the same goes for quack and oink. So even when it looks like we might just be ‘doing impressions’ of non-linguistic sounds, every language has its own way of actually doing those impressions.

Reassuringly, at least we are not dealing with a situation of total chaos. Across languages, duck noises reliably contain an open a sound, while pig noises reliably don’t. And there is widespread agreement when it comes to some animals: cows always go moo, boo or similar, and sheep are always represented as producing something like meh or beh – this is so predictable that it has even been used as evidence for how certain letters were pronounced in Ancient Greek. So languages are not going out of their way to disagree with each other. But this just sharpens up the question. For obvious biological reasons, humans can never really make all the noises that animals can. But given that people the world over sometimes converge on a more or less uniform representation for a given noise, why doesn’t this always happen?

In their feline wisdom, the cats of the Czech Republic can give us a clue. Like sheep, cats sound pretty similar in languages across the globe, and in Europe they are especially consistent. In English, they go meow; in German, it is miau; in Russian, myau; and so on. But in Czech, they go mňau (= approximately mnyau), with a mysterious n-sound inside. The reason is that at some point in the history of Czech, a change in pronunciation affected every word containing a sequence my, so that it came out as mny instead. Effectively, for Czech speakers from then on, the option of saying myau like everyone else was simply off the table, because the language no longer allowed it – no matter what their cats sounded like.

What does this example illustrate? First of all – as well as a morphology, each language has a phonology (sound structure), which constrains its speakers tightly: no language lets people use all the sounds they are physically able to make, and even the available sounds are only allowed to join up in certain combinations. So each language has to come up with a way of dealing with non-linguistic noises which will suit its own idea of what counts as a legitimate syllable. Moo is one thing, but it’s harder to find a language that allows syllables resembling the noise a pig makes… so each language compromises in its own way, resulting in nöff, knor, oink etc., none of which capture the full sonic experience of the real thing.

And second – things like oink, woof and mňau really must be words in the full sense. They aren’t just a kind of quotation, or an imitation performed off the cuff; instead they belong in a speaker’s mental dictionary of their own language. That is why, in general, they have to abide by the same phonological rules as any other word. And that also explains where the arbitrariness comes in: as with any word, language learners just notice that that is the way their own community expresses a shared concept, and from then on there is no point in reinventing the wheel. You don’t need to try hard to get a duck’s quack exactly right in order to talk about it – as long as other people know what you mean, the word has done its job.

So what speakers might lose in accuracy this way, they make up for in efficiency, by picking a predetermined word that they know fellow speakers will recognise. Only when you really want to draw attention to a sound is it worth coming up with a new representation of it and ignoring the existing consensus. To create something truly striking, perhaps you need to be a visionary like James Joyce, who wrote the following line of ‘dialogue’ for a cat in Ulysses, giving short shrift to English phonology in the process:

–Mrkgnao!

 

What’s the good of ‘would of’?

What’s the good of ‘would of’?

As schoolteachers the English-speaking world over know well, the use of of instead of have after modal verbs like would, should and must is a very common feature in the writing of children (and many adults). Some take this an omen of the demise of the English language,  and would perhaps agree with Fowler’s colourful assertion in A Dictionary of Modern English Usage (1926) that “of shares with another word of the same length, as, the evil glory of being accessory to more crimes against grammar than any other” (though admittedly this use of of has been hanging around for a while without doing any apparent harm: this study finds one example as early as 1773, and another almost half a century later in a letter of the poet Keats).

According to the usual explanation, this is nothing more than a spelling mistake. Following ‘would’, ‘could’ etc., the verb have is usually pronounced in a reduced form as [əv], usually spelt would’ve, must’ve, and so on. It can even be reduced further to [ə], as in shoulda, woulda, coulda. This kind of phonetic reduction is a normal part of grammaticalisation, the process by which grammatical markers evolve out of full words. Given the famous unreliability of English spelling, and the fact that these reduced forms of have sound identical to reduced forms of the preposition of (as in a cuppa tea), writers can be forgiven for mistakenly inferring the following rule:

‘what you hear/say as [əv] or [ə], write as of’.

But if it’s just a spelling mistake, this use of ‘of’ is surprisingly common in respectable literature. The examples below (from this blog post documenting the phenomenon) are typical:

‘If I hadn’t of got my tubes tied, it could of been me, say I was ten years younger.’ (Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale)

Couldn’t you of – oh, he was ignorant in his speech – couldn’t you of prevented it?’ (Hilary Mantel, Beyond Black)

Clearly neither these authors nor their editors make careless errors. They consciously use ‘of’ instead of ‘have’ in these examples for stylistic effect. This is typically found in dialogue to imply something about the speaker, be it positive (i.e. they’re authentic and unpretentious) or negative (they are illiterate or unsophisticated).

 

These examples look like ‘eye dialect’: the use of nonstandard spellings that correspond to a standard pronunciation, and so seem ‘dialecty’ to the eye but not the ear. This is often seen in news headlines, like the Sun newspaper’s famous proclamation “it’s the Sun wot won it!” announcing the surprise victory of the conservatives in the 1992 general election. But what about sentences like the following from the British National Corpus?

“If we’d of accepted it would of meant we would have to of sold every stick of furniture because the rooms were not large enough”

The BNC is intended as a neutral record of the English language in the late 20th century, containing 100 million words of carefully transcribed and spellchecked text. As such, we expect it to have minimal errors, and there is certainly no reason it should contain eye dialect. As Geoffrey Sampson explains in this article:

“I had taken the of spelling to represent a simple orthographic confusion… I took this to imply that cases like could of should be corrected to could’ve; but two researchers with whom I discussed the issue on separate occasions felt that this was inappropriate – one, with a language-teaching background, protested vigorously that could of should be retained because, for the speakers, the word ‘really is’ of rather than have.”

In other words, some speakers have not just reinterpreted the rules of English spelling, but the rules of English grammar itself. As a result, they understand expressions like should’ve been and must’ve gone as instances of a construction containing the preposition of instead of the verb have:

Modal verb (e.g. must, would…) + of + past participle (e.g. had, been, driven…)

One way of testing this theory is to look at pronunciation. Of can receive a full pronunciation [ɒv] (with the same vowel as in hot) when it occurs at the end of a sentence, for example ‘what are you dreaming of?’. So if the word ‘really is’ of for some speakers, we ought to hear [ɒv] in utterances where of/have appears at the end, such as the sentence below. To my mind’s ear, this pronunciation sounds okay, and I think I even use it sometimes (although intuition isn’t always a reliable guide to your own speech).

I didn’t think I left the door open, but I must of.

The examples below from the Audio BNC, both from the same speaker, are transcribed as of but clearly pronounced as [ə] or [əv]. In the second example, of appears to be at the end of the utterance, where we might expect to hear [ɒv], although the amount of background noise makes it hard to tell for sure.

 “Should of done it last night when it was empty then” (audio) (pronounced [ə], i.e. shoulda)

(phone rings) “Should of.” (audio) (pronounced [əv], i.e. should’ve)

When carefully interpreted, writing can also be a source of clues on how speakers make sense of their language. If writing have as of is just a linguistically meaningless spelling mistake, why do we never see spellings like pint’ve beer or a man’ve his word? (Though we do, occasionally, see sort’ve or kind’ve). This otherwise puzzling asymmetry is explained if the spelling of in should of etc. is supported by a genuine linguistic change, at least for some speakers. Furthermore, have only gets spelt of when it follows a modal verb, but never in sentences like the dogs have been fed, although the pronunciation [əv] is just as acceptable here as in the dogs must have been fed (and in both cases have can be written ‘ve).

If this nonstandard spelling reflects a real linguistic variant (as this paper argues), this is quite a departure from the usual role of a preposition like of, which is typically followed by a noun rather than a verb. The preposition to is a partial exception, because while it is followed by a noun in sentences like we went to the party, it can also be followed by a verb in sentences like we like to party. But with to, the verb must appear in its basic infinitive form (party) rather than the past participle (we must’ve partied too hard), making it a bit different from modal of, if such a thing exists.

She must’ve partied too hard

Whether or not we’re convinced by the modal-of theory, it’s remarkable how often we make idiosyncratic analyses of the language we hear spoken around us. Sometimes these are corrected by exposure to the written language: I remember as a young child having my spelling corrected from storbry to strawberry, which led to a small epiphany for me, as that was the first time I realised the word had anything to do with either straw or berry. But many more examples slip under the radar. When these new analyses lead to permanent changes in spelling or pronunciation we sometimes call them folk etymology, as when the Spanish word cucaracha was misheard by English speakers as containing the words cock and roach, and became cockroach (you can read more about folk etymology in earlier posts by Briana and Matthew).

Meanwhile, if any readers can find clear evidence of modal of with the full pronunciation as  [ɒv], please comment below! I’m quite sure I’ve heard it, but solid evidence has proven surprisingly elusive…