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:



Reindeer = rein + deer?

Reindeer = rein + deer?

In linguists’ jargon, a ‘folk etymology’ refers to a change that brings a word’s form closer to some easily analyzable meaning. A textbook example is the transformation of the word asparagus into sparrowgrass in certain dialects of English.

Although clear in theory, it is not easy to decide whether ‘folk etymology’ is called for in other cases. One which has incited heated coffee-time discussion in our department is the word reindeer. The word comes ultimately from Old Norse hreindyri, composed of hreinn ‘reindeer’ and dyri ‘animal’. In present-day English, some native speakers conceive of the word reindeer as composed of two meaningful parts: rein + deer. This is something which, in the Christian tradition at least, does make a lot of sense. Given that the most prominent role of reindeer in the West is to serve as Santa’s means of transport, an allusion to ‘reins’ is unsurprising. This makes the hypothesis of folk etymology plausible.

When one explores the issue further, however, things are not that clear. The equivalent words in other Germanic languages are often the same (e.g. German Rentier, Dutch rendier, Danish rensdyr etc.) even though the element ren does not refer to the same thing as in English. However, unlike in English, another way of referring to Rudolf is indeed possible in some of these languages that omits the element ‘deer’ altogether: German Ren, Swedish ren, Icelandic hreinn, etc.

Another thing that may be relevant is the fact that the word ‘deer’ has narrowed its meaning in English to refer just to a member of the Cervidae family and not to any living creature. Other Germanic languages have preserved the original meaning ‘animal’ for this word (e.g. German Tier, Swedish djur).

Since reindeer straightforwardly descends from hreindyri, it may seem that, despite the change in the meaning of the component words, we have no reason to believe that the word was altered by folk etymology at any point. However, the story is not that simple. Words that contained the diphthong /ei/ in Old Norse do not always appear with the same vowel in English. Contrast, for example, ‘bait’ [from Norse beita] and ‘hail’ [from heill] with ‘bleak’ [from bleikr] and ‘weak’ [from veikr]). An orthographic reflection of the same fluctuation can be seen in the different pronunciation of the digraph ‘ei’ in words like ‘receive’ and ‘Keith’ vs ‘vein’ and weight’. It is, thus, not impossible that the preexistence of the word rein in (Middle) English tipped the balance towards the current pronunciation of reindeer over an alternative one like “reendeer”. Also, had the word not been analyzed by native speakers as a compound of rein+deer, it is not unthinkable that the vowels may have become shorter in current English (consider the case of breakfast, etymologically descending from break + fast).

So, is folk etymology applicable to reindeer? The dispute rages on. Some of us don’t think that folk etymology is necessary to explain the fate of reindeer. That is, the easiest explanation (in William of Occam’s sense) may be to say that the word was borrowed and merely continued its overall meaning and pronunciation in an unrevolutionary way.

Others are not so sure. The availability of “fake” etymologies like rein+deer (or even rain+deer before widespread literacy) seems “too obvious” for native speakers to ignore. The suspicion of ‘folk etymology’ might be aroused by the presence of a few mild coincidences such as the “right” vowel /ei/ instead of /i:/, the fact that the term was borrowed as reindeer rather than just rein as in some other languages [e.g. Spanish reno] or by the semantic drift of deer exactly towards the kind of animal that a reindeer actually is. These are all factors that seem to conspire towards the analyzability of the word in present-day English but which would have to be put down to coincidence if they just happened for no particular reason and independently of each other. Even if no actual change had been implemented in the pronunciation of reindeer, the morphological-semantic analysis of the word has definitely changed from its source language. Under a laxer definition of what folk etymology actually is, that could on its own suffice to label this a case of folk etymology.

There seems to be, as far as we can see, no easy way out of this murky etymological and philological quagmire that allows us to conclude whether a change in the pronunciation of reindeer happened at some point due to its analyzability. To avoid endless and unproductive discussion one sometimes has to know when to stop arguing, shrug and write a post about the whole thing.

How do we know when? The story behind the word “sciatica”

How do we know when? The story behind the word “sciatica”

My right arm has been bothering me lately. The nerve has become inflamed by a pinching at the neck, creating a far from desirable situation. When trying to explain the condition to a friend, I compared it to sciatica, but of the arm. I am not here to bore you with my ills, however, but to tell you a story precisely about that word, sciatica. You may wonder what is so special about it. It is true that it has a weird spelling with sc, just like science, and that it sounds a little bit like a fancy word, having come directly from Latin and retaining that funny vowel a at the end which not many words in English have. But more than that, the word sciatica gives us a crucial clue about changes which have transformed the way the English language sounds.

English is a funny language. Of all the European languages, it has changed the most in the last thousand years, and this is particularly apparent in its vowels. In the early Middle Ages, starting perhaps sometime in the mid-14th century, the lower classes in England started changing the way they pronounced the long vowels they had inherited from earlier generations. Some have even claimed that the upper class at the time, whose ability to use French had started to peter out in the 15th century, felt that one way they could make themselves stand out from the middle classes was by changing their way of speaking a bit. To do this, they took up the ‘bad’ habits of the lower classes and started pronouncing things the way the lower classes would. But in adopting the pronunciation of the lower classes, they also made it sound ‘refined’ to the ears of the middle classes, so that the middle classes also started to adopt the new pronunciation… and so the mess started.

Pairs of words like file and feel, or wide and weed, have identical consonants, differing purely in their vowels. They are also spelled differently: file and wide are written with <i…e>, while feel and weed are written with <ee>. The tricky part comes when you want to tell another person in writing how these words are pronounced. To do that one normally makes a comparison with other familiar words – for example, you could tell them ‘feel rhymes with meal’ –  but what do you do if the other person doesn’t speak English? In order to solve this problem, linguists in the late 19th century invented a special alphabet called the ‘International Phonetic Alphabet’ or ‘IPA’, in which each character corresponds to a single sound, and every possible sound is represented by a unique character. The idea was that this could function as a universal spelling system that anyone could use to record and communicate the sounds of different languages without any ambiguity or confusion. For file and wide, the Oxford English Dictionary website now gives two transcriptions in IPA, one in a standardised British and the other in standardised American: Brit. /fʌɪl/ & /wʌɪd/ (US /faɪl/ & /waɪd/). For feel and weed, we have Brit. /fiːl/ & /wiːd/ (US /fil/ & /wid/). So, in spelling, <i…e> represents /ʌɪ/ (or /aɪ/) and <ee> represents /iː/ (or /i/). But why is this so?

The answer lies in the spelling itself, which is a tricky thing, as we all know, and took many centuries to be fixed the way it is now. English spelling is a good example of a writing system where a given letter does not always correspond to one particular sound. There is no rule from which you can work out that wifi is pronounced as /wʌɪfʌɪ/ (or /waɪfaɪ/) – you know it simply because you have heard it pronounced and seen it written <wifi>. This is not obvious to other people whose native language is not English: as a native Spanish speaker, when I first saw the word wifi written somewhere, the first pronunciation that came to my mind was /wifi/ (like ‘weefee’) but not /wʌɪfʌɪ/.

Contemporary English spelling very much reflects the way people pronounced things at the end of the Middle Ages. So words like file and wide were pronounced with the vowel represented in IPA as <iː>, which today can be heard in words like feel and weed. At that time, the letter <i> (along with its variant <y>) represented the sound /iː/. The words feel and weed, on the other hand, were pronounced with the vowel represented in IPA by <eː>, sounding something like the words fell and wed, but a little longer. Most of the words that in the English of the Middle Ages were pronounced with the long vowels /iː/ and /eː/ are now pronounced with the diphthong /ʌɪ/ (or /aɪ/) and the vowel /iː/ (or /i/), respectively. These changes were part of a massive overhaul of the English vowel system known as the ‘Great Vowel Shift’, so-called because it affected all long vowels – of which there were quite a few – and it took centuries to complete. Some even claim that it’s still taking place. But if we fail to update our spelling as pronunciation changes, how can we tell when this shift happened? That is when the word sciatica comes in.

The word sciatica is now pronounced as /sʌɪˈatᵻkə/ (US /saɪˈædəkə/). Because of the spelling <i> in ‘sci…’, we know that the word would have been pronounced something like /siːˈatika/ (‘see-atica’) when it was introduced in English from Latin by doctors, who at that time still used Latin as the language of exchange in their science. But sciatica is not a very common English word, and does not even sound naturally English. So unless you are a doctor or a very educated person, there is a high chance of getting the spelling wrong. In a letter to her husband John in 1441, Margaret Paston wrote the following about a neighbour: “Elysabet Peverel hath leye seke xv or xvj wekys of þe seyetyka” – “Elisabeth Peverel has lain sick 15 or 16 weeks of the sciatica”. While my sympathies go to Elisabeth Peverel as I write this, the interesting thing here is the way the word sciatica is written by Margaret Paston, as seyetyka. Here the spelling with <ey> tells us a nice story: that the diphthongisation of Medieval /iː/ into something like /eɪ/ had already happened in 1441. Because of that word we know that Margaret Paston, her husband, and poor Elysabet Peverel not only said /seɪˈatikə/ but also /feɪl/, /weɪd/ and /teɪm/, rather than /fi:l/, /wi:d/ and /ti:m/, even if they still wrote them the old way with an <i> as file, wide and time, just as we do nowadays. From this we can also deduce by the laws of sound change that the other long vowels had also started to change their pronunciation, so that these people were already pronouncing feel and weed in the modern way, despite spelling them the old way with an <e>.

This mouthful of a word sciatica is thus the first word in the entire history of English to tell us about the Great Vowel Shift. It is true that its story doesn’t ease the pain that its meaning evokes, but at least it makes it easier to deal with it by entertaining the mind…


Guarantee and warranty: two words for the price of one

Guarantee and warranty: two words for the price of one

By and large, languages avoid having multiple words with the same meaning. This makes sense from the point of view of economy: why learn two words when one will do the job?

But occasionally there are exceptions, such as warranty and guarantee. This is one of several synonymous or near-synonymous pairs of words in English conforming to the same pattern – another example is guard and ward. The variants with gu- represent early borrowings from Germanic languages into the Romance languages descended from Latin. At the time these words were borrowed, the sound w had generally developed into v in Romance languages, but it survived after g, in the descendants of a few Latin words like lingua ‘tongue, language’. So when Romance speakers adapted Germanic words to the sounds of their own language, gu was the closest approximation they could find to Germanic w.

This is why French has some words like guerre ‘war’, where gu- corresponds to w- in English (this word may have been borrowed because the inherited Latin word for war, bellum, had become identical to the word for ‘beautiful’). Later, some of the words with gu- were borrowed back into English, which is why we have both borrowed guard and inherited ward. According to one estimate, 28.3% of the vocabulary of English has been borrowed from French (figures derived from actual texts rather than dictionaries come in even higher at around 40%), a debt that we have recently started repaying in earnest with loans like le shopping and le baby-sitting. This is all to the consternation of the Académie française, which aims to protect the French language from such barbarisms, as evidenced by the dire, ne pas dire (‘say, don’t say’) section of the académie‘s website advising Francophones to use homegrown terms like contre-vérité instead of anglicisms like fake news.

By Murraytheb at English Wikipedia - Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons., Public Domain,

In fact, warranty and guarantee reflect not one but two different waves of borrowing: the first from Norman French, which still retained the w- sound, likely through the influence of Scandinavian languages spoken by the original Viking invaders of Normandy. Multiple layers of borrowing can also be seen in words like castle, from Latin castellum via Norman French, and chateau, borrowed from later French, in which Latin c- had developed a different pronunciation.

Incidentally, Norman French is still continued not only in Normandy but also in the Channel islands of Guernsey, Jersey and Sark. The Anglo-Norman dialect of the island of Alderney died out during World War II, when most of the island’s population was evacuated to the British mainland, although efforts are underway to bring it back.

A plurality of plurals

A plurality of plurals

Of all the world’s languages, English is the most widely learnt by adults. Although Mandarin Chinese has the highest number of speakers overall, owing to the huge size of China’s population, second-language speakers of English outnumber those of Mandarin more than three times.

Considering that the majority of English speakers learn the language in adulthood, when our brains have lost much of their early plasticity, it’s just as well that some aspects of English grammar are pretty simple compared to other languages. Take for example the way we express the plural. With only a small number of exceptions, we make plurals by adding a suffix –s to the singular. The pronunciation differs depending on the last sound of the word it attaches to – compare the ‘z’ sound at the end of dogs to the ‘s’ sound at the end of cats, and the ‘iz’ at the end of horses – but it varies in a consistently predictable way, which makes it easy to guess the plural of an English noun, even if you’ve never heard it before.

That’s not the case in every language. Learners of Greek, for example, have to remember about seven common ways of making plurals. Sometimes knowing the final sounds of a noun and its gender make it possible to predict the plural, but  other times learners simply have to memorise what kind of plural a noun has: for example pateras ‘father’ and loukoumas ‘doughnut’ both have masculine gender and singulars ending in –as, but in Standard Greek their plurals are pateres and loukoumathes respectively.

This is similar to how English used to work. Old English had three very common plural suffixes, -as, -an and –a, as well as a number of less common types of plural (some of these survive marginally in a few high-frequency words, including vowel alternations like tooth~teeth and zero-plurals like deer). The modern –s plural descends from the suffix –as, which originally was used only for a certain group of masculine nouns like stān, ‘stone’ (English lost gender in nouns, too, but that’s a subject for another blog post).

How did the -s plural overtake these competitors to become so overwhelmingly predominant in English? Partly it was because of changes to the sounds of Old English as it evolved into Middle English. Unstressed vowels in the last syllables of words, which included most of the suffixes which expressed the gender, number and case of nouns, coalesced into a single indistinct vowel known as ‘schwa’ (written <ə>, and pronounced like the ‘uh’ sound at the beginning of annoying). Moreover, final –m came to be pronounced identically to –n. This caused confusion between singulars and plurals: for example, Old English guman ‘to a man’ and gumum ‘to men’ both came to be pronounced as gumən in Middle English. It also caused confusion between two of the most common noun classes, the Old English an-plurals and the a-plurals. As a result they merged into a single class, with -e in the singular and -en in the plural.

This left Middle English with two main types of plural, one with –en and one with –(e)s. Although a couple of the former type remain to this day (oxen and children), the suffix –es was gradually generalised until it applied to almost all nouns, starting in the North of England and gradually moving South.

A similar kind of mass generalisation of a single strategy for expressing a grammatical distinction is often seen in the final stages of language death, as a community of speakers transition from a minority to a majority language as their mother tongue. Nancy Dorian has spent almost 50 years documenting the dying East Sutherland dialect of Scots Gaelic as it is supplanted by English in three remote fishing villages in the Scottish highlands. In one study the Gaelic speakers were divided into fluent speakers and ‘semi-speakers’, who used English as their first language and Gaelic as a second language. Dorian found that the semi-speakers tended to overgeneralise the plural suffix –an, applying it to words for which fluent speakers would have used one of another ten inherited strategies for expressing plural number, such as changing the final consonant of the word (e.g. phũ:nth ‘pound’, phũnčh ‘pounds’), or altering its vowel (e.g. makh ‘son’, mikh ‘sons’).

But why should the last throes of a dying language bear any resemblance to the evolution of a thriving language like English? A possible link lies in second language acquisition by adults. At the same time as these changes were taking place, English was undergoing intense contact with Scandinavian settlers who spoke Old Norse. During the same period English shows many signs of Old Norse influence. In addition to many very common words like take and skirt (which originally had a meaning identical to its native English cognate shirt), English borrowed several grammatical features of Scandinavian languages, such as the suffix –s seen in third person singular present verbs like ‘she blogs’ (the inherited suffix ended in –th, as in ‘she bloggeth’), and the pronouns they, their and them, which replaced earlier hīe, heora and heom. Like the extension of the plural in –s, these innovations appeared earliest in Northern dialects of English, where settlements of Old Norse speakers were concentrated, and gradually percolated South during the 11th to 15th centuries.

It’s possible that English grammar was simplified in some respects as a consequence of what the linguist Peter Trudgill has memorably called “the lousy language-learning abilities of the human adult”. Research on second-language acquisition confirms what many of us might suspect from everyday experience, that adult learners struggle with inflection (the expression of grammatical categories like ‘plural’ within words) and prefer overgeneralising a few rules rather than learning many different ways of doing the same thing. In this respect, Old Norse speakers in Medieval England would have found themselves in a similar situation to semi-speakers of East Sutherland Gaelic – when confronted with a number of different ways of expressing plural number, it is hard to remember for each noun which kind of plural it has, but simple to apply a single rule for all nouns. After all, much of the complexity of languages is unnecessary for communication: we can still understand children when they make mistakes like foots or bringed.


A sorry excuse for Surrey

A sorry excuse for Surrey

It has recently come to my attention that my vowels are weird. This was pointed out to me by a fellow American colleague who declared that, unexpectedly, we do not say Surrey the same way, and that my pronunciation has a “weird” vowel. I’ve already experienced confusion more than once from locals when I utter the word, and it’s enough to make me a little self-conscious.

I was already vaguely aware that Californians do some strange things with vowels. A bit of online digging revealed that as a San Francisco Bay Area native, I can blame my weird vowels on the Northern California vowel shift (outlined by Penny Eckert here). This sound change is what makes the surfer’s (and my) way of saying duuuude so distinctive (the vowel is fronted). My international friends make fun of the way I say “aw, man!”. Here, man for me becomes something like /miyn/. Even I have to admit it sounds pretty funny.

I like to think I am relatively aware of linguistic behavior, but as this experience showed me, we as linguists may not be as well-equipped as we think to recognize our own quirks.