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The Word

Why we teach babies animal sounds

Does the cat really say ‘meow’—or are we just teaching kids to be American?

The Norwegian band Ylvis’s song, “The Fox (What Does The Fox Say?),” a catchy and Euro-weird tune with a video including lots of fog machines and whipping bushy tails, brings up a pretty good question: “Dog goes woof / Cat goes meow / Bird goes tweet / and mouse goes squeak … But there’s one sound / that no one knows / What does the fox say?” Well, foxes make a sort of yip and sometimes they howl. But the fact that we don’t have a dedicated word for “fox-noise,” like the onomatopoetic words we have for dog, cat, bird, and mouse noises, tells you something about the way humans discuss animals with one another and, most particularly, with our children.

We tell babies, “The cow says ‘moo’” around the same time we tell them, “The ball is red” and with the same intention: to convey information about the world and to teach language. But “moo” is not the same kind of information as “red”; “moo” is something more wishy-washy. When we “moo” at our children, we’re not teaching them about cows or even about language in the way we might think. Instead, we’re teaching them about our culture.

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You might think cute animal noises would be easier for infants to learn than the actual words for animals. But according to some researchers, there’s no developmental reason that should be true. Amanda Woodward, a psychologist and head of the Infant Learning and Development Lab at the University of Chicago, told me a book like “Mr. Brown Can Moo, Can You?” “makes a fun story and maybe it fits with somebody’s folk intuition about what might be easy for a baby to understand. But in fact it’s not especially easy for a baby to understand.”

Part of the reason, Woodward says, is that animal sounds don’t sound particularly like animals. My 1-year-old son might be surprised to hear that “the cat says meow,” given that our cats don’t say anything like it—more like “nnneeoerrggh” with an occasional “pssssshhhht!” (In “Ulysses,” James Joyce described Leopold Bloom’s cat as saying, “Mrkgnao!” and “Gurrhr!”)

We’re not convincing actual animals, either, with our “meows” and “woofs.” “If you go ‘woof’’ to a dog, he’s not going to even bark back in the way he’d bark back to another dog, because you’re clearly not making a dog sound,” said Colin Allen, professor of cognitive science and the history and philosophy of science at Indiana University, Bloomington, who studies animal cognition. Our vocal chords aren’t capable of reproducing most animal sounds, so we rely on these verbal tags—and yet they’re a vast oversimplification. Researchers have categorized a variety of sounds from cats, including chatters, trills, murmurs, and squeaks; some have said cats make up to 35 different vocalizations. But “meow” is a word in our language, not theirs.

For linguists, the debate about animal sound-words, and words with “sound symbolism” more generally, has traditionally been over just what their relationship is to the noises they describe—namely, whether that relationship is arbitrary. The Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure argued in his “Course in General Linguistics” that although animal sound-words may begin as transparent imitation—what linguists call “iconic signs”—they become more arbitrary as they evolve. For example, the Latin root “pipio”—which does sound like a bird peeping—became “pigeon,” which we don’t think of as onomatopoetic.

Comparing animal sounds across cultures shows both how rooted in imitation they are, and how arbitrary they can become. To English-speakers, the Dutch “miauw” and Greek “miaou” of cats are easy enough to grasp, but the Japanese “nyan nyan” (for “meow”) and “goro goro” (for purring) are more obscure. In Hungary, meanwhile, purring cats say “doromb,” while in French it’s “ronron.” Polish linguists in 2002 asked people to match foreign animal sounds with the correct animal and discovered that no one could tell their “iha iha”s (Polish donkey) from their “tok tok”s (Dutch hen)—suggesting that what we’ve ended up with is, in truth, fairly arbitrary indeed. “Even though we...think these words are iconic, they’re not always all that iconic really,” Woodward said. “We’re stylizing it.”

If animal sound-words are at least somewhat culturally specific, then what do ours show us about our culture? One key clue is which animals get sound-words and which don’t. Just like there’s no single English (or Norwegian) word for “fox yip,” there’s no English word for “camel groan”—but there is one in Arabic (“ragha”) and in Somali (“gulguuluc,” which has also come to describe a form of poetry). In English, the animals that do get sounds—farm animals and friendly woodland creatures—seem to inhabit the vanished arcadian landscape of fairy tales and nursery rhymes, like “Baa Baa Black Sheep” and “Old MacDonald,” that first introduced animal sounds into children’s literature.

Gail Melson, professor emerita of psychology and human development at Purdue University and author of “Why the Wild Things Are: Animals in the Lives of Children,” sees this bucolic fantasy as not just a form of nostalgia but an important imaginative terrain. David Foulkes found in his 1999 study “Children’s Dreaming and the Development of Consciousness” that familiar farm and woodland animals appeared the most often in preschooler’s dreams—borrowed from books as part of private, personal narratives. “Animals are very potent symbols for various aspects of human life,” Melson told me. “And you can think of sounds that go with various animals as part of that symbolic language. So kids will have lions and tigers and bears, and each will have sounds: Roar, goes the lion....This is a way they can express they’re feeling really wild and enraged and angry: roar roar roar!”

Whether or not the highly creative riffs on what the fox says in Ylvis’s song (“Hatee-hatee-hatee-ho!” “Joff-tchoff-tchoffo-tchoffo-tchoff!”) sound at all like an actual fox, then, they could help kids express some inner foxiness. But while we’re at it, it might be time to give the fox a real sound-name—one that’s slightly more pronounceable.

Britt Peterson is a writer in Washington, D.C.
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