Ask Edith: animal sounds

Dear Edith:

I was helping my daughter study for a French quiz on animals and the sounds they make. Did you know that the French think a horse goes “hiii hiii?”

That’s more like the sounds coming from one of her slumber parties than any self-respecting horse. It makes me wonder—who decided what words we use for animal sounds?


Dear Skeptical:

Have you been to France? As the great cultural observer, Steve Martin, once said: they have a different word for everything. Provincialism aside, you raise a fascinating question. And by fascinating, I mean, I’ve never thought about it before. It’s fun to imagine people interacting with horses all over the world, from the steppes of Asia, to the pastures of Provence and the plains of Argentina, sounding out different words. One man’s hiii is another man’s i-go-go.

If we were lucky as children, our mothers and fathers read nursery rhymes to us and sang songs like “Old Macdonald’s Farm.” It’s perfectly normal for children’s stories to feature talking animals. Take Charlotte’s Web, for example. As children, we weren’t sophisticated enough to understand the concept of metaphor, but E.B. White certainly did. Technically, the animals spoke to each other, but the little girl, Fern, could understand them. Her parents assumed it was her imagination, though one does wonder. It’s interesting that somehow Charlotte the spider knew English, and was able to spell sophisticated words in praise of Wilbur the pig.

This sort of storytelling with animal characters goes back generations, if not millennia. There are indigenous tales the world over featuring animals personifying different traits like courage, trickiness, greed, short-sightedness, generosity, daring. Many of these stories also illustrated the deep bonds of kinship between people and animals.

About a hundred years ago, an old Inuit woman told the Danish polar explorer, Knud Rasmussen, that in the old days, animals and people could easily shapeshift into each other. “That was the time when words were like magic,” she said, reminding us that language—from sounds to words—has power far beyond what we moderns typically assume.

I’m no linguist, but it seems natural that people have always tried to approximate the sounds coming out of the animals around them. Whether it was to lure them closer for the hunt, attempt to tame them, or simply for amusement, one can’t know for sure. I did find a good listing of “cross-linguistic onomatopoeias” on this website, though it’s probably best not to use it for scholarly purposes.

It might help to distinguish between sounds, language and communication. It’s one thing to search for and invent words in human languages to approximate animal sounds. It’s quite another actually to communicate with animals—as Mr. Rasmussen’s Inuit friend claimed to do.

Today’s animal communicators like Anna Breytenbach work with images and emotions, both of which hide behind thought, which in humans emerges as language. That’s several levels of increasing abstraction that can tend to obscure the originating emotion—and the connection between two beings.

With animals, the images and emotions are simply transferred directly, often with little or no audible sound. Humans forget that we are animals too. We may subscribe, knowingly or unconsciously, to beliefs that set us apart. One story says that we are exceptional in some way to other animals. Another diminishes our animal nature entirely by claiming that we are a separate case. You’ll likely recognize phrases like this:

As the only conscious beings on earth, humans. . . .

Since humans have the biggest brain. . . .

Humans possess the gift of language, therefore . . . .

And so on.

Language is one of the ways that we cultivate relationships with each other. Anna Breytenbach and her ilk remind us that we have the capacity to do this with animals as well, indeed with all of life—including our brothers and sisters the leafy, stony, and watery ones. It’s quite an experience to be with another being in this curious, open way, with no expectations or demands. Just to see what happens.

“By connecting with our intuition, we can engage in meaningful dialogue and remember how to hear the subtle messages from those whose space we share in our lives and our natural environment. Coming from a place of respect and reverence for all life, we can learn to understand our wilder relatives, honour their truths and live in greater harmony.”

While it is possible to jump on Google whenever a homework question arises, and there is no shortage of websites with information about animal sounds in other languages, what would happen if you were to go out to a pasture and ask a horse directly? How would you approach the horse? Would you introduce yourself? Ask his leave to be there? Share your question and listen for his answer? I wouldn’t be surprised if that horse is fluent in any number of human languages. Just keep an open heart. You’ll understand.

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