The cat makes ‘meow‘ and the cow ‘mooh‘?


Onomatopoeia is defined by the Merriam Webster dictionary as the naming of a thing or action by a vocal imitation of the sound associated with it (as buzz, hiss). However, the way in which the sounds produced by animals are interpreted varies across languages. In this post we offer a few examples that evidence the diversity and complexity of cognitive processes behind languages.

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Buu, Chuu and Wan? While Japanese native speakers will probably find it amusing to see expressions they heard for the last time in their childhood here, speakers of other languages might be confused. What is this gibberish supposed to be?

img1 These are no complex Japanese words but sound-imitating expressions for the sounds different animals make. In fact, the mentioned three sounds do not even originate from exotic animals unknown in Europe, but usual farm animals:Buu imitates a pig, Chuua mouse and Wan a dog. Although one might think that animals technically make the same noise all over the world, apparently, the human interpretation of what is heard and its imitation, and especially the decision on how to write down these sounds (the so called “onomatopoeia”) varies all over the world in its local expressions.

However, some animal sounds seem to offer a wider range of possibilities for interpretation and spelling than others: While cat sounds seem to be quite international (Mjau, Myau, Meow, Miau, Miao, Meo and Miaou are cat sounds in Swedish, Russian, English, Spanish, Italian, Vietnamese and French), the expressions of pigs look much more diverse: ranging from the English Oink to the Japanese Buu, each language uses a different variant to describe piggy sounds, such as Hunk (Albanian), Grunz (German), Knor (Dutch) or – very exotic – Nöff (Swedish).

In case reading aloud children books might have sounded easy to you, imagine this activity in a multilingual setting. The educational imitation of the animals appearing in a story are not the same depending on who is reading and who is listening, even though the animals themselves sound universal all over the world. This applies also to other onomatopoeic sounds such as sneezing or the sound of laughter (Spanish jajaja versus Waka Kaka in Indonesian).

British artist James Chapman collected and illustrated onomatopoeia from around the world and has also published several books on the matter. You can find part of his amazing work here.

You might also be interested in checking some of our previous posts:

What can you tell us about onomatopoeias in your language?

Written by Martina Christen, former Study visitor at TermCoord. Former student of Multilingual and Multicultural Communication.

Post edited by Doris Fernandes del Pozo – Journalist, Translator-Interpreter and Communication Trainee at the Terminology Coordination Unit of the European Parliament. She is pursuing a PhD as part of the Communication and Contemporary Information Programme of the University of Santiago de Compostela (Spain).


  • Beldad, Isabel (2015) “Achoo… Bless you?”, TermCoord Blog. Available at: (Accessed 19th April, 2017)
  • Rodríguez Guzmán, Jorge (2011) “Morfología de la onomatopeya. ¿Subclase de palabra subordinada a la interjección?”, Moenia Revista Lucense de Lingüística y Literatura Vol 17 (2011). Available at: (Accessed 19th April, 2017)
  • Kalinowska, Iweta (2016) “Sneezing is more complicated than you thought!”, TermCoord Blog. Available at: (Accessed 19th April, 2017)
  • Smirnova, Olga (2017) “The Secrets of Phonosemantics: Part I”, TermCoord Blog. Available at: (Accessed 19th April, 2017)
  • Themean, Kathy (2009) “Onomatopoeia Word List”, Writing and Illustrating Sharing Information About Writing and Illustrating for Children, Available at: (Accessed 19th April, 2017)