Why do pigs oink? (1)
This is But Why: A Podast for Curious Kids, from Vermont Public Radio. I'm Jane Lindholm. On this show, we take questions from kids just like you and we find answers. Sometimes you send us questions that seem really simple at first. But when we start peeling them apart, we find so many different layers. Here's an example:
My name is Jacob, and I'm four years old, and I live in Quebec, Canada. My question is, why do pigs do this [pig sound]? Bye bye!
Why do pigs make that noise? There are several ways we can tackle that question. One would be to try to figure out what a pig means when it says [pig noise]. Another would be to examine why we translate that pig sound as oink oink when we write or talk about it. Jacob actually made the sound, as you heard. But often, when we talk about what pigs say, we just say "oink, oink." You probably learned that when you were really really young. Like, as soon as we start to talk, our parents love to ask us what animals say, don't they? Dogs say ruff, cats say meow, cows say moo. But I bet your parents didn't teach you what a camel says--at least not if you live in the United States--or a fox. So why do we give words to the sounds of certain animals and not others? And why do we have different words for the same animal noise depending on what language we're speaking? Today, we're going to take Jacob's question and examine it from both of those angles.
And on that question of what we say animals say, we actually asked for your help. Lots of you sent us recordings of what animals say in all kinds of languages other than English, and we're going to hear what you told us throughout today's episode. Let's start with cats. In English, we often say that a cat says meow. Here's what you told us cats say in the other languages you speak.
Various Kids 02:24
CAT SOUNDS IN OTHER LANGUAGES
was Yanne, Maisyn and Theodore. How about dogs?
Various Kids 02:31
DOG SOUNDS IN OTHER LANGUAGES
Those dog sounds came from these kids:
Various Kids 02:52
My name is Mae and I am five years old. My name is Daniel. My name is Shira. My name is Meera. Hannah. My name is Reva. My name is Riya. Sofia. And my name is Devin. Rehan Hi, my name is Brian. Asher. Everett. I'm Marcus and I am three. Clea. Adhi. And my name is Citlali and I'm nine years old.
And check out all the languages they were speaking: Dutch, Farsi, Hebrew, Hindi, Indonesian, Marathi, Punjabi, Turkish, Urdu, Vietnamese, Mandarin, Spanish and Telugu.
Okay, let's do another. What about frog? In English we might say a frog says croak or ribbit. But here are some other options:
Various Kids 03:42
[Kids explain how to make frog noises in other languages.]
Those frog noises came from:
Various Kids 04:22
My name is Ellie. Hello, my name's Gael. Felippe. My name is Emma. My name is Iris. This is my five year old sister Tanan. Say hi, Tanan. Hi!
All right, we got to do one more, one more animal.
My name is Kavan. And in Gujarati goat says bey bey.
And in English we would say a goat says "mehhh." Why do we have all those different ways of explaining animal noises? It actually says more about our languages and cultures than about the animals. After all, they don't speak our languages. We wanted to know a little bit more. So we reached out to someone who actually studies this kind of thing.
Arika Okrent 05:04
My name is Arika Okrent and I'm a linguist and I write about various subjects in language in a way that I hope more people can understand.
Erica, what is a linguist?
Arika Okrent 05:18
A linguist studies language by looking at what people actually do, not what people should be doing or how they should be talking, what's correct or incorrect. They look at people in the world using language and try to determine what they do and what that says about how humans work and how our minds work.
So you're not like a Spanish teacher, or Hindu teacher. You're not going to teach me a language. And you're not a speech therapist who's helping me make sure I can say my words correctly. You're somebody who studies language and how we use it and why we use it the way we do, kind of.
Yes, sort of in the way that a geologist looks at rock formations and says, you know, here's what they look like. And here's what that means about history. And here's what that means about chemistry, just by looking at the thing in the world. So linguists are looking at language in the world and how people use it.
I asked Arika why we give different words to animal sounds in the first place. After all, a dog doesn't really go ruff ruff, or guau guau; it goes [dog sounds]. And a pig doesn't go oink oink. It makes us sound like [pig sound]. So why don't we just make those sounds? Why do we instead give them words like ruff ruff or oink oink?
We are giving a name for the sound, which is...it's a difficult concept because we understand that we have words for things out there in the world. So you see something and you it has a word that's a house, or that's a picture or that's a bag, whatever it is. We realise that the word itself doesn't look like the thing we're talking about. But when it comes to sounds, when we name a sound, we have the expectation that it should sound like the sound. And in some ways that does--we have a word "beep". And that kind of sounds like a beep. But it's not exactly the same. It's not [horn sound] or whatever an actual beep sounds like because we've given it a name. And when we do that, when we give a sound a name, we're restricted to what our language can do, and what it is allowed to do. And there's a million sounds that the human voice can make. But languages only use a subset of those. And different languages use different subsets of those. So English has these sounds, and French has those sounds and different languages take advantage of different human sounds. And that's what we have to use when we give a name to a sound. So they're going to be different in different languages.
So like in English, you might say a bird says tweet tweet. And in Spanish, you might say it says pio pio. And you can hear, even in the way I'm using my voice and raising it up high, I'm kind of making the sound of a bird but it's different from those two languages. In a case like that, is it mostly just that's what people kind of chose and copied each other? Or is that about what our languages tell us we can do as well?
Well, when you're saying it in a more colourful manner and you can say, tweet, tweet or cheep cheep and you can sound like the bird. But I can also say, "Oh, that bird was tweeting all morning." In which case, it doesn't sound at all like the actual sound. It's now just the label for that thing that birds do.
Speaking of birds, let's hear how you talk about birds in your languages.
Various Kids 09:13
KIDS EXPLAIN HOW TO MAKE BIRD SOUNDS IN OTHER LANGUAGES
It's kind of interesting that crows get a specific noise. When for lots of other birds, we lump their sounds together and just say they're tweeting. I asked Arika, if we weren't writing things down, would we need to have words for these sounds? Like if we were just speaking, I could say "The pig went [pig noise]. But I don't know how to write [pig noise].
Yeah, we would still have those words. Languages that aren't written have names for sounds too. Because when I'm in a conversation with you, it takes a lot to sort of stop and go [pig noises]. Like that's not in the normal stream of speech and it takes a little extra effort. And we want to be able to speak in the language we're using and stay in that zone while we're talking. So we, it's good to have words that let us do that from within the limitations of the language.
Do you think there is a named sound for every animal, even animals that don't really make sounds?
No. If the animal doesn't really have cultural importance, then we don't really need a sound for the sound that it makes. So in Turkish, they don't have a pig sound. Because in the culture, the pig is not in, it's not in farms, and these sort of settings that children's books will be about or children's songs will be about, because it's just not an element of the culture. And we don't have sounds for what sound does a sloth make, or I don't know, I don't know if they even make sounds. But it's not something that's in the culture as going down to the farm and hear what all the animals say, or going into the woods and hearing what the animals say. It has to have some place in the culture to be important enough to have a word to talk about that sound.
So in fact, when we talk about animal noises, and we know that word, that we know oink means a pig. And if you speak English, you probably know oink is in reference to a pig, that, in some ways, says a lot more about our culture than anything else. It's what we think is important to name that gets a name for the sound that it makes.
Yes. And it's something that's either in the stories that we tell, or in the things that we talk about with each other. It's it's gotta have a reason to be given a word. And that's true, not just for animal sounds, but for everything. We have the words we have because they're a shorthand way of referring to the thing we want to talk about. And different languages have different words that that don't always match, that don't always directly translate from one to the other because it's not something you need this abbreviated way of referring to, and that's what a word is.
While we had Arika, we asked for her favorite animal noise in another language.
Well, I like the word and the thing that a horse does in Danish is vrinsk. It's I can't even say it. It's V-R-I- N-S-K, vrinsk. And that's very different from a neigh, or what I would think a horse would say. But I can, I can see, okay, a horse, yeah, that can match my idea of what an actual horse says. And it just shows that there's a lot of flexibility in how we can represent what an animal does, and it can use these strange combinations of sounds that English doesn't use.
Cool. Speaking of horses, here are a few other names for [horse sound].
Various Kids 13:32
[KIDS DESCRIBE HORSE NOISES IN OTHER LANGUAGES]
Coming up, we'll tackle the other way of answering that original question. We'll learn a little bit more about what animals might be saying when they make their various noises. Stay with us.
This is But Why: A Podcast for Curious Kids. I'm Jane Lindholm. We're learning about the noises that animals make today. We just learned a little bit about why we use different words and sounds to describe what animals say, depending on what language we humans are speaking. Let's hear a few more examples of what you've told us about how you express animal sounds in the languages you speak. Now, in English when we think about hens, female chickens, we often say cluck, cluck. But in other languages hens sy: