What sound does a dog make? How about a cat, a horse or a frog?

Well, it turns out the answer depends on who you ask – and what language they speak.

At first glance, this global variation seems a little strange. Surely a frog makes the same sound in England as it does in Japan!

But from a cultural and linguistic perspective, it makes perfect sense. As we’re about to discover, the reasons for the differentiation lie not with the animals themselves, but with us humans and how we make sense of the world with words.

Below, we’ll explore some of the factors that influence animal sound words worldwide. We’ll also compare some interesting examples from global languages to better understand the similarities and differences.

Black and White Dairy Cow's Head

The Science of Animal Sounds

Before we get to human words for animal sounds, let’s take a look at the actual animal sounds themselves.

How many times have you stared wistfully into your pup’s eyes, wishing they could just tell you what they were thinking? And yet, despite thousands of years of cohabitation and side-by-side evolution, we humans still can’t hold a conversation with our beloved pet dogs.

Anyone who’s spent any time in the company of a pet, or even observed a flock of birds through a window, would agree that nonhuman animals are adept communicators. And while a lot of animal communication is through gesture and body language, they also do so with vocalisations. But still, this communication is vastly different to any human language.

The degree to which various forms of nonhuman animal communication can be classed as ‘language’ is an ongoing topic of academic debate but a clear distinction between the world’s many human languages and the type of communication that nonhuman animals engage is well-established.

There are many reasons why human language is so distinct from the sounds that animals make – and again, it’s an ongoing topic of debate!

But one key factor is our physiological differences. Even if nonhuman animals were ‘smart enough’ to learn Korean, for example, they wouldn’t be able to physically produce the sounds that Korean speakers can, because of the shape of their throats and mouths. Basically, human languages are tailor-made for human bodies. For the same reason, we’re only able to imitate animal sounds, like the bark of a dog or the croak of a frog.

This fundamental distinction between human language and animal sounds leads us to the central question of our article – how do humans translate animal sounds into words? Because animals don’t vocalise in the same way as us, their vocalisations don’t exactly line up with the sounds we humans produce. This means they can’t be directly translated into our languages, so there’s always a degree of interpretation and approximation when it comes to representing them in words. That’s partly why we get variations around the globe – but more on that below!

green frog

Cultural Interpretations of Animal Sounds

So, we’ve identified the challenge of representing nonhuman animal sounds within the limitations of human language. But that doesn’t explain why dogs in Germany say wau wau, while in Arabic they say haw haw! This is where cultural and linguistic variations come into play, and things get even more interesting.

Each language has its own finite set of sounds, known as phonemes, that are used as the building blocks of every word in that language. Some phonemes are very common across languages around the world, but the exact set of sounds available to each language is unique. Have you ever thought to yourself that Dutch sounds more ‘guttural’, while Italian sounds more ‘smooth’? That’s those unique sound sets at play.
So, when it comes to interpreting nonhuman animal sounds into human languages, each language is confined to work within its own predefined set of available sounds. Inevitably, the interpretations come out a little differently! This largely explains both the similarities and the differences we see around the world in interpretations of animal sounds – as you’ll see in the examples below.

a white lamb

Onomatopoeia and Animal Sounds

You may remember this term from your English classes at secondary school: onomatopoeia is when words sound the same – or similar – to the things they’re describing. Think of words like crash, zoom and swish. They all kind of evoke the event they represent, right?

These neat onomatopoeic words are often associated with animal sounds, essentially mimicking or imitating the sound that animals make, but in a way that creates a proper word that speakers can use in sentences. That’s the difference between saying the word woof, and clearing your throat to give your best impression of a barking dog – not recommended in polite company!

As we’ve discussed above, onomatopoeic interpretations of animal sounds involve taking a nonhuman vocalisation and making it fit into the set of sounds that are available in any given human language. It’s a bit like an artist’s impression of a sound, influenced by whatever media they’re working in. That’s partly why we get variation between onomatopoeic interpretations in various languages.

Common Animals and Their Sounds in Different Languages

Now that we’ve learned how and why languages use different words to describe the sounds that animals make, let’s take a closer look at some examples from a few of the world’s most spoken languages.


Many languages have fairly similar expressions for the sound a cat makes, starting with a bilabial nasal consonant /m/ followed by a sliding vowel that groups three vowel sounds within one syllable, as in meow. But there are a few notable outliers thrown in!

grey and white cat with yellow eyes


What sound does a cow make? Languages around the world mostly agree that it’s a bilabial nasal consonant /m/, followed by some form of drawn-out vowel.

Brown Cattle on Open Field


What sound does a Chihuahua make? How about an Alsatian? There seems to be more variation when it comes to describing dogs’ barks around the world compared to other animals – and perhaps that’s no surprise, given how many different breeds there are and how much time we humans spend with them.
Within English, there are multiple onomatopoeic words to describe dog vocalisations, from woof to bow wow to yap yap – in fact, we have notably more options than in other languages! Academics think this could be because English-speaking cultures have traditionally had a lot of contact with dogs over the years.

Here are some of the ways dogs’ barks are represented in languages around the world.

smiling golden retriever


There’s a fair amount of agreement around the world when it comes to duck sounds – most start with a /kwa/ sound, or otherwise a hard /k/ or /g/. This is a clear example of how each language’s phonemic ‘rules’ influence the way animal sounds are interpreted: in Japanese, for example, there is no /kwa/ sound, so instead their word starts with /g/.

male mallard duck


What sound does a horse make? They’re not the most talkative of animals, comparatively speaking! Maybe that’s why there’s quite a bit of variation when it comes to translating horse sounds in languages around the world. Which language do you think gets the closest?

white horse


Frogs are another interesting case, where we see a fair amount of variation in words from around the world! Frogs are known for their distinctive calls, so it’s possible that this variation reflects the many different types of sounds that they make. What sound do the frogs make near your home?

frog on a lily pad


How do different languages around the world represent the tiny little sounds that mice make? There’s quite a bit of agreement, with most languages including a closed vowels – that /i/ sound, as in the English squeak.

Close Up Photography of Brown Mouse

Roosters (Cockerells)

There’s quite a lot of variation in how languages represent rooster calls. But interestingly, all the languages seem to agree that the sound has a drawn-out quality to it. Notice how every representation is multisyllabic!

rooster cockerell


At first glance, it might seem like the words for a sheep’s noise around the world are pretty varied – but look a bit closer and you’ll see that actually they share quite a bit in common! They tend to start with a /b/ sound, or the related /m/ sound, and end with an open vowel sound.

Photo of Mother Sheep and Their Lambs on a Field

The Role of Animal Sounds in Language and Culture

While it’s still just a burgeoning field of linguistic and sociological study, interpretations of animal sounds can tell us a lot about different cultures. For example, as we’ve discussed, the fact that English-speaking countries have a lot more words for a dog’s bark than other languages indicates how central dogs are in these cultures.

Learning animal sounds is also an integral part of children’s language acquisition and development. The simplicity of animal sound onomatopoeia, and the ubiquitous presence of these sounds in both children’s media and the real-world environment, make them a prime target for children to expand their vocabulary, practise putting sentences together, and start to vocalise relatively easy-to-pronounce words.

For similar reasons, learning animal sounds can be a fun way for adult language learners to extend their vocabulary and get to know a bit more about the nuances of a different culture.

female mallard duck

So, there you have it – a crash course in the variation between animal sound words in languages around the world! Learning different onomatopoeic animal sound words might not bring us any closer to being able to communicate with our pets, but it does offer an interesting glimpse into how human language works. And, as well as being a fun and intriguing area of linguistics, this field of study can tell us a lot about how different human cultures interact with the animals around them.

If you’re curious to learn more about animal sound words in another language, the best way is to ask a native-speaking child in that language, “What sound does a cat make?” Their answer may surprise you!