Cultural Onomatopoeia

Alec Yeh - Senegal


February 25, 2010

David Sedaris, a memoirist, wrote about how it’s always interesting to hear the different onomatopoeia of a culture. It’s SO true. I never thought about it, but it’s really hilarious. In Dakar recently, we learned from Rachel that for a car horn, the Senegalese use “pain pain”, pronounced closer to “paing paing.” And after hearing it, it really does sound like “paing paing” here. I don’t know if car horns are different here, but they don’t really sound like “beep beep.”

But after that interesting discovery, I decided to go back to the village and ask what other sounds people make here. I must say, some of them sound more similar to the actual sounds than the American counterparts, but some of them are just ridiculous. The first sound I asked about was “Ow!” When I say “ow,” multiple people have laughed at me. So I asked them what the Senegalese say. They say “ay.” How is that that big of a difference? Why is it funny that I say “ow” instead? Weird.

But when it comes to animals, most of them are actually the same. Some animals are just easy to imitate, like a cat. Cats, in most cultures I think, say “meow.” But for a dog, here, they use “oua oua,” which is its French spelling. It’s actually “wa wa.” I like our “woof” better.  A bee, which I thought would be the same, is actually “vrmmm.” That sounds more like a vacuum. Similarly, the sound of a lion, which in America I would consider “roar” or “rawr,” actually is just a low rumble. They were like, “It’s a guttural sound! It’s not rawr!” We just told them they were whack. “Oink” is “groing,” which doesn’t make sense to me. It just sounds like the word “groin” to me. I think “oink” is more accurate.

But my two favorites are the rooster and the frog. Those were just hilarious, mostly because the Senegalese said them so matter-of-factly. For a rooster, we use “cock-a-doodle-doo.” Well, that’s definitely not what they say here. They use “coo-cooty-coo.” That just sounds like a taunt to call somebody crazy. Like, “You’re coo-cooty-coo in the head.” See, that wouldn’t work with “cock-a-doodle-doo.” Nobody says “You’re cock-a-doodle-doo in the head.” The frog, I told them, is “ribbit” in the US. Well, this just made me laugh, but they were like, “No. It’s like ‘awwwwwwwwwk’.” Awk? Really? Granted, they made their voice low and raspy, which I guess is closer, but still. I definitely don’t think “awk” is the right onomatopoeia. Maybe if frogs were constantly trying to tell you that you have an awkward phrase in your writing. “Awk, awk, awk.”

Alec Yeh