Dogged quest yields foreign language versions of 'bow-wow,' 'meow,' 'ah-choo'

February 19, 1993|By Chicago Tribune

Hank de Zutter, a Chicago writer and teacher, once approached a veiled Iranian woman on a bus and, after assuring her that his intentions were honorable, asked her to make the sound of a rooster in Farsi, her native language. "Ghoo-ghoolie-ghoo," she said.

Another time, at a party, he found after speaking with a Thai that dogs in that country call for attention by barking, "hung-hung!" Later, he learned that, in Japan, dogs go "wan-wan." In Greece, "gav-gav." In Lithuania, "ow-ow." In Korea, "mong-mong." In China, "wang-wang." In Denmark, "vow-vow."

People from different countries hear the same animal sounds, but they express them in various ways. But do animals speak different languages? That question has dogged Mr. De Zutter for almost a decade, ever since his daughter, Amanda, came home from school making wildlife sounds in French.

The result is a book, primarily but not entirely for children, called "Who Says a Dog Goes Bow-Wow?" (Doubleday). It offers the fruits of research carried out by Mr. De Zutter at such places as parties, work and a bus.

A mouse, which goes "squeak-squeak" in English, might say "cleek-cleek" in Hebrew, "cweek-cweek" in Greek, "cheek-cheek" in Polish. A Spanish mouse would say "cui-cui," a Russian "peep-peep," or, in Germany, "i-i-i-i."

Cats, who show considerably less interest in foreign languages, might utter a "me-yong" in Indonesia or a "nyan-nyan" in Japan. But, according to Mr. De Zutter, they say "meow," and let it go at that, when around people who speak Chinese, French, Polish, Danish, Dutch, German, Turkish, Italian, Swedish or English.

Collecting such information has become a major hobby for Mr. De Zutter, who studied linguistics at the University of Michigan and at Northeastern Illinois University.

"What we see is so often determined by what we say, or are taught to hear," he noted during a recent party to celebrate his book's publication.

Held at Malcolm X College, where Mr. De Zutter teaches English literature, the gathering brought together several dozen multilingual students from La Salle Language Academy in Old Town, some musicians from Russia, a woman from former Upper Volta who now lives in Chicago, and author-broadcaster Studs Terkel.

The plan was to make a videotape to promote the book, with Mr. Terkel as host, showing people who speak different languages giving their own impressions of sounds such as barking, grunting, crowing and human sneezing.

"Ob-tche," said Henady Serhienko, of Ukraine, translating the English version of "ah-choo."

"A sneeze is 'ha-jiss,' " noted Anna Probowo, of Indonesia.

"I'm not sure about a sneeze," began Maria Cunningham, of Mexico, who came forth with Spanish sounds of a pig ("kurch, kurch") and a hen ("cara, cara"). Others from Germany made rooster sounds ("kick-a-rick-ee"), while Nigerian guests made dog sounds ("boo-boo"). One girl, of Serbian background, made frog sounds by holding a fist to her mouth, blowing hard and using her other hand to squeeze out snorts.

That led to a universal problem of animal sound observers: how to write them down. Mr. De Zutter said he had a difficult time with his African students, for example, because they were content to accurately reproduce animal sounds, such as the snorting of a wild pig, but had little interest in spelling them.

It is, of course, possible that creatures in different countries do speak different languages. A chicken in Istanbul could say "git-git-gadak" while its relation in America goes "cluck-cluck." But it is not likely.

At social gatherings, his hobby acts as an icebreaker, Mr. De Zutter finds. He often begins conversations with foreigners by asking them to make noises. He is seldom refused. "The delightful thing about this kind of research is that dictionaries and experts know no more than ordinary people do," he said.

"Pigs are good. I have a tenant who is Dutch. He told me that pigs go 'knorr, knorr,' " Mr. De Zutter said. "Another great source for material is foreign funny papers and comic books."

Mr. De Zutter already is thinking of a second book, on the strange ways humans differ in their hearing of environmental sounds. "Who says water goes 'drip-drip'?" In Japan, he noted, natives report dripping water goes "choro-choro." Or so they say.

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