AH, THE QUIRKS of human language, especially regarding the concrete world in which we live, rather than the made-up world of the rational—and hopefully ratiocinating—human brain/mind. The “creation of words that imitate natural sounds” is known as onomatopoeia (Merriam-Webster), a past-time that has apparently engaged and delighted humans since we stumbled upon/invented language.
Those animals that make sounds with the least amount of variance tend to have onomatopoetically similar sounds assigned them in various languages. For example, nearly every language has a cow making a moo-like noise, while most cats meow, and all cuckoos go cuckoo. *
But what of man’s best friend? That is a very different story indeed. The sounds attributed to dogs in various languages varies as much as dogs vary in appearance and personality. Here are some of the enormous variations of the dog’s sound in various languages:
• Alabanian: ham ham
• Catalan, bup bup
• Chinese, wang wang
• Greek, gav gav
• Icelandic, voff voff
• Indonesian, gong gong
• Uktranian, haf haf
And those rascally Italians give it the same sound as English but spell it bau bau!
This dog has been remarkably well trained, although readers should not think that they can duplicate this success with their own pets.
Dogs develop regional accents
According to the Canine Behaviour Centre, dogs can even develop regional accents! CBC researchers concluded that “dogs imitate their owners in order to bond with them; the closer the bond, the closer the similarity in sound.”
As for bonding, anecdotes, jokes, and cartoons abound concerning the similarity in appearance (and often, the disposition and temperament) of many dogs to their owners.
In Disney’s 101 Dalmatians (the animated film from 1961), the canine protagonist Pongo decides to hook up his owner, perennial bachelor and human protagonist Roger Radcliffe, with a human mate. He does this by checking out the dogs that are attached to the available humans. In a cute bit of girl-watching, Pongo checks out various pairings and evaluates them. 1
Illustration by Disney studio artists of various types of dogs and their people from the movie 101 Dalmatians (1961).
Dogs also imitate our actions
And this example isn’t that far off base: according to John Lloyd and John Mitchinson’s wonderful The Book Of General Ignorance, dogs mimic their owners’ behavior: “A terrier owned by a young family will tend to be lively and difficult to control. The same dog living with an old lady will end up quiet, inactive and prone to long periods of sleep.” (page 40) 2
In a related topic, dogs also imitate our actions, even if we are not always aware that they are doing so: “The next time your dog digs a hole in the backyard after watching you garden, don’t punish him. He’s just imitating you. A new study reveals that our canine pals are capable of copying our behavior as long as 10 minutes after it’s happened. The ability is considered mentally demanding and, until this discovery, something that only humans and apes were known to do.”
Behavioral ethologist Ádám Miklósi and Italian dog trainer Claudia Fugazza “hope that trainers, especially those teaching guide and other working dogs, take advantage of their willingness to learn by watching our actions. He and Fugazza advise dog-owners and trainers to think of useful actions for dogs to copy, such as fetching the mail from the mailbox, carrying a tool to the garden, or better yet on these hot summer days, grabbing a beer for Dad from the fridge.” 3
Babe Ruth hefting several bats before entering the on-deck circle.
Old man and a dog walk into a bar
I can’t resist a joke: a grizzled old man wanders into a saloon with his dog, an equally old, salt-and-pepper mutt. As the bartender watches, the man picks out a seat at the bar and the dog sits next to him by his feet. After the bartender asks what he will have, the old man confesses he’s broke and asks, “If my dog Tomboy here answers a question, will you give me a drink?”
The bartender humors the man with his generosity: “Sure, pops. For every question the dog answers, you can pick any damn drink you want!”
Eyeing the bottle of Laphroaig on the backbar’s top shelf, the old man turns to his dog and asks, “Tomboy, what’s on top of a house?”
And the dog barks, “Roof! Roof!”
As the old man turns back, the bartender says, “Slow down, old-timer. You have to do better than that crap!”
Shaking his head, the oldster asks his dog, “So, Tom old boy, what does sandpaper feel like?”
And the dog barks, “Ruff! Ruff!”
This time the bartender is less patient: “All right! Enough with the crap. One last question and it better be a real answer!”
So the old ma inquires, “Who was the greatest hitter in the history of baseball?”
And the dog barks, “Ruth! Ruth!”
At which point the bartender exclaims, “Enough! Hit the road!”
And as the thirsty old man and the puzzled old dog walk out the door into the hot sunlight, ol’ Tomboy looks up at his master and says, “Should I have said Ted Williams?”
1 This image was assembled from individual frames from 101 Dalmatians by someone else; I just found it on the Internet.
2 This essay was liberally adapted from the pocket edition of The Book Of General Ignorance by Faber and Faber (2008). Get used to this book: I intend to lift several more entries for future posts on this site. Also, I am tempted to make some crack about what this tells me about my wondrous sister Mary Alice and her wild and crazy Labs Cinder and Ember, but I won’t . . .
3 These last two paragraphs are taken from “Dogs Imitate Humans? Canine Study Shows Man’s Best Friend Is Capable Of Copycat Behavior“by Virgina Morell for Huffington Post (July 27, 2013).