How are languages different? How can we “compare” 2 languages? Every language is unique and although there are many shared characteristics, the differences are what make learning a new language both difficult and interesting. Phonetic range, written forms, historical context and cultural background all affect the development of any given language. For this reason, the same sound can be completely different in 2 different languages. Onomatopoeia is a great way to compare languages. Onomatopoeic lexicon shows how speakers of a language “hear” a sound. After being interpreted by the ear, the sound must be written. The written form of a language will determine the final form of the sound.
Animal sounds are popular in children songs and also in English conversation classrooms. Comparing animal sounds is a fun game to lay and always lightens the mood. Although it may seem like a simple little activity, it is actually a very insightful way to compare languages. For example, in English a cow says “mooo” (rhymes with “who”) while in Japanese a cow says “mo” (rhymes with “show”). Why is this? Both start with the letter m, but the way that we hear the cow sound is shaped by cultural and linguistic background. Another example: in English a cat says “meow” while in Japanese it says “nyah”. English phonetics are framed by the Roman alphabet comprising 26 letters but it’s generally agreed there are over 45 phonemes (sounds). Japanese syllabary contains 46 phonetic characters but with combined sounds over 80 phonemes. However, these 2 sets of phonemes are not overlapping and so each language has it’s own limitations. As such, animal sounds can differ greatly between these 2 languages.
Here are some more examples: In English a dog says “woof” while in Japanese it says “wan”. In English a sheep says “baa” while in Japanese it says “mei”. To an amateur linguist, as all language students are, this is such a simple and illustrative way to see the differences between languages. Onomatopoeic “words” can teach us so much!
Edward, Smith’s School of English Otsu
Leave a Reply