Thursday, September 30, 2004


Animal Sounds

In Liddell and Scott's Greek lexicon you can find the following onomatopoeic words:They are not so different from English bow-wow, baa, grunt.

One Greek animal sound that doesn't sound familiar, at least to my ear, is brekekekex koax koax, from Aristophanes' Frogs (line 209 and elsewhere). K.J. Dover in his commentary says that "initial br- appears in many Greek words denoting the production of sound" and also that final -x is "a Greek spelling convention for the representation of sounds." He concludes that "brekekekex seems thus to embody two non-representational conventions." Apparently the Marsh Frog, Rana ridibunda, does make a sound somewhat like brekekekex with br- and -x removed.

One wishes that the notes of the Roman emperor Geta (died 212 A.D.) on animal sounds had survived. Aelius Spartianus, Life of Geta 5.4-5, in the Historia Augusta (tr. Anthony Birley), says:
He made a habit of propounding problems to grammarians, asking them to say what sounds different animals make, for example: lambs bleat, pigs grunt, doves coo, bears growl, lions roar, leopards snarl, elephants trumpet, frogs croak, horses neigh, bulls bellow -- and he would confirm these from old writers.

familiare illi fuit has quaestiones grammaticis proponere, ut dicerent, singula animalia quomodo vocem emitterent, velut: agni balant, porcelli grunniunt, palumbes minurriunt, ursi saeviunt, leones rugiunt, leopardi rictant, elefanti barriunt, ranae coaxant, equi hinniunt, asini rudunt, tauri mugiunt, easque de veteribus adprobare.
Here are a few bibliographical references on Greek and Latin animal sounds that I've collected over the years:

David Rohrbacher comments:
I say with regret that Geta's work on animal sounds almost certainly never existed, but is a joke by the scampy author of the largely-fraudulent Historia Augusta (see Ronald Syme, Emperors and Biography, page 62; on the fraudulence of the HA, see Peter White, The Authorship of the Historia Augusta, Journal of Roman Studies 57 (1967) 115-33, and fuller and up-to-date treatment in Andre Chastagnol, Histoire Auguste (1994)). The (single) author of the HA, writing in the late fourth century, was probably a grammarian, and the point of the passage is a parody of the kind of nit-picking questions with which grammarians grappled (as seen, e.g., in Aulus Gellius.)
He also adds some more articles:

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