August 1, 2003
Sounds Like: A Frog With a Russian Accent
By Michele A. Berdy
You don't have to live long in Russia to discover that animals here speak Russian. Not only does your friend's cat understand Brys! (Scat!) and dog understand Lezhat! (Lie down!), they "speak" differently -- or at least the Russian transcriptions of their sounds differ from English. I've always wondered if this is just because we use the sounds we have available in our language to describe, say, the mooing of a cow, or if the sounds we have hard-wired into our heads in our languages actually determine what we hear.
Luckily for those of us who have American and Russian feline families, cats are bilingual, albeit Russian cats are slightly more sensuous than their English-speaking cohorts. They say Myau-myau (meow-meow) and mur-mur (purr-purr), expressed by the verb murlykat (to purr). You can also use the verb urchat, which can refer to both a feline and a well-running machine: Dvizhok urchit. (The motor is purring.).
Dogs, however, speak a slightly different dialect. Growling dogs say r-r-r (grrr), big ones bark as gav-gav or av-av (woof woof, bow-bow), and little dogs yap tyav-tyav. Since living in Russia and becoming a conspiracy nut (the Byzantine politics encourage it), I'm convinced that there is a secret law stipulating the presence of at least one very small, incredibly annoying yapping dog in every apartment building. In addition to yipping and yapping at 250 decibels day and night, if you go to pet them, they might take your finger off. On menya tsapnul! (He nipped me!). By the way, Russians also use the word for barking to describe a reprimand: Chto s shefom segodnya? Kak tolko ya voshol, on menya gavknul. (What's wrong with the boss today? As soon as I walked in, he chewed me out.)
Crows caw kar-kar; geese don't honk in Russian, they say ga-ga-ga. Birds chirp (chirikat) chik-chirik, ducks say krya-krya (quack quack), and chickens cluck ko-ko-ko. A rooster's paean to dawn in Russian is kukareku! (Cock-a-doodle-doo!).
Russian bees don't buzz, they make the sound zh-zh-zh. Horses neigh i-i-i, and when they walk down the street, their hooves make the sound tsok-tsok (clip clop). Russian frogs say kva-kva, and clearly would not understand a word of their American relatives, who croak or say "ribbit."
Pigs might also have some cross-cultural misunderstandings: Russian pigs say khryu-khryu, while American or British pigs oink. Khryushka is also a good word to use to describe any untidy or ice-cream-smeared child.
Humans sounds are also expressed differently in Russian and English. The sound of a sneeze -- an exuberant Ah-choo! in English -- is the dignified Ap-chkhi! in Russian. And apparently we snore very differently. To snore in Russian is khrapet, and the sound you make is khrap -- which sounds to me far more like the jarring racket of a noisy sleeper than the sonorous "snore."
Gun sounds are also a bit different in Russian. A large gun makes the sound ba-bakh! (Bam!) and a pop-gun goes paf or pif-paf (Bang bang!). For machine guns, we switch the order of the letters around: in Russian it is tra-ta-ta; in English it's rat-tat-tat.
However, in both Russian and English the ability to imitate any machine sound is clearly part of the genetic code contained in the Y chromosome. I cannot make a convincing motor or gun sound to save my life, but have been woken up at the dacha by what I thought were the sounds of a foreign invasion, only to find three five-year old boys playing war under my window. Tra-ta-ta! Ba-bakh!
Michele A. Berdy is a Moscow-based translator.