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Every kindergartner knows that a sheep says baa, a cow says moo, a cat says meow and a goat says maa. But this is just in English. In other languages, they say other things.

When did animal sounds get their canonical English form? Did it happen before the Great Vowel Shift? Did cows "originally" say /moː/, or /muː/? What about consonants? Basically, what accent should my animal sounds be in?

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They appear to have imitative origin and to refer to different periods around the 16th and 17th century:

Moo (v.):

  • "to make the characteristic sound of a cow," 1540s, of imitative origin. Related: Mooed; mooing. The noun is from 1789. Baby-talk moo-cow (n.) attested from 1812.

Meow (n.):

  • representation of cat sound, 1842, earlier miaow, miau, meaw (1630s). Of imitative origin, compare French miaou, German miauen, Persian maw, Japanese nya nya, Arabic nau-nau, and Joyce's mrkgnao. In Chinese, miau means "cat." As a verb by 1630s, meaw, also meawle. Compare Old French miauer "to meow, caterwaul."

Bleat apperars to be older in origin:

  • *Old English blætan, from West Germanic bhle- (source also of Dutch blaten "to bleat"), of imitative origin (compare Greek blekhe "a bleating; the wailing of children," Old Church Slavonic blejat "to bleat," Latin flere "to weep").
  • That might be how they got codified as proper words, but was that how they got codified as onomatopoeias? I don't want to know the origin of "A cow moos". I want to know the origin of "A cow says, 'moo'". – Charles Jul 19 '16 at 15:48
  • @Charles - I dont think I understand what you are looking for.. – user66974 Jul 19 '16 at 15:51
  • Hm... Maybe that is what I'm thinking of. I tried to clarify, but confused myself. I guess I want the "word-as-sound" not "sound-as-word", but those are so closely related that I don't know if there's a reasonable distinction. – Charles Jul 19 '16 at 15:58
  • @Charles - they are sounds that at one point in time were put down as wrtitten words..but it does not apprear that there was a speficic period in which that happened. – user66974 Jul 19 '16 at 16:03

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