I had always assumed that although I understood only about half of what Donald Duck says in his cartoons, Americans understood everything despite his comical pronunciation.

However friends have just offered me DVDs featuring Donald and one 1948 episode, "Donald's Dream Voice", hinges on the fact that he can't sell brushes—he is a sales representative—because nobody understands him (until he buys pills that give him a human voice).

So my question is: do native speakers in the USA actually understand Donald's squawking (but delightful) English?

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    Apart from my genuine affection for Donald, I am interested in this question because it is an example of the problem of mutual comprehension inside a given language, of English dialectology in other words. – Georges Elencwajg Jul 17 '11 at 9:32
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    I think I'd describe Donald's voice as "squawking" rather than "squeaking." Squeaking implies a higher pitch than squawking. – Kit Z. Fox Jul 17 '11 at 15:15
  • @Kit: exactly! "squawking" isn't in my active vocabulary so I settled for "squeaking". But it was definitely "squawking" that I wanted: thanks a lot! – Georges Elencwajg Jul 17 '11 at 18:49

It's been years since I've heard Donald in English (I live in Denmark now) - but I must say that I've never had an issue with understanding his English - I'm also able to understand what he says in Danish now as well.

It's one of those things you have to 'train' your ear for, in my opinion.

Edited to add:

A translation for the YouTube link:

In the first part of the video he says, "WHAT? Playing again, eh? So, I'll fix 'em!" (then he makes the mask and scares Huey, Duey and Louie back into working). Then while he's mowing he says, "Why those dirty little...(rolls up his sleeves) I'll teach you!

Then the 'mini' Donald appears and says, STOP!

He talks about getting their cooperation, and Donald asks, "How?" and after the mini-Donald whispers into his ear, he says, "Ok, I'll try anything once!"

Like I said, you have to have the ear for it.

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    +1 for the the encouraging advice to train my ear. Modern technology will help me since the DVDs can display English subtitles to the English text. – Georges Elencwajg Jul 17 '11 at 9:32
  • My experience is quite the opposite of yours: I can only understand about a third of what he says in both English and Danish! – Janus Bahs Jacquet Oct 9 '16 at 19:00

We can usually understand Donald Duck except when he goes off on incomprehensible rants. Much of what he says that is comprehensible may be understood from context, and there are a few times when even Americans have to dope out what he's saying. Part of the character's shtick is to blow up and lose his power to communicate except in rapid-fire shouts of nonsense syllables, which suggests that he can no longer find the words for what he is trying to say.

You can hear a small example of this at around 0:30 in this clip:


If you watch the rest of the clip, you'll see an example of the racism of the era. This was from an earlier time in our history.

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  • +1 but I won't tell you if it is for the explanation or the link :-) – Georges Elencwajg Jul 17 '11 at 15:04
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    I dunno, I've never been able to understand anything Donald says unless it's a single word that would be understandable from context even without sound. – Marthaª Jul 18 '11 at 21:46
  • I agree with Martha -- I just watched the first couple of minutes of that video, and the only word Donald Duck said that I understood was "okay". And it's not just that I couldn't understand him -- I wouldn't even have recognized he was speaking English. (Contrast this with listening to songs: a lot of times, I can't recognize the words, but I can still tell they're speaking English.) – grautur Jul 19 '11 at 2:24
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    @grautur, Can you recognise the words in this? azahar.wordpress.com/2010/04/16/american-english. – TRiG Sep 1 '11 at 11:50

Actually, I do not ever understand him in the slightest. I gather that some people (like perhaps Darwy and Robusto) do, but I generally have to take what he's saying out of context. He's a pretty reactive character (he reacts to things, rather than initiating them), and it is usually fairly easy to tell what his reaction is, even if the "words" seem to be gibberish.

Back in the 70's there was a fad where people would try to talk like him. I think it started with a popular song called Disco Duck, which featured a similarly talking duck (not Donald for copyright reasons). So for a period, I was hearing it a lot, and I could never understand most of what anyone ever said while talking like Donald.

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    Thanks for your candid admission that you don't understand everythig in Donaldese, T.E.D. And thanks for telling about that amusing fad. – Georges Elencwajg Jul 21 '11 at 14:58

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