Do You Hear What I Hear?

Listen!  Off in the distance you can hear tipsy, tin-eared people at Christmas parties warbling the notes of “Fa la la la la la la la la” in various new and creative keys.  Or, if you prefer, you can go shopping and hear the speakers endlessly repeating the same syllables in perfect harmony.

Now, I’m not complaining.  ‘Tis The Season and all that.  But the endless repetition of nonsense syllables (“Hey, ho, nobody home…”) around this time of year brings one to wonder: Why the heck “Fa la la la la la la la la?”

Just why do we human beings like to stick meaningless sounds into our songs?  And why do we repeat them?  Do all cultures and languages do it?  If they do, do they all add similar syllables or do they vary from place to place?

I ask those questions because we human beings tend to assume that because our senses are “natural” functions, we must all hear exactly the same sounds, smell the same smells, taste the same tastes, and see the same sights.

Maybe, but maybe not.

I know that I perceive a tartan plaid, say, differently than someone who is color blind.  I happen to have a friend who lacks the sense of taste (the nasal part; she gets the sweet, sour, etc. from the tongue), so I know food is different for her.  And I suspect all of us have known someone who is tone-deaf (a surprising number of whom persist in singing).

If normal human variations bring us these people who actually miss part of the sensory spectrum, does it really make sense to assume that all the rest perceive identically?  That there is no variation across the range we call “normal?”

I have a reason for asking these questions.  You see, every once in a while, I get one of these wild hairs.  A few years ago it was about food.  It happens that there are some foods that I just have trouble eating.  Chow Mein, for instance.  I watch other people obviously filled with enthusiasm while they down their chow mein and I just don’t get it.

For me the problem is celery.  To the rest of the world, celery is obviously a food.  I can tell this by how they eat it.  To me it is a seasoning…and a strong one.  Put a little celery in a dish and it’s not too bad.  Put chunks in, as they do in chow mein, and it is overwhelming.  Insofar as I am concerned, when I eat chow mein, all I taste is celery.

I have a short list of such foods.  Green pepper is another.  Pimiento renders any a-la-king dish an exercise in eating pure pimiento.  There are a few more.

Originally, I assumed that other people just liked getting their taste buds flogged by overwhelming flavors.  But, as time passed, I asked myself if there might be another answer.  Perhaps, I theorized, it just didn’t taste the same to them as it did to me. Perhaps my mouth chemistry just overreacted to celery.  Perhaps I got a gust of flavor where other people just got a subtle tone.

One could, of course, have just assumed that I was the odd one out.  But it seemed more logical to ask if there was not a more general phenomenon hiding here.  Perhaps a lot of us have some food item that we find so repellant that we just can’t understand why other people eat it.

So I started a modest and unscientific survey.  After parties or social gatherings, when we were all sitting comfortably, I would drag out my problem, explain it, and ask everyone if there was some food that they knew other people enjoyed but that they found too strong or bad tasting to tolerate.

The response was nearly one hundred per cent.  Everyone seemed to have some item that they just couldn’t understand why anyone ate.  Often they would start by denying it, but, as the discussion moved along, they would say something like, “You know, I never really thought about it, but…”

Over time, I got enough results to think I had a reasonable sample.  One reason for that conclusion was that there was one food item that outscored all others in the how-can-they-eat-that category.  You don’t need as big a sample when one variable dominates.  In this case, there was one food that a surprising number of people found so bitter and strong tasting that they just can’t tolerate it.

Cucumbers.

Cucumbers?  Bitter?  Strong tasting?  Say what?

That was the other interesting fact.  People either felt that way about cucumbers or they couldn’t understand how anyone could possibly feel that way about cucumbers.

Which established, for me at any rate, that there was a significant variation in the “normal” response of our senses.

What about hearing?  One of the great universals, we are told is music.  Wherever you go, all around the world, you will find people enjoying and being influenced by music.  Well and good.  Despite variations in music systems, tonal definitions and harmonies, music is one of the true universals across our species.

But does music necessarily sound the same to everyone?  We know that there are significant biological variations in acuity.  But one could also make a pretty good case for hearing also being filtered by learned items such as culture and language.

Another search.

For starters, I decided to look at nonsense refrains.  These are the meaningless phrases we like to stick in songs (we’re back to “Fa la la la…”).  They are certainly based on no noticeable musical theory, but every culture has them.  Why do they sound appropriate to our ears?  And does that perception of rightness reach across linguistic and cultural lines?

Maybe, maybe not.  Truth is, after a bit of research, I found no way to get a definitive answer.

Certainly, there are similarities across cultures.  For instance, most of the countries I have been able to check seem to like that rich, full vowel sound.   It is very common.  There is the Irish “Whack-fol-lol-de-ra.” Or the Spanish “Ay, ay, ay, ay.” Or the German, “Ho-yo-to-ho“ (Wagner).  And so on.

But there is such a heavy subjective element to the whole thing.  There are other sounds that seem to be added just because they sound right to their listeners.  Sometimes they sound playful, like Tom Lehrer’s “Sing rickety tickety tin…”  Sometimes they are sad like the folk song, “Hey, ho, nobody home…”  Sometimes they are energizing, like the Happy Wanderer’s “Faleri falera faleri falera ha ha ha ha ha ha…”  (Which, by the way, could be “Valeri,” “Valderi,” or maybe even “Walderi”).  Problem is, there is so much overlap between countries that I couldn’t prove anything one way or the other.  Without some kind of baseline for comparison, how can one reach any conclusions?

Strike one.  Music was out.

But wait a minute.  Baseline…?  Hmmm.  You mean like something that would be the same input for everyone but…?  Like onomatopoeia?  How do the different cultures represent the non-language sounds they hear?

Okay, how about bells?  One would think that bells would sound just about the same to everyone.  Ergo, except for the obvious variations in what sounds our letters represent, bells should be transliterated into recognizably identical morphemes.

Got it?  No?  Okay, let me demonstrate.

All of us remember learning the children’s song Frere Jacques, although some of us might have learned it as Brother John.  Remember the syllables they had to represent bell sounds?  Turns out that versions of that song exist in every language I’ve checked.  In Italian he is Fra Martino.  In Czech he is Bratre Kubo.  In Polish he is Panie Janie.  Over the last few years I’ve collected over a dozen versions and I’m sure there are many more.  Having that collection already, I thought I could use it as a basis for comparison.

So.  Are they identical?  Recognizably based on the same sounds?  Well…  You be the judge.

In English, they are Ding, Ding, Dong (Or at least that’s how I learned it).  In French it is also Ding, Ding, Dong (of course, here you pronounce it with a French nasality).  In Danish it’s Bim, Bam, Bum.  In Finish it’s Piu, Pau, Pou.  In Romanian it’s Ding, Dang, Dong.

These are pretty darned close (I’m skipping the Czech, where the refrain is Vstavej Jiz. I don’t know what in the heck that means, but I don’t think it’s bells), but off enough to make you wonder.  I realized, rather too late, that all the songs in all the languages probably spread from a common base version, making similarities inevitable.

Strike two.

What we really want, then, is some identical sounds that everyone would hear more or less identically, but which they would have to learn to represent in speech independently rather than borrowing from their neighbors.

How about animal noises?  Those have to be pretty similar (unless one wants to believe that American pigs grunt in different tones from Russian pigs).  Imitating the sounds must occur pretty early in a culture’s life.  And how you represent them in your language must be some function of how you hear them.  Which means that they must reflect whatever differences language and culture impose on our hearing.

I looked around and found some representations of how different animals sound in different languages which I will reproduce below.  And I will leave it for you to judge.

But first, a few disclaimers.  I stole these, so I take no responsibility for the sometimes whimsical phonetics.  And yes, it was a bit anal building this table, but to be compulsive can sometimes also be useful.  Finally, there are those who will declare this whole exercise a complete waste of time.  So be it.  But at least, thanks to me,  you will now know how to grunt like a pig in Russian, quack like a duck in Japanese, and crow like a rooster in Swahili.

Don’t say I never gave you anything.

Listen!  Off in the distance you can hear tipsy, tin-eared people at Christmas parties warbling the notes of “Fa la la la la la la la la” in various new and creative keys.  Or, if you prefer, you can go shopping and hear the speakers endlessly repeating the same syllables in perfect harmony.

Now, I’m not complaining.  ‘Tis The Season and all that.  But the endless repetition of nonsense syllables (“Hey, ho, nobody home…”) around this time of year brings one to wonder: Why the heck “Fa la la la la la la la la?”

Just why do we human beings like to stick meaningless sounds into our songs?  And why do we repeat them?  Do all cultures and languages do it?  If they do, do they all add similar syllables or do they vary from place to place?

I ask those questions because we human beings tend to assume that because our senses are “natural” functions, we must all hear exactly the same sounds, smell the same smells, taste the same tastes, and see the same sights.

Maybe, but maybe not.

I know that I perceive a tartan plaid, say, differently than someone who is color blind.  I happen to have a friend who lacks the sense of taste (the nasal part; she gets the sweet, sour, etc. from the tongue), so I know food is different for her.  And I suspect all of us have known someone who is tone-deaf (a surprising number of whom persist in singing).

If normal human variations bring us these people who actually miss part of the sensory spectrum, does it really make sense to assume that all the rest perceive identically?  That there is no variation across the range we call “normal?”

I have a reason for asking these questions.  You see, every once in a while, I get one of these wild hairs.  A few years ago it was about food.  It happens that there are some foods that I just have trouble eating.  Chow Mein, for instance.  I watch other people obviously filled with enthusiasm while they down their chow mein and I just don’t get it.

For me the problem is celery.  To the rest of the world, celery is obviously a food.  I can tell this by how they eat it.  To me it is a seasoning…and a strong one.  Put a little celery in a dish and it’s not too bad.  Put chunks in, as they do in chow mein, and it is overwhelming.  Insofar as I am concerned, when I eat chow mein, all I taste is celery.

I have a short list of such foods.  Green pepper is another.  Pimiento renders any a-la-king dish an exercise in eating pure pimiento.  There are a few more.

Originally, I assumed that other people just liked getting their taste buds flogged by overwhelming flavors.  But, as time passed, I asked myself if there might be another answer.  Perhaps, I theorized, it just didn’t taste the same to them as it did to me. Perhaps my mouth chemistry just overreacted to celery.  Perhaps I got a gust of flavor where other people just got a subtle tone.

One could, of course, have just assumed that I was the odd one out.  But it seemed more logical to ask if there was not a more general phenomenon hiding here.  Perhaps a lot of us have some food item that we find so repellant that we just can’t understand why other people eat it.

So I started a modest and unscientific survey.  After parties or social gatherings, when we were all sitting comfortably, I would drag out my problem, explain it, and ask everyone if there was some food that they knew other people enjoyed but that they found too strong or bad tasting to tolerate.

The response was nearly one hundred per cent.  Everyone seemed to have some item that they just couldn’t understand why anyone ate.  Often they would start by denying it, but, as the discussion moved along, they would say something like, “You know, I never really thought about it, but…”

Over time, I got enough results to think I had a reasonable sample.  One reason for that conclusion was that there was one food item that outscored all others in the how-can-they-eat-that category.  You don’t need as big a sample when one variable dominates.  In this case, there was one food that a surprising number of people found so bitter and strong tasting that they just can’t tolerate it.

Cucumbers.

Cucumbers?  Bitter?  Strong tasting?  Say what?

That was the other interesting fact.  People either felt that way about cucumbers or they couldn’t understand how anyone could possibly feel that way about cucumbers.

Which established, for me at any rate, that there was a significant variation in the “normal” response of our senses.

What about hearing?  One of the great universals, we are told is music.  Wherever you go, all around the world, you will find people enjoying and being influenced by music.  Well and good.  Despite variations in music systems, tonal definitions and harmonies, music is one of the true universals across our species.

But does music necessarily sound the same to everyone?  We know that there are significant biological variations in acuity.  But one could also make a pretty good case for hearing also being filtered by learned items such as culture and language.

Another search.

For starters, I decided to look at nonsense refrains.  These are the meaningless phrases we like to stick in songs (we’re back to “Fa la la la…”).  They are certainly based on no noticeable musical theory, but every culture has them.  Why do they sound appropriate to our ears?  And does that perception of rightness reach across linguistic and cultural lines?

Maybe, maybe not.  Truth is, after a bit of research, I found no way to get a definitive answer.

Certainly, there are similarities across cultures.  For instance, most of the countries I have been able to check seem to like that rich, full vowel sound.   It is very common.  There is the Irish “Whack-fol-lol-de-ra.” Or the Spanish “Ay, ay, ay, ay.” Or the German, “Ho-yo-to-ho“ (Wagner).  And so on.

But there is such a heavy subjective element to the whole thing.  There are other sounds that seem to be added just because they sound right to their listeners.  Sometimes they sound playful, like Tom Lehrer’s “Sing rickety tickety tin…”  Sometimes they are sad like the folk song, “Hey, ho, nobody home…”  Sometimes they are energizing, like the Happy Wanderer’s “Faleri falera faleri falera ha ha ha ha ha ha…”  (Which, by the way, could be “Valeri,” “Valderi,” or maybe even “Walderi”).  Problem is, there is so much overlap between countries that I couldn’t prove anything one way or the other.  Without some kind of baseline for comparison, how can one reach any conclusions?

Strike one.  Music was out.

But wait a minute.  Baseline…?  Hmmm.  You mean like something that would be the same input for everyone but…?  Like onomatopoeia?  How do the different cultures represent the non-language sounds they hear?

Okay, how about bells?  One would think that bells would sound just about the same to everyone.  Ergo, except for the obvious variations in what sounds our letters represent, bells should be transliterated into recognizably identical morphemes.

Got it?  No?  Okay, let me demonstrate.

All of us remember learning the children’s song Frere Jacques, although some of us might have learned it as Brother John.  Remember the syllables they had to represent bell sounds?  Turns out that versions of that song exist in every language I’ve checked.  In Italian he is Fra Martino.  In Czech he is Bratre Kubo.  In Polish he is Panie Janie.  Over the last few years I’ve collected over a dozen versions and I’m sure there are many more.  Having that collection already, I thought I could use it as a basis for comparison.

So.  Are they identical?  Recognizably based on the same sounds?  Well…  You be the judge.

In English, they are Ding, Ding, Dong (Or at least that’s how I learned it).  In French it is also Ding, Ding, Dong (of course, here you pronounce it with a French nasality).  In Danish it’s Bim, Bam, Bum.  In Finish it’s Piu, Pau, Pou.  In Romanian it’s Ding, Dang, Dong.

These are pretty darned close (I’m skipping the Czech, where the refrain is Vstavej Jiz. I don’t know what in the heck that means, but I don’t think it’s bells), but off enough to make you wonder.  I realized, rather too late, that all the songs in all the languages probably spread from a common base version, making similarities inevitable.

Strike two.

What we really want, then, is some identical sounds that everyone would hear more or less identically, but which they would have to learn to represent in speech independently rather than borrowing from their neighbors.

How about animal noises?  Those have to be pretty similar (unless one wants to believe that American pigs grunt in different tones from Russian pigs).  Imitating the sounds must occur pretty early in a culture’s life.  And how you represent them in your language must be some function of how you hear them.  Which means that they must reflect whatever differences language and culture impose on our hearing.

I looked around and found some representations of how different animals sound in different languages which I will reproduce below.  And I will leave it for you to judge.

But first, a few disclaimers.  I stole these, so I take no responsibility for the sometimes whimsical phonetics.  And yes, it was a bit anal building this table, but to be compulsive can sometimes also be useful.  Finally, there are those who will declare this whole exercise a complete waste of time.  So be it.  But at least, thanks to me,  you will now know how to grunt like a pig in Russian, quack like a duck in Japanese, and crow like a rooster in Swahili.

Don’t say I never gave you anything.

Listen!  Off in the distance you can hear tipsy, tin-eared people at Christmas parties warbling the notes of “Fa la la la la la la la la” in various new and creative keys.  Or, if you prefer, you can go shopping and hear the speakers endlessly repeating the same syllables in perfect harmony.

Now, I’m not complaining.  ‘Tis The Season and all that.  But the endless repetition of nonsense syllables (“Hey, ho, nobody home…”) around this time of year brings one to wonder: Why the heck “Fa la la la la la la la la?”

Just why do we human beings like to stick meaningless sounds into our songs?  And why do we repeat them?  Do all cultures and languages do it?  If they do, do they all add similar syllables or do they vary from place to place?

I ask those questions because we human beings tend to assume that because our senses are “natural” functions, we must all hear exactly the same sounds, smell the same smells, taste the same tastes, and see the same sights.

Maybe, but maybe not.

I know that I perceive a tartan plaid, say, differently than someone who is color blind.  I happen to have a friend who lacks the sense of taste (the nasal part; she gets the sweet, sour, etc. from the tongue), so I know food is different for her.  And I suspect all of us have known someone who is tone-deaf (a surprising number of whom persist in singing).

If normal human variations bring us these people who actually miss part of the sensory spectrum, does it really make sense to assume that all the rest perceive identically?  That there is no variation across the range we call “normal?”

I have a reason for asking these questions.  You see, every once in a while, I get one of these wild hairs.  A few years ago it was about food.  It happens that there are some foods that I just have trouble eating.  Chow Mein, for instance.  I watch other people obviously filled with enthusiasm while they down their chow mein and I just don’t get it.

For me the problem is celery.  To the rest of the world, celery is obviously a food.  I can tell this by how they eat it.  To me it is a seasoning…and a strong one.  Put a little celery in a dish and it’s not too bad.  Put chunks in, as they do in chow mein, and it is overwhelming.  Insofar as I am concerned, when I eat chow mein, all I taste is celery.

I have a short list of such foods.  Green pepper is another.  Pimiento renders any a-la-king dish an exercise in eating pure pimiento.  There are a few more.

Originally, I assumed that other people just liked getting their taste buds flogged by overwhelming flavors.  But, as time passed, I asked myself if there might be another answer.  Perhaps, I theorized, it just didn’t taste the same to them as it did to me. Perhaps my mouth chemistry just overreacted to celery.  Perhaps I got a gust of flavor where other people just got a subtle tone.

One could, of course, have just assumed that I was the odd one out.  But it seemed more logical to ask if there was not a more general phenomenon hiding here.  Perhaps a lot of us have some food item that we find so repellant that we just can’t understand why other people eat it.

So I started a modest and unscientific survey.  After parties or social gatherings, when we were all sitting comfortably, I would drag out my problem, explain it, and ask everyone if there was some food that they knew other people enjoyed but that they found too strong or bad tasting to tolerate.

The response was nearly one hundred per cent.  Everyone seemed to have some item that they just couldn’t understand why anyone ate.  Often they would start by denying it, but, as the discussion moved along, they would say something like, “You know, I never really thought about it, but…”

Over time, I got enough results to think I had a reasonable sample.  One reason for that conclusion was that there was one food item that outscored all others in the how-can-they-eat-that category.  You don’t need as big a sample when one variable dominates.  In this case, there was one food that a surprising number of people found so bitter and strong tasting that they just can’t tolerate it.

Cucumbers.

Cucumbers?  Bitter?  Strong tasting?  Say what?

That was the other interesting fact.  People either felt that way about cucumbers or they couldn’t understand how anyone could possibly feel that way about cucumbers.

Which established, for me at any rate, that there was a significant variation in the “normal” response of our senses.

What about hearing?  One of the great universals, we are told is music.  Wherever you go, all around the world, you will find people enjoying and being influenced by music.  Well and good.  Despite variations in music systems, tonal definitions and harmonies, music is one of the true universals across our species.

But does music necessarily sound the same to everyone?  We know that there are significant biological variations in acuity.  But one could also make a pretty good case for hearing also being filtered by learned items such as culture and language.

Another search.

For starters, I decided to look at nonsense refrains.  These are the meaningless phrases we like to stick in songs (we’re back to “Fa la la la…”).  They are certainly based on no noticeable musical theory, but every culture has them.  Why do they sound appropriate to our ears?  And does that perception of rightness reach across linguistic and cultural lines?

Maybe, maybe not.  Truth is, after a bit of research, I found no way to get a definitive answer.

Certainly, there are similarities across cultures.  For instance, most of the countries I have been able to check seem to like that rich, full vowel sound.   It is very common.  There is the Irish “Whack-fol-lol-de-ra.” Or the Spanish “Ay, ay, ay, ay.” Or the German, “Ho-yo-to-ho“ (Wagner).  And so on.

But there is such a heavy subjective element to the whole thing.  There are other sounds that seem to be added just because they sound right to their listeners.  Sometimes they sound playful, like Tom Lehrer’s “Sing rickety tickety tin…”  Sometimes they are sad like the folk song, “Hey, ho, nobody home…”  Sometimes they are energizing, like the Happy Wanderer’s “Faleri falera faleri falera ha ha ha ha ha ha…”  (Which, by the way, could be “Valeri,” “Valderi,” or maybe even “Walderi”).  Problem is, there is so much overlap between countries that I couldn’t prove anything one way or the other.  Without some kind of baseline for comparison, how can one reach any conclusions?

Strike one.  Music was out.

But wait a minute.  Baseline…?  Hmmm.  You mean like something that would be the same input for everyone but…?  Like onomatopoeia?  How do the different cultures represent the non-language sounds they hear?

Okay, how about bells?  One would think that bells would sound just about the same to everyone.  Ergo, except for the obvious variations in what sounds our letters represent, bells should be transliterated into recognizably identical morphemes.

Got it?  No?  Okay, let me demonstrate.

All of us remember learning the children’s song Frere Jacques, although some of us might have learned it as Brother John.  Remember the syllables they had to represent bell sounds?  Turns out that versions of that song exist in every language I’ve checked.  In Italian he is Fra Martino.  In Czech he is Bratre Kubo.  In Polish he is Panie Janie.  Over the last few years I’ve collected over a dozen versions and I’m sure there are many more.  Having that collection already, I thought I could use it as a basis for comparison.

So.  Are they identical?  Recognizably based on the same sounds?  Well…  You be the judge.

In English, they are Ding, Ding, Dong (Or at least that’s how I learned it).  In French it is also Ding, Ding, Dong (of course, here you pronounce it with a French nasality).  In Danish it’s Bim, Bam, Bum.  In Finish it’s Piu, Pau, Pou.  In Romanian it’s Ding, Dang, Dong.

These are pretty darned close (I’m skipping the Czech, where the refrain is Vstavej Jiz. I don’t know what in the heck that means, but I don’t think it’s bells), but off enough to make you wonder.  I realized, rather too late, that all the songs in all the languages probably spread from a common base version, making similarities inevitable.

Strike two.

What we really want, then, is some identical sounds that everyone would hear more or less identically, but which they would have to learn to represent in speech independently rather than borrowing from their neighbors.

How about animal noises?  Those have to be pretty similar (unless one wants to believe that American pigs grunt in different tones from Russian pigs).  Imitating the sounds must occur pretty early in a culture’s life.  And how you represent them in your language must be some function of how you hear them.  Which means that they must reflect whatever differences language and culture impose on our hearing.

I looked around and found some representations of how different animals sound in different languages which I will reproduce below.  And I will leave it for you to judge.

But first, a few disclaimers.  I stole these, so I take no responsibility for the sometimes whimsical phonetics.  And yes, it was a bit anal building this table, but to be compulsive can sometimes also be useful.  Finally, there are those who will declare this whole exercise a complete waste of time.  So be it.  But at least, thanks to me,  you will now know how to grunt like a pig in Russian, quack like a duck in Japanese, and crow like a rooster in Swahili.

Don’t say I never gave you anything.  (This table didn’t import worth a darn)

                                    Cat                        Rooster                          Dog                            Duck                               Pig

 

Arabic meow kookookoo-koo how-how quack-quack
Chinese miau goh-geh-goh-geh wang-wang gah-gah guain-guain
Dutch miauw kukeleku waf-waf kwakk-kwakk knor-knor
English meow cock-a-doodle-doo bow-wow quack-quack oink-oink
French miaou cocorico oauh-ouah guahn-guahn groin-groin
German miau kikerikee wau-wau unf-grunf
Greek miaou keekeereekoo ghav-ghav kouak-kouak
Hebrew miyau koo-koo-ri-koo
Italian miao chicchirichi
Japanese nyaa-nyaa ko-ke-kokkoh wan-wan gaa-gaa buu-buu
Korean ya-ong k’ok’iyo mung-mung k’wack-k’wack k’ul-k’uk
Portuguese miau cócórócócó ão-ão qua-qua oinc-oinc
Russian miau ku-ka-re-ku gav-gav krya-krya hura-hura
Spanish miau quiquiriqu’ hu-hu-hu-huu cua-cua oinc-oinc
Swahili kokorikoo koo vov-vov noeuf-noeuf
Swedish kuckeliku kvack-kvack

 

 

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