Old Mac Donald had a farm

“Old MacDonald had a farm” is known and sung all around the world. This song is particularly famous for his animal sounds. It’s quite amusing to see how each language interprets these sounds: most of the time it seems that the animals themselves “speak” different languages too.

In Japan, onomatopoeia (giseigo 擬声語 ) are very often used. There are two different types: “real” onomatopoeia (giongo 擬音語) and mimesis (gitaigo 擬態語). Giongo is a transcription of the sound you actually hear, while gitaigo is a sound to express your actions of feelings. Because we don’t really have gitaigo in our language, it’s rather difficult to understand or to translate. An example of gitaigo is “gatagata” ガタガタ. It means that something is unstable. That can be literally (you’re trembling) or mental (the situation is unstable). Both types are often written in katakana カタカナ (one of the writing systems). Onomatopoeia may sound a bit childish to us (“the dog says woof!”) but are regarded as accomplished in Japan, because it’s difficult to master these sounds at a young age. Also, it enables you to put more feeling in your speech.

Let’s take a look at Old MacDonald’s animals. I thought it would be nice to compare three languages: Japanese, English and Dutch, my native language. The transcription of the katakana is written between brackets. The letters with a hyphen on top should be pronounced as long vowels.

animal Japanese English Dutch
duck ガーガー(gāgā) quack kwak
cow モーモー(mōmō) moo meuh
dog ワンワン(wanwan) woof or bow-wow woef
chicken コケコッコ(kokekokku) cluck or cackle tok
pig ブーブー(būbū) oink knor
goose ガーガー(gāgā) goble gak
horse ヒヒーン(hihīn) neigh hihihihi
donkey makes no sound in Japan… hee-haw ia ia
sheep メーメー(mēmē) bleat bèh or mèh

There are still some animals left on Noah’s ark:

animal Japanese English Dutch
bird ピチュピチュ(pichupichu) tweet piep or *whistle sound*
bee ブーン(būn) buzz zzz
bear グオー(guō) growl grr
dove ポッポッ(poppo) coo-coo roekoe
rooster コケコッコー(kokekokkō) cock-a-doodle-doo kukeleku
cat ニャンニャン(nyannyan) mew miauw
frog ゲロゲロ(gerogero) ribbit kwaak
cicade ジージー(jījī) chirp tsjirp
crow カーカー(kākā) croak kra
owl ホー(hō) hoot oehoe
wolf ワオーン(waōn) howl woehoe
mouse チューチュー(chūchū) squeak piep
tiger ガオー(gaō) roar graw
monkey キーキー(kīkī) gibber oe oe

Now try to guess the animals in the Japanese version of Old Mac Donald: yukaina makiba ゆかいな牧場, meaning “happy farm”. If you’re singing along, watch out for the modulation between the strophes.

 Facts for fun

– In yukaina makiba, there are two farmers: Ichiro and Jiro.

– There is no Dutch version of this song. In primary school, we used to sing this in English.

– The sound of rain has many onomatopoeia in Japanese. Which one to use depends on the heaviness. For example: zāzā ザーザー for heavy rain, potsupotsu ポツポツ for rain drops.

– You can test your Japanese animal sound knowledge on nciku.


– xamuel

– again blog tofogu

–  blog kapanikki, for the image.


3 thoughts on “Old Mac Donald had a farm

  1. During my introduction to Japanese language, I was delighted to discover that a Japanese dog says ‘wan wan’. It sounds so understated compared to Dutch dog sounds. Typically Japanese ^_^

    My favourite gitaigo is ‘giri giri’.

    • Thank you! We have the same saying here in West Flanders (“de koe zegt boe”), but if we want to imitate a cow, we say “meuh”. We will never know what the exact sound is a cow makes… 🙂

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s