Zooglossia 4: Sheep Go “Baa” and an Absurd Etymology

My new ‘serious academic obsession’ has been Greek representations of animal sounds. So far, we have had goats, donkeys, and pigs. Now, sheep.

Aristophanes, fr. 642

“He is about to sacrifice me and he is telling me to say “baa”.”

θύειν <με> μέλλει καὶ κελεύει βῆ λέγειν.


Aelian, On Animals, 16.16

τῶν δὲ οἰῶν βληχή, “The bleating of sheep”


Hermippus, fr. 19



Suda, s.v. Βή (beta, 240)

Baa: This is the imitation of the sound of sheep—since Attic speakers do not say bai. Cratinus in his Dionysalexandros says “the last one walks forward saying “baa baa” like a sheep.”

Βή τὸ μιμητικὸν τῆς τῶν προβάτων φωνῆς, οὐχὶ βαὶ λέγουσιν Ἀττικοί. Κρατῖνος Διονυσαλεξάνδρῳ: ὁ δὴ λοίσθιος ὥσπερ πρόβατον βὴ βὴ λέγων βαδίζει.

Image result for Ancient Greek sheep


Perhaps one of the reasons the metonymic name probata stuck for sheep is that they “baa” in front (probata means to “walk in front”, from bainô).


Here’s Beekes on baaing and bleating:




5 thoughts on “Zooglossia 4: Sheep Go “Baa” and an Absurd Etymology

Leave a Reply