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:




Zooglossia 3: Grunting with Pigs

I fear I am at once Geta and his grammarian. For installment number three of ancient Greek animal sounds, it is time for some swine.

Historia Augusta: Geta 5.4-5 (thanks again to‏ @Stevendsmith74)

“It was [Geta’s] habit to pose questions to grammarians, for instance, how they might name the way various animals make sounds: sheep bleat, pigs grunt, doves coo, boars grunt, boars growl, lions roar, leopards sneer, elephants sound horns, frogs croak, horses whinny, donkeys bray, bulls low. He would prove each of these with ancient writers.”

Familiare illi fuit has quaestiones grammaticis proponere, ut dicerent singula animalia quomodo vocem emitterent, velut: agni balant, porcelli grunniunt, palumbes minurriunt, porci grunniunt, ursi saeviunt, leones rugiunt, leopardi rictant, elephanti barriunt, ranae coaxant, equi hinniunt, asini rudunt,1 tauri mugiunt, easque de veteribus adprobare.

It seems likely to me that Ancient Greek pigs said  γρῦ γρῦ


goggrusai: to make noise like a pig”

γογγρύσαι· ὡς χοῖρος φωνῆσαι

“The noise of a pig

γρύλλη· ὑῶν φωνή

Cf. Photius gogggruzein and grulizein: “swine sounds”

 Γογγρύζειν καὶ γρυλίζειν· ἡ τῶν ὑῶν φωνή. [cf. Zonaras]

Schol ad Ar. Pl. 22

“Who says “oink”—this is either from the sound of pigs or from trash [grutê, small bits, inconsequential things].

… ὃς γρῦ λέγεται· ἢ  ἀπὸ τῆς τῶν χοίρων φωνῆς ἢ ἀπὸ τῶν γρυτῶν·

An ancient Greek toy pig (c. 4th century BCE?) on the auction block at Christies

Zonaras does not seem to agree completely, but he does have: “grullos, a pig”. Γρύλλος. ὁ χοῖρος

Later, he says, “gru: something brief. a chance. Some say it is the filth beneath a nail or a type of small measure.”

Γρῦ. τὸ βραχὺ, τὸ τυχόν. ἔνιοι δὲ τὸν ἀπὸ τῶν ὀνύχων ῥύπον ἢ εἶδος μικροῦ νομίσματος

Zenobius Sophista, 5.54

“Among Attic speakers gru is used to describe something small and accidental. For they call both the dirt under a fingernail gru and the bric-a-brac of a home grutaria. The man who sells the bric-a-brac is a grutopolos.”

     Εἴρηται δὲ καὶ παρὰ τοῖς ᾿Αττικοῖς τὸ γρῦ ἐπὶ τοῦ μικροῦ καὶ τοῦ τυχόντος. Καὶ γὰρ τὸν ἐν τοῖς ὄνυξι ῥύπον λέγουσι γρῦ, καὶ γρυτάρια τὰ κατὰ τὴν οἰκίαν λεπτὰ σκευάρια, καὶ γρυτοπώλην τὸν τὰ σκευάρια πωλοῦντα.

This and the Suda preserve the proverb “Dion’s Grunt”, for something small and incidental” Τὸ Δίωνος γρῦ, ἐπὶ τοῦ μικροῦ καὶ τυχόντος

Here’s Beekes on this

gru gru

Zooglossia 2: What’s With the Donkey’s Bray?

This is a second entry in a totally unnecessary series of posts about the representation of animal sounds in Ancient Greek.


Ongkêthmos: the cry of a donkey”

ὀγκηθμός· κραυγὴ ὄνου

Earlier today I tweeted about this

I have been thinking about the ‘reconstruction’ of animal noises from verbs that represent them–here ὀγκάομαι, like many alpha-contract verbs is denominative. So, I figured I could just reconstruct a ὀγκ- ὀγκ to represent donkey sounds based on the abstract noun above and the verb form. Beekes is not completely down with that:


I don’t know if I can resist believing that this verb is zoophonetic (based on the animal sound). Even if it does have another etymology, that does not mean that it was not adapted to this context because of a serendipitous similarity to the donkey’s bray…

There are some other details about donkey sounds that are, perhaps, worth knowing.


brômasthai: ongkasthai: this is used for donkey speech. Ongkasthai is also used, but that is more infrequent.”

Βρωμᾶσθαι. ὀγκᾶσθαι. ἐπὶ ὄνου δὲ λέγουσι τοῦτο. λέγεται καὶ ὀγκᾶσθαι ἐπὶ ὄνου, ἀλλὰ σπάνιον τοῦτο.

LSJ lists βρωμάομαι, “to bray” (cf. Lat. Rudere) as onomatopoetic

Photius distinguishes between them

brômasthai: this is the braying of a hungry donkey. Also, brôma. This is the sound itself.”

Βρωμᾶσθαι· τὸ ὀγκᾶσθαι πεινῶντα ὄνον. καὶ βρῶμα· ἡ φωνὴ αὕτη.

Moeris asserts that the former is Attic and the latter is general Greek.

File:Kylix by Epiktetos showing an aroused Satyr mounting a donkey which is also aroused, ca. 510 BC, Museum of the Ancient Agora, Athens, Greece (14103090773).jpg
510 BCE, Museum of the Ancient Agora, Athens