Farm Animals: a Pronunciation Guide

Animals have a prominent place in language with many expressions and sounds originating from their behaviour. Here we pronounce the words, noises and expressions associated with them in English, though be warned: it’s mooving!


Sheep. /ˈʃiːp/

Sheep BLEAT /ˈbliːt/ and the onomatopoeic sound they make is BAA /ˈbɑː/ like in the nursery rhyme ‘Baa Baa Black Sheep’, but English speakers may actually say [baː], [bɛː] or [bɑː] with a vibrating throat.

A female SHEEP is a EWE /ˈjuː/, which is a homophone with YOU, you know? A male is a RAM /ˈræm/, whilst a baby is a LAMB /ˈlæm/ with a silent ‘b’ like in THUMB /ˈθʌm/ and NUMB /ˈnʌm/ . SHEEP is famous in English pronunciation for its relationship with SHIP /ˈʃɪp/, which isn’t really about vowel length (see this article for explanation).

When somebody looks sheepish they are slightly embarrassed. If you make sheep’s eyes at somebody, you look like an amorous idiot, likewise if you follow the crowd like a flock of sheep then you are an idiot. Your doctor, who hopefully isn’t an idiot, may tell you to count sheep jumping over a fence if you suffer from insomnia. 

Cow. /ˈkaʊ/

Cows LOW /ˈləʊ/, but nobody ever talks about LOWING, because everybody uses the onomatopoeic verb MOO /ˈmuː/, which sounds much better, listen. 

A COW /ˈkaʊ/, also known as a [kaː] in London, a [kuː] in Scotland, and a [kɛʊ] in the West Country, is strictly speaking female, the male being a BULL /ˈbʊɫ/. A baby cow is a CALF /ˈkɑ:f/, with a silent ‘l’ like in HALF /ˈhɑːf/ and CALM /ˈkɑːm/.

When someone calls you a cow, you probably haven’t been very nice to them. If you have a cow in American English, you are in a bad mood, in Britain we prefer the phrase to have kittens which has a similar meaning. You should never wait until the cows come home if you’re in a hurry, because cows never come home. If you are male and you possess unusually large genitalia, people may say that you are hung like a bull. They would be talking bull or even bullshit if it weren’t true, though. In situations where there is confusion and a lack of control, it’s a good idea to take the bull by the horns even if there is no bull in sight. 

Horse. /ˈhɔːs/

Horses WHINNY /ˈwɪni/, though the onomatopoeic verb and noun is NEIGH /ˈneɪ/. When they move, they TROT /ˈtrɒt/ on their hooves (plural of hoof), making a CLIP-CLOP noise which phonetically is a voiceless alveolar click, the symbol for which is an exclamation mark [!]!

HORSE /ˈhɔːs/ is pronounced with a silent ‘r’ and is a homophone for HOARSE – how you sound when you have a sore throat. The male also goes by the name of STALLION /ˈstæliən/ or GELDING /ˈgeɫdɪŋ/, whilst the female is a MARE /ˈmeə/, not to be confused with the identical sounding MAYOR and the informal abbreviation of NIGHTMARE, ‘MARE.

Everybody knows that horses hate gossip, so when you hear it straight from the horse’s mouth, it’s first-hand information. The expressions horses for courses and its less popular chiasmus courses for horses are used to refer to the fact that everyone has different needs and tastes; some racehorses perform better on certain courses, for example. It’s generally not advisable to flog a dead horse because this means you are wasting time on something that will give you nothing in return…. like when you hit a deceased horse, obviously.

Pig. /ˈpɪg/

Pigs SNORT /ˈsnɔːt/, GRUNT /ˈgrʌnt/ and SQUEAL /ˈskwiːɫ/. Their onomatopoeic sound is an OINK /ˈɔɪŋk/, but people often snort through the nose.

A baby PIG /ˈpɪg/ goes by the name of PIGLET /ˈpɪglət/. The male is a BOAR /ˈbɔː/, which is a homophone of BORE, but it’s a HOG /ˈhɒg/ if it’s been castrated, ouch. An adult female pig is a SOW /ˈsaʊ/, not to be confused with its homograph SOW /ˈsəʊ/, meaning to scatter seeds, which itself is not to be confused with homophones SEW/ˈsəʊ/, an action involving a needle and thread, and SO /ˈsəʊ/, so there.

When someone calls you a pig, you are either eating too much, or being selfish. Try not to make a pig’s ear of something as it means you have done a very poor job. Pig’s can’t actually fly, but if someone says pigs can fly then they are ironically suggesting that something is impossible. Tapping into the erroneous preconception that pigs are dirty, is the informal and somewhat vulgar expression happy as a pig in shit which is used to describe a state of sublime happiness. 

Chicken. /ˈtʃɪkɪn/

CHICKEN /ˈtʃɪkɪn/ is pronounced with /ɪ/ in both syllables, like WOMEN /ˈwɪmɪn/. The female is a HEN /ˈhen/, the male is a COCK /ˈkɒk/ or COCKEREL /ˈkɒkrəɫ/, and the baby is a CHICK /ˈtʃɪk/.

Hens CLUCK /ˈklʌk/, though there is no official English onomatopoeic word for this, BAWK /ˈbɔːk/ or BWOK /ˈbwɒk/ might unofficially work. English cocks do have their own onomatopoeic word, they say COCK-A-DOODLE-DO /ˌkɒkəduːdɫˈduː/.

Chick is an informal and generally demeaning word for a woman, whilst cock is an informal and insulting word for a man. A chicken is a person of either gender, who is scared of doing something, an expression also found in the phrasal verb to chicken out. It’s a mistake to count your chicken’s before they’ve hatched because things could always go wrong, at which point you may run around like a headless chicken which is a very random way to move indeed. If you’re not sure which of two things came first, you might say chicken and egg, though the logic behind this is not clear, as the egg clearly did come first, even if it wasn’t laid by a chicken.

Please share animal noises and expressions from other languages in the comments section below. Moochas Gracias!