The main characters in my book are all animals, and I'm writing the first scene that takes place in a large group. Recently I've come across several instances where I need to use a word similar to "people" The words "animals" and "critters" feel strange.
So I through the word "people" into thesurus.com and it came back with, among other things:
- Herd - Could be that the collective body of sentient animals use "herd" as a general term (i.e. We the Herd of the United States of Animals).
- Individuals Animal groupings - Similar to Herds, except that different animals are given different words for a group of them. These could be used for different species in similar concept to group peoples of different ethnicities or nationalities (I.E. The Herds (of Elephants), the Murders (of Crows), the Pods (of Whales), Troops (of Gorillas), the Congresses (of Baboons))
- The Public - AKA the general meaning of "people" in legal language (i.e. Just about any time the word "people" exists in the Original Draft of the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights, it's understood that it means "the public". Citizens might also be a good sub here.
- The Multitude - A bit more biblical in use, but "the will of the multitude" is essentially the same as the "people".
- The People - While "people" generally means "human beings" it more historically means "the public or citizenry" of a given area or the community of such. As real life only has humans as the single animal capable of having citizenship or rights in general rule, it tends to be another word for human. However, if hypothetically Dogs were suddenly raised to the level of human intelligence and had the ability to speak English, "people" could cover the part of the public that is non-human. It should be pointed out that people are not the plural of person (which is usually an individual and in the plural is persons). People is a singular collective body and multiple collective bodies are peoples (i.e. The people of a nation are one of the peoples of the world). Thus, if this was a Zootopia like situation, a large and diverse crowd of different types of animal citizens would constitute the people of Zootopia.
I guess the answer may depend whether you're going for a Jungle Books kind of story or Narnia.
If it's the Jungle Books type, meaning the animals are portrayed mostly as actual animals, then you may want to call them either "animals", or by their species (e. g. "wolves"), or by some workaround description ("dwellers of the jungle"), and that's pretty much it.
If it's more like Narnia and the animals are heavily human-like, then you can still call them any of the above, but your options now also include "people", demonyms ("Narnians"), and other human-like terms. If your characters are, for all intents and purposes, people, there's nothing wrong with calling them just that (and the reason why I'm not sure if Lewis ever does is that I wouldn't notice anything out of ordinary about it). But it isn't the only possibility. IIRC My Little Pony (in which the characters are all animals, both existing and mythological) uses the term "creatures" when they want to be species-inclusive.
Any choice is possible and probably has been done before. The only question is what fits your worldbuilding and the tone of your story. If it sounds off to you because it doesn't really match, then you should reconsider. If you're worried it will sound odd to the reader, stop worrying - if it works in the context, they'll accept it. If your world works differently from the real one, then the words describing how that world works should be different as well.
In the Redwall books, the many different species have the same problem. The author chose to not use the word 'people' to describe the collective of intelligent animal kind. But at times the creatures of Redwall and their surrounding communities needed to band together, the characters would make their appeals based on geography
Now is the time for all good Redwallers to come to the aid of their fellow Redwallers
I made that up. Brain Jacques didn't say that exact thing. But something kind of like that. Sometimes it was the Mossy Woods. A broad general appeal to all species that could understand the language -- the Lingua Furry, so to speak.
Obviously, there are other commonalities that could be used but they are more segregating: creatures of the air for those that fly, creatures of the water for those that swim. They don't fit what you are asking, but they seem kind of relevant.
Another idea, is to analyze the culture of your creatures since language reflects culture. Ideas on these lines might be how do they collectively self-identity? Do prey species and predators live in separate communities? If so that suggests a linguistic differentiation. The prey species might see themselves as Gentle folk and see the predators as Teeth or Tearers -- pun intended.
In George Orwell's Animal Farm, the animals speak of themselves as "animals".
If animals had their own language in which they discussed politics and social life, they would of course have their own word for themselves. Or rather, like humans, they would very likely have several words for themselves, just like humans. We can refer to ourselves as human beings, men (though that word has fallen a bit out of fashion as a generic term lately), people, folk, and so on. Other languages have other words, not all of which have the exact same meaning as the English words, but they cover similar areas of the same semantic field.
If animals had their own language, and we wanted to translate what they said (or wrote) into a human language, the process would be much like translating from, say, German to English.
Let us look at an example to understand how translating between human languages works. The word by which the Germans refer to themselves is Deutsche. In a famous speech in the German Reichstag in 1888, Otto von Bismarck said of his compatriots: "Wir Deutschen fürchten Gott, aber sonst nichts in der Welt." If you wanted to translate that sentence using the word that the Germans use to refer to themselves, you would have to write: "We Dutch fear God, but nothing else in the world." Because Dutch is the English word that was derived from the German word deutsch. Unfortunately, the word Dutch doesn't mean "a person from Germany" in English at all, but "a person from the Netherlands". So that doesn't work. But maybe we can use an English word that has the same literal meaning as the German word? Deutsch is derived from a word that means "people". So we could translate Bismarck's famous sentence as: "My people fear God..." or "This nation fears God..." That's certainly close to what Bismarck means, but what nation does he speak of? Who are his people? Those translations are ambiguous and don't have the same impact as the German original. Okay, so can we use the German word itself? For many peoples we no longer use the English words but use the words that those peoples use in their own language. For example, we have come to avoid the term Eskimo and call the indigenous people of the northern arctic region by a word they use in their own language, Inuit. We could do the same for the Germans: "We Deutsche fear nothing..." But not many English readers would understand what that sentence means. We would have to establish that word in the English language, first, or provide a list of foreign words at the beginning or end of our translated book. Wouldn't it be much easier to simply use the word that we already have available to refer to Germans in English? That translation is the most exact and easiest to understand: "We Germans fear God, but nothing else in the world."
The same considerations would apply to a translation from some animal language to English. Using the English word "animal" seems to be the most obvious choice in most circumstances.
Why not simply use that?
Additional arguments against using a word from an animal language when writing in English:
Different species of animals (and different populations within one species) would likely speak different languages. It is implausible that all animals speak the same language. Therefore, there will be many different words for "animal" in the different animal tongues. Which one would you give preference to and why?
Animal languages would likely be unpronouncable for humans. How would you represent barking, twittering or other animal speeches using the letters of a human alphabet?