But Seriously, What Does the Fox Say?

“The secret of the fox, ancient mystery…” The Norwegian duo Ylvis, which consists of the brothers Vegard and Bård Ylvisåker, must be overjoyed to see that their newest video clip, named ‘The Fox’, has now become a viral hit after having been viewed nearly 250 million times in the last three weeks. Besides the catchy melody of the song and the hilarious animated fox that sings and dances like a grown-up man in the video, ‘The Fox’ also draws attention to a reasonably significant issue: “What does the fox say?”

To begin with, let’s define the word ‘onomatopoeia’. According to Merriam-Webster, it is “the naming of a thing or action by a vocal imitation of the sound associated with it” – in other words, the use of words whose sound suggests the sense. In this case, we are going to focus on one type of onomatopoeia: animal noises. Many parents teach their children about what certain animals “say”, especially if they wish to make them imitate these sounds. For example, a dog barks as ‘woof’, a frog says ‘ribbit’ and the pig goes ‘oink’. (Well, in my case these were ‘vau-vau’, ‘brekeke’ and ‘röf-röf’, but let’s stick with English for now!) Familiar? Then we’re on the right track.

But here’s the sad part: despite most of us being aware of what a fox’s bark sounds like, the English language has no commonly used word to imitate the sound. “What is your sound? Will we ever know? Will always be a mystery… What do you say?” Like Ylvis, I am also curious to know the answer to these questions. So what are we waiting for? Let’s start researching!

After having read over 15 articles about foxes and listened to just as many recordings of their bark, I believe I’ve found the answer. And although I had my own suggestions, including ‘ruff-ruff’ and ‘ow-ow-ow’, an article on Wired.com seems to be at least a step ahead of me. The authors found a number of field recordings from the Macaulay Library at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, which allowed them to study the barks of several different species of fox. Here’s a brief summary of the possible vocalisations they have come up with:

The red fox “is clearly employing a low-key version of Chacha-chacha-chacha-chow.” Arctic foxes “sounds more than a little reminiscent of Wa-po-po-po-po-po-pow.” And finally, the scream of the common read fox is interpreted as “a climactic A-oo-oo-oo-ooo.” It’s worth having a look at the article as it provides the samples in the form of audio files.

The article’s message, according to which the onomatopoeias proposed in the song may even be accurate, has therefore been backed up with some rather surprising evidence! The first time I watched the clip I assumed that there was some irony in the chorus, as the vocalisations that Ylvis, their friends and a weird grandpa demonstrated had nothing to do with the bark of a fox. But let’s have a look at them again:

  • “Chacha-chacha-chacha-chow” – red fox?
  • Wa-po-po-po-po-po-pow” – arctic fox?
  • “A-oo-oo-oo-ooo” – common grey fox?

I know, Wired.com obviously came up with these words – if you can call them that – because they are featured in the video, but it’s still quite surprising that they act as almost accurate “transcriptions” of the recorded barks. I’m not sure about “Gering-ding-ding-ding-ringerdingering…” Yes, I’ve found the irony! As for the realistic ones, Ylvis seems to have done the research beforehand.

I may be taking this too far, but in my opinion this collection of proposed vocalisations could not be a mere coincidence. They seem to be carefully selected, with each one (except the above mentioned “Gering-ding-ding-ding-ringerdingering”) being reasonably close to the natural sounds of our red-furred friends. Maybe the brothers are trying to imply that the same animal noise can be formed into numerous different onomatopoeias. My evidence for this is that the duo originates from Norway, so they must have gone through the experience of being exposed to completely different interpretations of the sounds in a foreign-language environment, and they must be aware of the fact that not many onomatopoeias are cross-cultural. Is each “word” supposed to represent a different culture of the world? What does the fox say in your language?

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One thought on “But Seriously, What Does the Fox Say?

  1. Pingback: Best of 2013 – The 15 most popular articles of the year | I wish to be a polyglot!

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