What Does the Fox Say? Onomatopoeia & the myth of pure language

This weekend my sons have been belting out lines from the Norwegian duo Ylvis’s viral video, “What Does the Fox Say?” Fortunately, a student in my seminar had introduced me to the video last week, so I was able to impress my sons by joining in. “You know that song?” Zac asked incredulously, to which I replied, “Joff-tchoff-tchoffo-tchoffo-tchoff!”

Like 3 million others, I found the video to be funny and infectious—an irresistible sing-along song the likes of which I haven’t enjoyed since my girl-scouting days. As Devon Maloney points out in Underwire, the song doesn’t just get stuck in your head, it messes with your head, raising existential questions that have troubled philosophers and poets for centuries:

Like, “Why am I still hopelessly stuck on the insanely catchy clutches of a song about animal noises?” and “Should I be reevaluating my own understanding of animal noises? Do elephants really go … “toot”? And of course, the most important question of all: “Wait, seriously, what sound does a fox make?”

According to my other son Luke, “We actually know what a fox says, Mom. It screams, and it sounds a lot like a human scream.”

Such an empirical solution to the song’s driving question may satisfy the scientifically minded, but it doesn’t solve the song’s semiotic mystery. “What does the fox say?” is not about animals that sound like humans, but about humans trying to sound like animals, or more precisely, humans trying to come up with words to represent animal sounds. The song captures our love affair with onomatopoeia, words that sound like the thing they refer to or describe. Animal noises are some of the most common onomatopoetic words and are often the first words acquired by babies, who learn to say “moo” and “quack” almost as soon as they say “mama” and “dada.” (The video’s scenes of an elderly man reading to a child seem particularly instructive here.) Part of what’s funny and pleasurable about the “What Does the Fox Say?” video is that adults at a cocktail party, champagne tulips in hand, are indulging in an infantile urge to mimic the animal world.

What makes the video even funnier is that the adults don’t really look like the animals they represent. This is not the cast of Cats, whose feline purring, pawing, and rubbing suggest a more disturbingly adult form of zoophilia. Rather, in the children’s picture-book world of “What Does the Fox Say?” the humans are clearly human. By the time the elephant man descends from the porch saying, “toot,” we recognize that his “toot” resembles an elephant about as much as his costume does, which is to say: not much. The animal costumes and sounds in “What Does the Fox Say?” are mimetic not of real animals, but of the simplified, cartoon-like icons that we use to represent animals.

In this way, “What Does the Fox Say?” delivers a sophisticated language lesson. It highlights the human desire for a pure language, in which words magically correspond to the things they represent. Yet it also exposes the myth of pure language. Linguists like Saussure teach us that language is arbitrary—that words have no innate connection to the things they represent. There’s nothing particularly catlike about the word “cat.” Instead, “cat” refers to a cat because it is not a “bat” or a “hat.” Similarly, the words “neigh” and “horse” are no closer to the equus feras than they would be if spelled out in “morse” code (here again, the video seems uncannily wise in asking if a h0-0-0-0rse would recognize its name in mo-0-0rse code). Words acquire meaning through their system in a chain of signifiers, not because of any innate connection to the things they represent. Because onomatopoeic words differ across languages (a dog says “ouah-ouah” in French and “kien-kien” in Japanese), we know that even these “sound-alike” terms conform to linguistic codes rather than to natural sounds.

Still from What Does the Fox Say videoOnomatopoeia comes from the Greek words for name + making. It reflects the basic human urge to name things—to capture and communicate the essence of things. Yet term’s root exposes the problem: we make the names; we don’t find or discover them. Although we want to know things as they are, our efforts to name them are mere approximations. Still the drive to know and name remains strong. “What is your sound… Will we ever know,” the lead singer croons, lamenting (or perhaps celebrating) that what the fox says “will always be a mystery.” In this way, the video really does entertain existential questions that philosophers and poets have been pondering for centuries.

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