Why did Ylvis use the verb "go" instead of "say" in their 2013 pop song "What Does the Fox Say?"

Dog goes "woof."
Cat goes "meow."
Bird goes "tweet."

Is there some specific meaning for "go"?

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    @1006a Apparently it doesn't sound awkward to folks in Kentucky: books.google.com/books?id=YSEIPwp0RUsC&pg=PA61 Feb 23, 2019 at 21:28
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    @michael.hor257k I'm open to the possibility of dialect differences here, but I'm not sure I'd take the lyrics of an old folk song as evidence for what modern Kentuckians would find acceptable in speech.
    – 1006a
    Feb 23, 2019 at 21:31
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    I take it to say is to use language, otherwise to go is to make a sound.
    – Willtech
    Feb 24, 2019 at 0:47
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    Ylvis is Norwegian but that has nothing to do with it, it’s not lack of English skill that makes the song like this. It IS supposed to approximate how you teach a child an animal’s sound. It’s supposed to be funny. Feb 24, 2019 at 3:15
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    Oh, I was thinking Ylvis was Yiddish Elvis or something... Feb 24, 2019 at 17:21

10 Answers 10


"Say" applies to speech, and dogs, cats and birds can't speak. Which means "say" is the wrong word.

What would you place there instead? "Vocalizes"? Works for dogs, cats and birds, but what about a crickets and bees? They don't vocalize. How about "Emits" as the catch-all for animal noises? Way too collegiate.

There are often more specific verbs: The dog barks "Woof". OK so far. The bird tweets "Tweet". That's awkward. The cat coos "meow". Well, now we're adding meaning, since cooing suggests a different mental state than mewling or chirping (just read any mystery which involves cats trying to help).

This is a linguistic Gordian knot.

A relatively common, generic word like "Go" is about as good as this situation will get... and it's not so bad. It adds a bit of stylistic color to the language, and certainly specifies a level of formality (or to be more precise, informality). I wonder how a proper British butler would speak of it.

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    You mean "I wonder how a proper British butler would go of it."? J/K
    – Zano
    Feb 24, 2019 at 17:47
  • Dogs, cats, and birds communicate through vocalizations. On the flip side, humans can vocalize without deliberate communication, such as in response to a pain reflex. Compare "Bob said 'yoooww;' when he touched the live wire", versus "Bob let out a loud 'yoooww' when he touched the live wire. Somehow the former suggests an excessively calm and relaxed state of mind for someone who was getting zapped.
    – supercat
    Feb 24, 2019 at 22:15
  • @supercat a superlative conceptual improvement. Modified. Feb 24, 2019 at 23:17
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    also everything "goes" is much easier to fit in a song
    – WendyG
    Feb 25, 2019 at 15:48
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    But in the exact same song, Ylvis asks What does the fox say? So say is not "the wrong word." There is absolutely nothing wrong with using say for animals. There's nothing wrong with using go, either. Apr 13, 2019 at 11:34

Verbs with very broad meanings like do or go get the sense of "say" in many languages. English uses "go" to mean "say" in very informal speech. There are children's songs about animal sounds that use it in this way.

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    Yes, for example the "speak and say" toy uses "The [animal] goes:" almost as often as "The [animal] says:" (along with variations like "Do you hear the [animal]?" and "Here is a/an [animal]:"). And of course a stereotypical teenage conversation includes sentences like So then he goes "wait, what did the fox say?"
    – 1006a
    Feb 23, 2019 at 21:19

Dog goes "woof." Cat goes "meow." Bird goes "tweet."

Is there some specific meaning for "go"?

No, it's just a broad term marking an action. Much like A dog makes woof.

And A bomb goes boom is most definitely not a task of speaking - in fact, the use of go(es) is so unspecific, that here it could mean the sound as well as the explosion or the destruction.

Say, in contrast, includes the very specific meaning of speaking (or text to be read). It's usually not including animal sounds - unless in some transferred, poetic context (let the wind speak for example.)

The duality is found in next to all languages with Germanic roots - already found in 12th-century texts.

It could have as well been used in the upfront question (What does the fox say) as How does the Fox go except that usage of 'say' does explicity ask for a sound/word 'spoken' - not to mention that it's everyday kids' language :)

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    "A dog makes 'woof'" does not sound right to me. (The thing a dog makes gets picked up in little plastic bags by conscientious dog owners...)
    – mattdm
    Feb 24, 2019 at 17:25
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    For that matter, "How does the fox go?" also sounds odd — not native. In fact, I'd say you can't even ask "What does the fox go?", even though "The fox goes yelp" is a perfectly fine answer to "What does the fox say?" — context is very important in whether "go" is an acceptable stand-in for "say".
    – mattdm
    Feb 24, 2019 at 17:28
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    Not only in Germanic languages: in French there is "ça va", though it's application is not as wide as "go" in English.
    – rghome
    Feb 25, 2019 at 13:58
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    @Raffzahn Yes, but I'm quite certain about these. At least for American, British, and Australian speakers, with which I am most familiar
    – mattdm
    Feb 25, 2019 at 15:28
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    @Raffzahn What? No, I certainly do not. But, at the same time, you can't just make things up — it actually really does matter what sounds right to native speakers.
    – mattdm
    Feb 25, 2019 at 15:42

The pattern '[Animal] goes [sound]' was widely-popularized by the See 'n Say educational toy produced by Mattel since 1965.

I haven't seen any official confirmation that the artist was specifically inspired by this particular pop culture gem, however.

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    It's funny, I had one of these and I was sure it was 'the foo says bar' so I watched some videos and it's both. For some animals is 'says' and other's it's 'goes'. Some don't follow the form at all.
    – JimmyJames
    Feb 25, 2019 at 20:58

The MacMillan Dictionary gives many definitions of "go"; one of them is "to make a particular sound, especially the typical sound of a particular animal." "Go" would also apply to the sound of an inanimate object: for example, "toot goes the whistle" or "clang goes the bell." In those cases "says" might be understood, but "goes" is more natural.


One of Oxford English Dictionary's definitions for go is:

Make a sound of a specified kind. Example: "The engine went bang."

As far as I know, this is not a colloquialism, it is the verb to use in the case when a sound, but not speech is the direct object.

It can also be used to in reported speech, usually informally. Bit hard to find examples of this use, as you still get all the more common uses of "go", but here's an example from a Snow Patrol interview:

The producer said, ‘Well okay, tape rolling,’ and we started — and then he went, ‘What was that Nathan was playing? That was much better,’ so we had to change the whole song.

Dogs, cats and birds cannot say anything, because they cannot speak, thus the only verb that really makes sense here is "go". I don't think this is stylistic, or a very recent innovation, as some answers seem to imply.


Personal experience here, but I can say that growing up in the US Midwest in the 1980s, it was absolutely common for kids my age to say “goes” as a substitute for “says”. Drove my mom nuts, but we did it.

I believe (and thought so at the time) that it has to do with the idea that you’re not simply reciting the person’s words, but imitating their mannerisms as well. How they said it, not just what they said.


I don't think that Ylvis paid any special attention to what verb they used for their narration of animal sounds (unless they aren't good English speakers - can anyone confirm/deny?). It's simply a different way to say "says", albeit less formal. I doubt there was any special intent to create comedic effect out of "dog goes woof" beyond the rather ridiculous idea of including nursery-rhyme-esque statements in their lyrics. The verb "to go" here is nothing special. "Dog says woof" would have been just as acceptable.


I’d argue yes, whilst it’s not a strict rule there is a specific case in play here where it’s normal.

Particularly with children, it’s a common way of expressing characteristic (actions/)sounds that may or may not be spoken words, including animal sounds.

So it’d be normal to say “the dog goes woof” to a child.

“Goes” obviously broader than sounds - in the song “wheels on the bus”, the “wheels go round and round”, the “baby goes wah wah wah”, and the “daddy goes shh read the paper” (at least in the version sung locally!). But it’s commonly used of characteristic actions or noises.

The lyrics of the song in question have the feel of a children’s conversation/question (part of the quirky appeal of it), so “goes” is normal to express the characteristic noises of the animals. The question is then phrased “what does the fox say?” Which - despite “say” not being entirely accurate, is the natural way to ask this of a child, as “what does the Fox go?” Or “how does the Fox go?” Are not as clear as to what is being asked.

We also see “goes” used of speech in phrases like “he was going on and on”, or “he was going on about English grammar”. However, using it of reported speech would be considered incorrect (in standard EN-GB at least).


go verb (NOISE)

to produce a noise:

I think I heard the doorbell go (= ring) just now.
I wish my computer would stop going "beep" whenever I do something wrong.

Source: Cambridge Dictionary

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    The same definition has already been given, Jalene. The whole question is in fact a duplicate. Dec 27, 2019 at 15:49

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