Monday, February 08, 2016

A frog blog

Quick: what sound does a frog make?

If you're a native English speaker and your first response was some variant of "ribbit," you're not alone. "Ribbit" (spelling variations include "riddip" and "knee-deep") has become the standard frog sound in the United States and many other parts of the world. American children are taught from infancy the sound a frog makes, right along with "the cow says moo" and "the cat says meow."

And yet, in so many ways, "the frog says ribbit" is demonstrably inaccurate. Cows everywhere make similar lowing sounds, and in almost every language the sound a cat makes is some recognizable variant of "meow." But frogs the world over make a plethora of different calls -- everything from the piping "coqui" of a Puerto Rican frog to the squeeze-toy "squeak" of a desert rain frog to the booming "hummm" of a bullfrog to the flatulent-sounding call of a White's tree frog. Frogs yell, whistle, gulp, sing, scream like babies, and make noises that can only partially be approximated in written language.

In fact, there's only one species of frog that makes the "ribbit" noise: Pseudacris regilla, the Pacific tree frog (and the official state amphibian of Washington). When some early Hollywood sound designers (the people responsible for putting all those fantastic background noises into movies) needed a "croaking frog" sound for a film, they went out and recorded some local frogs -- who just happened to be P. regilla males doing their advertising calls. And because that singular P. regilla "ribbit ribbit" noise was clear and distinct and really couldn't be mistaken for anything other than a frog, other sound designers began to use it too. It didn't take very long until "ribbit" was virtually the only frog sound to be heard in Hollywood films (unless they were nature documentaries).

Pacific tree frog photo by The High Fin Sperm Whale.
Borrowed from Wikimedia.
So why do I bring all this up, other than for general Useless Trivia enrichment purposes?

Well, it just struck me as odd that Hollywood tends to use a single sound it deems "the one true frog sound" when frog species all over the world make hundreds of different sounds. And they're no less frogs because they don't say "ribbit."

It also strikes me as odd when Hollywood tries to define maybe a dozen different standardized looks as "beautiful" when there are innumerable, unique ways for human beings to be filled with beauty. If you don't happen to fit a narrowly-defined beauty standard and you are beginning to believe that makes you unworthy, think about it: are you going to let the same people who pretend every frog on earth says "ribbit" try to tell you what beautiful is?

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