August 24, 2006

Where are moo from?

Below is an email from John Wells, sent in response to my query about the great outpouring of cow-dialect stories.

Experts have backed a claim by Somerset dairy farmers that cows moo with a regional accent. The phenomenon was noticed by members of the West Country Farmhouse Cheesemakers group, who put it down to the close bond between farmer and cow. The group also noted similar accent shifts in Midlands, Essex, Norfolk and Lancashire moos. John Wells, Professor of Phonetics at the University of London, said: "This phenomena is well attested in birds. You find distinct chirping accents in the same species around the country."

What I actually said was "This phenomenon...", but no matter. The words put into my mouth continue.

"This could also be true of cows. In small populations such as herds you would encounter identifiable dialectical variations which are most affected by the immediate peer group."

And there you can see from the strange word dialectical (= dialectal) that those are not my words at all but the inventions of a public relations firm.

They had been engaged by a cheese manufacturer, West Country Farmhouse Cheesemakers, to publicize their regional varieties of cheese. They telephoned me to ask whetheer there was any possibility that cows' moos might vary geographically. I told them I thought it highly unlikely; but that there was well established scientific evidence that several species of bird exhibit regional variability in their calls, so you could not entirely rule out the possibility. (To see some evidence re birds, do a Google search on "avian dialects".)

Cows, of course, do not in general form stable isolated populations such as would presumably be necessary to allow such regional diversity to develop. On the contrary, cattle are bought and sold and trucked around the country and indeed internationally.

The next thing I knew was that the PR people had put out a press release with their selective and garbled version of what I had said. It was embargoed until midnight Tuesday/Wednesday. Soon after midnight one a radio station rang me and set up an interview for 00:55. Less than five hours later I was woken by a call from Australia pursuing the same matter, and for the next twelve hours my phone hardly stopped ringing. Ever compliant, I gave over a dozen radio interviews and made three television appearances. In every one I poured cold water on the suggestion of bovine dialects, while suggesting from time to time that if any funding body cared to come up with five million pounds I would be happy to direct a research project into this vital issue.

The story appeared in various places on the web: on the BBC, the British commercial television channel ITV, among the serious newspapers in the Guardian, and in The Register. A correspondent even sent me an article in Polish.

Which all goes to show that in August the media love a silly story, however implausible. If only my publishers could be similarly inventive when my new book comes out.

John Wells

That's it! Let's find out who this PR firm is, and get a consortium of language-related scholarly and scientific societies to engage their services! They figured out that the right way to focus public attention on the "protected designation of origin" for their clients' cheeses is to get the public thinking that West Country cows even moo differently from other cows. Perhaps a bit of the bobo fascination with terroir will, in turn, rub off on linguistics? (And I wonder if this PR firm was the same outfit that figured out that "email lowers IQ more than pot"...)

By the way, John's new book is English Intonation: an Introduction. It's coming out in Britain on Aug. 31, and at some later time in the U.S. I've already pre-ordered a copy from

[Update -- in today's Guardian, a letter from Peter Stockill in Middlesbrough:

I once worked on a farm at Glastonbury (Cows moo with an accent down on the dairy farm, August 23). The cows were able to wander around the orchard where they ate apples that had fallen from the trees. These apples fermented into scrumpy in contact with digestive juices. Watching the cows stagger was the most hilarious thing I have ever seen. Yes, Somerset cows have a drawl - it is because they are drunk.


[Update #2 -- Martin Torres writes:

I thought you might be interested to know that the story has made it all the way to Spain. I found it on the local newspaper of my city, San Sebastian, right on the last page. It's the one reserved for irrelevant curiousities such as Siamese twins or eccentric millionaires buying something in the Seychelles islands.

It is in this page that I found this brief piece, which I recognised instantly thanks to the Language Log. This is the link to the web version of El Diario Vasco: (link).

I'll point out the last sentence, regarding Wells. The line is pretty ambiguous on whether he accepts bovine accents or not, saying only that "he remarked that these variations have been found in birds as well".

What is more surprising is the first sentence, which places the "blame" of these studies on a group of British linguists. From your articles I gathered that Wells was for the most part the only one acquainted with linguistics in the whole story...

In any case, and since the news piece is credited to the EFE agency, it's probably on every newspaper.

I expect that there are versions of this story in French, German, Russian, Chinese and so on, around the globe. I hope someone got a bonus at that PR firm -- has a local variety of cheese ever gotten so much free publicity for no particular reason? Now, if we could only figure out how to harness that kind of PR power to turn interest in cheese into interest in linguistics, instead of the other way around... ]

Posted by Mark Liberman at August 24, 2006 06:14 AM