September 03, 2006


Please extend your sympathy to Prof. John Wells in his hour of need. A little while ago, a PR firm working for a cheese company called him to ask whether it was possible that cows might moo with regional accents. Rather than tell the flack where to stuff his cows, John responded with a politely-worded negative, adding a few choice intellectual nuggets as professors are wont to do. Then the BBC ran the resulting press release as if it were not only real news but even real science; the story was picked up and embellished around the globe; and now John writes

This appeared in last Sunday’s Observer newspaper. I have only just seen it.
I fear my scholarly reputation must have been destroyed for ever.
For the record, I have never claimed that cows moo with a regional accent.

One possible lesson, I suppose, would the one that W.H. Auden drew in his 1946 Harvard Phi Beta Kappa poem, "Under Which Lyre", as the Sixth Commandment of the Hermetic Decalogue:

Thou shalt not be on friendly terms
With guys in advertising firms...

Or else we could take the Observer's advice, and revel in the pleasures of linguistic foolishness, watching as the BBC floats a series of increasingly preposterous pseudo-scientific fantasies. Did you know that British pigs grunt in a sort of ballad stanza, while French pigs snort in alexandrins? Or that the rhetoric of crows is full of irony, while sparrows are inordinately fond of anacoluthon, and parrots are addicted to the passive voice?

In any case, it helps to have a blog.

Posted by Mark Liberman at September 3, 2006 11:46 AM