August 23, 2006

Oh, the moos you can moo

A couple of years ago it was ducks, and now it's cows. According to the BBC:

Cows have regional accents like humans, language specialists have suggested.

They decided to examine the issue after dairy farmers noticed their cows had slightly different moos, depending on which herd they came from.

I would normally refer this directly to the Language Log humor writers, who value BBC science stories above rubies. But the apparent source of this one is a real and serious scientist:

John Wells, Professor of Phonetics at the University of London, said regional twangs had been seen before in birds.

A bit later on, the story quotes Prof. Wells making a suggestion about mechanisms:

Prof Wells felt the accents could result from their contemporaries.

He said: "This phenomenon is well attested in birds. You find distinct chirping accents in the same species around the country.

"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."

Unfortunately, the BBC's reporter didn't give Prof. Wells space to provide any details, for which the reporter relied on another source:

The farmers in Somerset who noticed the phenomenon said it may have been the result of the close bond between them and their animals.

Farmer Lloyd Green, from Glastonbury, said: "I spend a lot of time with my ones and they definitely moo with a Somerset drawl.

"I've spoken to the other farmers in the West Country group and they have noticed a similar development in their own herds.

"It works the same as with dogs - the closer a farmer's bond is with his animals, the easier it is for them to pick up his accent."

John Wells is one of the world's most eminent phoneticians, and the author of a terrific blog that I read regularly. I've written to invite him to tell us more about the bovine (and canine?) versions of British regional speech. I'm hoping for audio clips, transcriptions, spectrograms, scatter plots! (The IPA may not be up to the task, though perhaps the International Phonetic Association already has a committee working on the extra symbols needed for ruminant regional variation.)

Then again, it could be that the BBC reporter just called John for a comment, and John said the sort of thing that I might have said: "Well, I'm not sure about cows with Somerset drawls. But there certainly can be regional variation in animal vocalizations --cases of that sort of thing have been studied among birds for more than 60 years (e.g. the review in R. B. Payne, "Population structure and social behavior: models for testing the ecological significance of song dialects in birds", in R.D. Alexander and D.W. Tinkle, Eds., Natural selection and social behavior, 1981). However, for this to happen with cows, it would have to be the case that they learn to moo from the other members of their herds, the way that some songbirds learn to sing from the songs that they hear in the nest. I haven't heard this suggested, though -- the literature on ruminant dialectology is, shall we say, a little thin, [blah, blah]." And then I could have been the expert cited to back up Farmer Green's intuitions about how Bessie and Bossy speak just like him.

On the other hand, maybe there's more to moos than I knew. We'll see.

[Hat tip to Julia Hockenmaier]

[Update -- Geoff Nathan sent a link to a CNN publication of a Reuters newswire story, which suggests that it's a farmers' group (the "West Country Farmhouse Cheesemakers") that contacted John Wells:

Dom Lane, spokesman for a group called the West Country Farmhouse Cheesemakers to which Green belongs, said it contacted John Wells, Professor of Phonetics at University College London, who said that a similar phenomenon had been found in birds.

"You find distinct chirping accents in the same species around the country. This could also be true of cows," Wells said on the group's Web site.

According to Lane, accents among cows probably develop in a similar way as among humans, and resulted from spending time with farmers with differing accents.

"Apparently the biggest influence on accents is peer groups -- on children in the playground, for example," he said. "Herds are quite tight-knit communities and don't tend to leave the area."

He added that more scientific research was needed to prove what was just an anecdotal theory at this stage.

If John Wells is quoted on the West Country Farmhouse Cheesemakers web site, neither a bit of browsing nor a search via Google was able to find it. In any case, alas, I don't think we're going to get the audio clips, transcripts, spectrograms and scatter plots for a while yet! However, as a lover of cheese and rural life, as well as a devoté of animal communication, I'm open to offers from anyone who'd like to sponsor some of that needed scientific research.

Seriously, this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to update the old joke about the out-of-work physicist who took a job as a consultant to a dairy cooperative, and produced a report that began "Consider a perfectly spherical cow, radiating milk isotropically." I have an agent-based model for social convergence on shared word pronunciations that I've been meaning for a while to extend to cover dialect development. "Consider a herd of markovian cows, generating moos randomly..."]

[Update: John has blogged about his encounter with the fourth estate:

It's the silly season -- August, when there is not much political news, so the newspapers print stories that are not altogether serious.

I was telephoned by a public relations consultant on behalf of a cheese manufacturing company in Somerset. Was it possible, they asked, that the local cows might moo with a west-of-England accent? I told them that I thought it was highly unlikely, but that there had been serious research showing that various species of bird exhibit geographical variation in their calls. And if birds and human beings have local accents, you can't entirely rule out that cows might too.

The PR company issued a press release. They showed it to me only after they had sent it out, which meant that it was too late for me to protest that they had put into my mouth the solecism "This phenomena is...". Of course I would always say only "This phenomenon is..." or "These phenomena are".

The press release was embargoed until midnight. At half past midnight yesterday my phone rang: it was a call from BBC Radio Five Live setting up a telephone interview for 00:55. I snatched a few hours sleep, but was woken by a call from Australia, about bovine dialects, at about 05:45. From then on my phone hardly stopped ringing all morning.

In all yesterday I did twelve phone interviews plus three television interviews, one of them transmitted live from Vauxhall City Farm in central London in the rain, alongside a disconsolate heifer.

You can read on-line reports from the BBC, ITV, the Guardian, and something called The Register.

I shall be invoicing the PR company for a full day's work.

If you'll pardon the comment, John, perhaps you aren't thinking about this on a large enough scale. Rather than merely "a full day's work", how about an international multi-site investigation, to correlate the vocalizations of domestic mammals with the taste of local cheeses, while also taking account of the influence of soil and weather as indicated by carefully-monitored physiological reactions to a selection of regional wines?]

[Update: more from John here, and some general commentary on the global diffusion of this story here.]

Posted by Mark Liberman at August 23, 2006 04:17 PM