Last month we posted a link to a story about cows mooing with regional accents. I think it's worth revisiting that story because (as was immediately pointed out by Greg in the comments) it turns out to be total baloney. Or should I say bull-oney?
My guess is that the idea of accented moos probably originated as a tall-tale told amongst farmers, but at some point the claim came to the attention of a pr firm hired by the West Country Farmhouse Cheesemakers industry group. The pr firm immediately recognized a great story when they heard it, but they also realized that they needed some kind of scientific authority to transform it into a story that would catch the attention of the media. So they called up John Wells, a Professor of Phonetics at University College London and author of the soon-to-be-released English Intonation. Wells tells what happened next on his blog:
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. After I’d done that, 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.
Wells is even more specific in an email he sent to Language Log:
those are not my words at all but the inventions of a public relations firm.
In other words, there has never been any research that suggests cows moo with regional accents. Nor did Wells ever claim this. He was simply a guy who made the mistake of not immediately hanging up when a pr firm called. The reality is that entire story was conjured out of thin air. Just another example of fake news.
Unfortunately for Wells the story refuses to die. Recently the Sunday Observer, thinking they were being clever, mocked Wells for claiming that cows have regional accents. Wells responds: "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." But no matter what he says this story will probably keep going and going and going.