Accented Cows

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.


Posted on Mon Sep 04, 2006


Cows may not have regional accents, but they sure know how to party. A herd of cows up the road from me have an old couch out in the field where they graze. I've passed by and observed a few of them milling about it, one or two scratching their rear on the armrests. I'm sure they've got a keg off in the weeds somewhere, but the view's not as good when you're up to your cud in burdocks, so they party on the hillside like nature intended. And yes, I have taken to referring to it as the "CoWch". Moo, or as Jersey cows say, yo- moo you, ya bastid
Posted by Hairy Houdini  on  Mon Sep 04, 2006  at  09:10 PM
I am Dutch but live in Menorca (Spain). Our neighbours have a dog that understands Menorquin. The dog at first did not understand dutch commands, but now she is bi-lingual.
BTW I will look into the cows mooing later on this year when they come out of their barns. All cows here are from dutch decent and I know how dutch cows sound. So I will look for typical pronounciations in wich I can recognise a Menorcan sounding accent.
What I really need are some recordings from real dutch cows to play for the caows here.
Posted by Unfairly Balanced  in  Earth  on  Tue Sep 05, 2006  at  01:57 AM
If he's been misrepresented as a looney, perhaps he can sue.
Posted by cvirtue  in  deleted  on  Tue Sep 05, 2006  at  08:01 AM
It looks like what we have here is a typical effort of a newspaper to sell copies so they can charge more for advertising. And, of course, TV and radio trying to get listeners so they can sell ad time. I would think that birds, at least some, and humans have regional accents in part due to the high information content in the messages they send out. Same perhaps with chimps and other apes. Maybe even some species of monkey. But I don't think cows have to signal that a threat is coming from specific directions as birds and monkys do, nor do they have a social structure that could be considered complex as chimps and gorillias and perhaps baboons do so there would be no need for distinction in their calls. However, we all know (because Hollywodd tells us)that animals speak perfect English when we aren't looking, so maybe that is where the accent comes in.
Posted by Christopher Cole  in  Tucson, AZ  on  Tue Sep 05, 2006  at  02:28 PM
Foolish humans! You will soon learn the wrath of the bovines!
Posted by Elsie  on  Tue Sep 05, 2006  at  10:19 PM
What, NO ONE is going to make a pun on the word "udder?" I'm appalled.
Posted by Cranky Media Guy  on  Wed Sep 06, 2006  at  01:41 AM
Cranky Media Guy, I didn't make such a pun because it was udderly obvious. Happy now?

And Elsie, we've been using you for food for how many thousands of years and we haven't felt your wrath yet? What are you waiting for to udderly annihilate us? Somebody stop me I'm on a roll.
Posted by Christopher Cole  in  Tucson, AZ  on  Wed Sep 06, 2006  at  11:26 AM
and yet today I found the story in "Ripley's Believe it nor not" daily comic.

Posted by TWM  in  PA  on  Tue Sep 26, 2006  at  04:29 PM
TWM, I have some of the old books of Ripley's stories. I haven't looked at them in a while, but I remember wondering if they really did a good job checking up on what they printed, or if they just went with what sounded neat. Has anyone ever checked any Ripley's stories? Maybe someone should, just to be udderly safe.
Posted by Christopher Cole  in  Tucson, AZ  on  Tue Sep 26, 2006  at  04:43 PM
Ripley was well known for taking almost anything at face value. If two people said it, it's true. If only one person said it, but had an honest face, it's true.

Still, Ripley's Believe it or Not was a lot of fun when I was a kid. Just treat it with a carnival air. You're there to be entertained, not educated.
Posted by Charybdis  in  Hell  on  Tue Sep 26, 2006  at  05:24 PM
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