Friday, 8 February 2013

animal accents

I should never have accepted the call from that cheese company’s PR people (blog, 25 August 2006). Now, alas, I’m regarded as an expert not so much on phonetics as on animal communication.

I have been approached by a UK charity to contribute to a book in which “high-profile experts and celebrities” answer real questions from children. They want me to provide an answer, “as if chatting with a bright and curious eight-year-old”, to the question “Do animals, like cows and sheep, have accents”?

Here’s the draft I have offered. Comments (preferably helpful) welcome.

Unlike human beings, animals don’t have languages. They do produce ‘vocalizations’ (dogs bark, cats miaow, sheep bleat, cows moo, birds chirp), but these are not language, even though they are a means of communicating.
As you will know if you’ve ever watched sheepdog trials, we can teach dogs to understand quite complicated spoken instructions. But they can’t speak to us. If you’ve been out, leaving your dog in the house, you can’t ask him when you get back, “Did anyone phone while I was out?”, and he can’t tell you “The phone did ring, but I didn’t answer it. And someone knocked at the door, too.”
Different breeds of dog may have different kinds of bark, and you may even be able to recognize an individual dog’s bark just as you can an individual person’s voice. But a dog’s bark does not depend on where it grew up and who its friends are or where it went to school ― which are the main things that determine your accent or mine.
Scientists have found that whales in different oceans make different kinds of vocalization, while the calls of some species of birds similarly vary from one location to another. So we could perhaps say that whales and birds can have local ‘accents’ or ‘dialects’. But domestic cows and sheep are different. Where they grow up and live is decided by the human beings that own them.
A few years ago newspapers carried a story saying that cows in Somerset moo with a distinctive West Country accent. But the story was untrue. It had been thought up by a public relations firm working for a company selling cheese. As far as we know, Somerset cows moo in just the same way as cows in Yorkshire or Norfolk.

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Health update: On Friday I was admitted to hospital for a hernia repair, and expected to be discharged the next day. However there has been a minor complication, and I will have to stay in hospital for a few days. So I am suspending this blog until 18 Feb (probably).

27 comments:

  1. Nice Job, John! Tweet-tweet! Some birds imitate ring tones of mobiles.
    /pɛtr røːzəl/

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  2. I’m afraid that the underlying assumption is that barks, bleats, moos, etc are in some way influenced by the speech sounds of neighbouring humans.

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  3. Excellent answer! This is something that I could translate and relay to my bright and curious eight year old. Orcas (Killer Whale) actually do have dialects that differ enough from each other as to be mutual unintelligible (see e.g. here), but I guess that's covered by the "whale" example (even though technically a Killer Whale is a dolphin, not a whale).

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  4. Non-technically, dolphins are whales anyway.

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  5. Really? Do people consider them the same?

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  6. Well, the general technical term is "cetaceans". Killer whale dialects have been extensively studied, but it seems that many other cetaceans (narwhals, blue whales, humpbacks) also have their own.

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    1. That depends on what you call "technical" of course. The "real" technical term is "Cetacea", which is split between "Mysticeti" (baleen whales) and "Odontoceti" (toothed whales). The latter is in turn subdivided in several families, of which Delphinidae are the dolphins, which include the common bottlenose dolphin, but also the killer whale.

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  7. But domestic cows and sheep are different. Where they grow up and live is decided by the human beings that own them.

    This is the only bit I'm not happy with. Human slaves developed different varieties in the different regions where slave owners decided that they should live.

    It's who you talk to and/or choose to talk to that makes an accent. Place is often a necessary but not sufficient condition. Sometimes it's not even a necessary condition.

    In terms that the target audience might appreciate:

    It's possible that from the Atlantic whales might not get on with Pacific whales because of the sounds they make. As far as we know, Somerset sheep get on perfectly well with Yorkshire sheep.

    It would be enlightening to know if whales are in any way inhibited in interaction with wales from other oceans with other repertoires of sound. Does anyone know of any research on this?

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    1. Thanks for this. I'll think about incorporating it.

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    2. It would be enlightening to know if whales are in any way inhibited in interaction with wales from other oceans with other repertoires of sound. Does anyone know of any research on this?

      There's quite lot of ongoing "sociolinguistic" research on orcas. The species includes several ecotypes characterised by quite different lifestyles. The so-called resident orcas live in complex societies. At the bottom of the structure there are small family groups ("matrilines"). Several matrilines form a "pod", several pods form a "clan", and several clans, a "community". Every pod has a distinct dialect. The dialects of different pods in the same clan share some vocalisation features, but there is no such similarity between dialects of pods belonging to different clans. Males usually mate with females from the same clan, but a different pod. Pods may "socialise" between clans, but always within the same community. The similarity (or "mutual comprehensibility") of dialects seems to be very important in maintaining social cohesion. Members of different communities apparently don't get on well with each other. They have never been observed to travel together.

      See http://northenresidentorcas.blogspot.com/

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  8. On health update: Best wishes John, I hope you recover soon!

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  9. I heard the cow accent thing repeated on the radio at the weekend in an interview with Stephen Fry about QI. It was presented as one of the most interesting QI 'facts'. I wonder how many others are nonsense?

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  10. Ad John:

    'As you will know if you’ve ever watched sheepdog trials, we can teach dogs to understand quite complicated spoken instructions. But they can’t speak to us. If you’ve been out, leaving your dog in the house, you can’t ask him when you get back, “Did anyone phone while I was out?”, and he can’t tell you “The phone did ring, but I didn’t answer it. And someone knocked at the door, too.'

    I wonder if the part from 'If you've been out' onwards in the above is really necessary. On me it makes the impression of, I dunnno, semi-jocular (perhaps) condescension towards those cognition-impaired who labour under the misrepresentation that dogs CAN take phone calls and what not ... anyway, for me, 'animals can't speak to us' would be enough.

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    1. Wojciech

      anyway, for me, 'animals can't speak to us' would be enough.

      But not, I think, for John's target audience. I suspect more pet owners agree than disagree with the proposition that their pets speak to them. I have a clearer sense of the term speak than that, but I have little doubt pets communicate with us. Why should bright and curious eight-year-olds have such a precise understanding of speak.

      What matters for John's argument is that communication between pets and pet-owners doesn't run to the exchange of information, of which a question-and-answer exchange is the prototypical form.

      The reduced-to-absurd example serves to explain what John means by speak.

      It's because eight-year olds understand that dog's might choose whether or not to answer the telephone that they're ready to grasp the point that can't produce complex language, even if they can (in part) understand and respond to it.

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    2. Ad David

      But afaik dogs CANNOT answer calls, at least Polish dogs, British---I dunno. Can they choose, nonetheless, whether to answer them or not? Well, if THEY themselves wrongly imagine that they could if they chose to, someone should tell them in their canine language that they can't... . I am obviously not quite with you any longer...

      But target audience ... yes you may be right. I remember an English friend (D. Phil. Cantab.) telling me that many (or was it 'most'?) Britons are very poorly educated, as regards factual knowledge at least, and had wildest, most inaccurate ideas from zoology, astronomy, history, geography... Maybe he was pulling my leg, but if not, there may be some use in telling people that dogs can't take phones etc... I personally would feel somewhat _auf den Arm genommen_ as the German says, not treated seriously, by such explanations.

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    3. Wojciech

      If you say 'Animals don't talk about answering phone calls', it's uncontroversial and (if you pitch it right) funny. If you say 'Animals don't speak', a very large number of listeners will disagree because speak is so often used figuratively — and it's not remotely funny.

      We frequently refer to the most unlikely entities as speaking to us. It's not just pets but any animal to which we can anthropomorphically assign a message. Plus any work of art, or even feature of nature which inspires emotion.

      In short, anything which provokes a response which we choose to express in words can be said to speak to us, to say something to us, to convey a message.

      'My dog doesn't speak to me' would be taken by most English hearers to mean that the dog ignores the speaker — doesn't bark at, lick, touch or even look at its master/mistress.

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    4. The exchange between Wojciech and me suggests a further tweak to the explanation. Something to this effect:

      [Sheep dogs understand instructions]

      including some words.
      And they seem to let us know what they want and how they feel. But they can't use words.


      [We can't ask if anybody phoned.]

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    5. I'd (I insist) leave out the 'we can't ask if anybody phoned' part. This is self-evident and has a penumbra of mocking the reader.

      Although ... there once was a film 'Ratatouille' featuring a rat that could cook well (it was a animated film, not with real rats) after which many children reportedly asked their parents to get them rats as pets, in the hope that they (the rats) could cook just as well or even better than their parents... so there is probably not a thing as self-evident as not to deserve being said to everybody (if this is a correct 'say to someone' syntax...) once in a while.

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    6. Wojciech

      This is self-evident and has a penumbra of mocking the reader.

      I couldn't disagree more.

      It invites the kids to think how ridiculous it is to imagine a dog speaking in the literal sense of the word. The point is that is has to be that sort of 'speaking', not the figurative sort, if it can be said to have an accent.

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    7. Hi, sorry, I must have either overlooked or forgot(ten) the part of John's posting above where he says the book would have to be for *children*... I imagined it was meant for general audience... Sorry for my scandalous lack of attention. I even wondered why you mentioned bright eight year olds.

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  11. This study at Northern Arizona University appears to suggest that prairie dogs do indeed have languages that are complex, dialectically diverse and productive.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?NR=1&v=y1kXCh496U0&feature=endscreen

    Note that the study focuses on warning calls because they are easily recorded responses to stimulae that we can also see, implying that there may well be much more to praire dog language. In other words, how could we possibly listen in on prairie dog pillow-talk, let alone hope to decode something so potentially complex? The phonetic distinctions are also mainly imperceptible to the human ear, only visible through spectrum analysis.

    All this goes to show that no one knows the answer to this question - we have no reason to doubt, and much reason to suppose, that the animal world holds languages even more complex than ours.

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    1. Especially the latter paragraph is such utter rubbish, that I won't even start to comment on it. Let's be very clear to whoever reads this: we have every reason to suppose that humans are the only animals having complex and structured language.

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    2. Did you watch the video Kilian? I was very much in your camp before I did.

      Somehow I don't see this as an open-shut case. Arguing for something's non-existence is always a matter of induction, and therefore never conclusively provable.

      Beyond that, we may know much about human language, but what do we know about animal communication? Enough to determine its limits in terms of complexity and structure? Current research seems to suggest that it's a journey we've only just begun.

      Statements similar to yours were once made about non-codified languages and oral traditions, until linguists studied them and realized that some of them are even more complex than most written languages. Let's not jump to the same conclusions about other species.

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    3. We know a lot about animal communication. People have been trying to assign true language (structured, layered, recursive) to animals and have always come up flat. So yes, we indeed know enough to determine its limits in terms of complexity, not only through observation, but also simply because this complexity needs big brains, which animals lack.

      Your statement about "non-codified languages" and "oral traditions" is irrelavant. The fact that racist 19th century linguists dismissed the language of the "wild men" as "primitive" has exactly nothing to do with our current knowledge on animal communication.

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  12. ilgaz pet I think a very bad situation to be corrected for prairie dogs

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  13. Hyraxes apparently have identifiable regional dialects, for what that's worth: http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/2012/04/hyrax-song-complexity/

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