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).