Reader Erica emailed to say, “I heard on Twitter, from one of those 'amazing facts' accounts, that cows moo in regional accents. Is that true?”
It’s hard not to love the idea of cows mooing differently around the world. I very much want this to be true, and if you Google “cow accents,” you might think it is. The BBC says it. NPR says it. Pretty much every major paper in the UK says it. Unfortunately, the answer is closer to “Maybe? Nobody knows.”
Most of the stories that say, “yeah, cows have accents” came out at around the same time in 2006, and many of them relied on two sources: anecdotal reports from British dairy farmers, and John Wells, a Professor of Phonetics at University College London.
According to Wells, though, most of the support he seemingly provides for the idea in these stories is really a “selective and garbled version of what I had said.”
He explained to the University of Pennsylvania’s Language Log blog around the time the stories started popping up that a lot of his quotes were really the inventions of a public relations firm.
“They had been engaged by a cheese manufacturer, West Country Farmhouse Cheesemakers, to publicize their regional varieties of cheese,” Wells told Language Log in an email. “They telephoned me to ask whether there was any possibility that cows' moos might vary geographically. I told them I thought it highly unlikely; but that there was well established scientific evidence that several species of bird exhibit regional variability in their calls, so you could not entirely rule out the possibility.
“Cows, of course, do not in general form stable isolated populations such as would presumably be necessary to allow such regional diversity to develop,” he continued. “On the contrary, cattle are bought and sold and trucked around the country and indeed internationally.”
Wells’ “possibly, but probably not” was spun into a “yes” in many stories, and things only got further out of control from there. Some coverage claimed that Wells and/or other researchers had confirmed the farmers’ observations with a study of cow vocalizations. If such a study was conducted, though, no one seems to have wanted people to read it. While there are scientific papers on moos as indicators of a cow’s “physiological and psychological functioning” and reproductive status, there doesn’t appear to be any published research on geographic variations in moos.