Now it’s cows that use names (sigh)

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According to a sub-headline in Full-Time Whistle, new scientific research has shown that “Cows and their calves communicate using individualised calls equivalent to human names.”

How interesting. Cows have enough linguistic sophistication to employ the high-level device of personal naming? Let us delve into the details just a little, without moving away from the article itself.

Even the first paragraph backs off a little: “Cows have distinctive voices and communicate with each other using calls that are individualised in a similar way to human names, scientists have discovered.”

Ah! Not so much a linguistic system, more a sort of distinctive vocal timbre; and not so much names as “calls that are individualized in a similar way to human names.” Let’s go on.

As the article continues, we learn that “cows have their own distinctive sounds and have two separate calls to their calves depending on how close they are. The team found that cows produce low frequency calls when their calves are nearby and higher frequency calls when they are separated from them.”

“Moo” in low register for a nearby calf, and “MOO-OO-OOOH!” at a higher pitch when the calf is too far away for that to work.

Not looking much like a naming system at all now, is it? If you see a man tampering with the driver’s door of your car, you might shout “Hey!”; and if he doesn’t respond because you’re too far away, you might shout “HEY!!” again at higher pitch. But “Hey” isn’t the man’s name!

Next comes a small additional amount of detail from the lead scientist, Dr Monica Padilla de la Torre. Her team “spent almost two years digitally recording the noises the animals made and analysing them with computer software,” and she says: “The research shows for the first time that mother-offspring cattle ‘calls’ are individualised – each calf and cow have a characteristic and exclusive call of their own.” So different cows and calves have different voices, and you can tell from the acoustic properties of the vocalizations which cow or calf it is.

Dr Padilla goes on: “Acoustic analysis also reveals that certain information is conveyed within the calf calls – age, but not gender,” she added. So it is possible to tell the voice of an old cow from that of a young calf.

That’s it. That’s the end of the substantive information in the article, except that the scientists involved “believe their analysis will improve animal welfare by giving humans a greater understanding of the ‘language’ used by cows.” But what language are we talking about here? Do they even have nouns? What happened to that “calls equivalent to human names” stuff?

It was based on nothing about the research at all. From personal names in human languages you cannot determine the age of the bearer; and humans do not have low-frequency names for nearby use and high-pitch names for use when further away. It’s true that if you’re further away you will shout more, at higher volume and pitch, to get someone to hear; but that has nothing to do with naming.

The stuff about cows using names is total, utter… umm… the word I really want is bullshit, though I can see a bit of a problem with the use of that term in the present context. I don’t mean it’s shit from a male bovine quadruped; I just mean it’s (metaphorically) shit.

This is how it always is when journalists get hold of a story that even distantly touches on animal communication. Look at how Full-Time Whistle finished the story off. First they called up a farmer:

One local farmer, James Bourne said the research supported what many farm workers already knew. “A calf certainly knows its mother from other cows, and when a calf blarts the mother knows it’s her calf,” he said.

So cows can identify the calls of their calves. That’s nothing to do with names, is it? “Hey” still isn’t the name of the man tampering with your car, even if he recognizes your voice from the way you shout “Hey!”.

And finally the article hooks up with one of the stupidest animal communication stories of 2006:

In 2006, a separate study revealed that cows also have regional accents. “I spend a lot of time with my ones and they definitely moo with a Somerset drawl,” one Glastonbury farmer told the BBC.

You can read what Language Log had to say about that last piece of nonsense here and here and here. And with regard to similar nonsense (also from 2006) involving dolphins, you can read some gentle skepticism by Mark Liberman here, and some more robustly critical remarks of mine from when the same story resurfaced seven years later here.

The bottom line is that when it comes to language, journalists simply make stuff up. They are shockingly careless in all sorts of ways (in accuracy of quotations, for example, as Mark has pointed out many times), but when it comes to animal language it’s far worse than that. They actually print what are obviously lies, even when the text of the same article makes it clear that they are lying.



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