How to make a cow happy

October 23, 2006

Three news stories courtesy of the Language Log. One is a spoof, in one the linguist has been misquoted and one is highly dubious.

1.   “A farm is supplying the British Mark’s & Spencer chain of stores with Welsh beef known for its  tenderness. The secret, according to an M&S spokesman, is that, at Cig Calon Cymru farm, the Welsh Black cows take their leisure on foam mattresses while farmhands whisper to them only in Welsh. The language, explains Manchester University linguist Martin Berry, “is more melodic than English,” and that relaxes the animals.”

2.’ Germans can be grumpy, unpleasant people—and it’s not because of post-Nazi guilt or a diet filled with bratwurst, says one American researcher. It’s because of their vowels. Hope College psychology professor David Myers says saying a vowel with an umlaut forces a speaker to turn down his mouth in a frown, and may induce the sadness associated with the facial expression. Myers added that the English sounds of “e” and “ah” naturally create smile-like expressions and may induce happiness. Clearly the solution for the Germans, much like the solution for every other people in the world, is to become more like Americans. The German Embassy would not comment on the findings, saying they were “too scientific.” “Wovon man nicht sprechen kann, darüber muß man schweigen.”‘

3. FLINT, Mich.–The French ability to remain slimmer than Americans despite a diet higher in fats and overall calorie density has puzzled nutritionists for decades. But a new study suggests that scientists are looking in the wrong place for the secret of Gallic leanness, and that staying svelte may have nothing to do with food at all. “The answer is swallowed consonants,” said Dr. Eric Gross, professor of  biology at Lester College in Flint. “We’re finding that the pronunciation of these sounds can induce a feeling of satiety in French speakers, and can lead, over the long-term, to lower body weight.”

The spoof is number 3; number 2 was reported in all seriousness by the BBC. Language Log reminds us that  ‘William James famously argued that emotion itself is simply our perception of its bodily expression: “we feel sorry because we cry”‘. I can quite believe that someone saying an umlaut can look pretty grumpy but, reluctant as I am to argue with the illustrious academic, I can’t believe he’s right that saying one makes you feel miserable. I don’t cry that much- does it mean I don’t feel sorry sometimes? Mind you, if some linguists are to be believed, the sounds you make have some pretty strange origins themselves. I remember reading in a book by the French phonetician Georges Faure that he attributed the particular quality of English vowels to the weather, especially to the smog prevalent at the time.
Language log reports that when the ‘expert’ in number 1 was asked about this by a reporter, he replied that Welsh English is said to be more “lilting” than other varieties of English, which probably reflects a difference in pitch accent alignment, but that he had no idea whether cows find Welsh more relaxing than English. Goodness knows what would happen if someone spoke to the poor cows in German. Enough to curdle the milk.
What these three items seem to have in common is that people are reluctant to accept that language is just language. If it’s to be newsworthy, language has to govern thought, change personality, affect your health and calm cows. The idea that a lot of what we say is quite arbitrary is not going to make any headlines.


One Response to “How to make a cow happy”

  1. SilverTiger Says:

    I remember reading years ago about a famous Hispanist (so famous that I have forgotten his name) who was trying to prove the relatedness of the English and the Spanish and who took as two points of evidence 1. the similar distribution of blood types in the two nations and 2. the fact that both English and Spanish possess the “th” sound.

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