You Say 'Nay,' I Say 'Neigh': Goats Have Accents

Goats bleat, but a new study says they don't all do it with the same accent. Host Scott Simon talks to Professor Alan McElligott from Queen Mary University of London, who co-authored a study showing that goats' voices change as they move from different environments.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News,

Goats bleat. But a new study says: Not all in the same accent. Goats have accents, according to a new study from Queen Mary University in London. Now, a bleat from one group of goats sounds like this.

(SOUNDBITE OF A GOAT)

SIMON: But no other goat would apparently confuse that bleat with the accent of this goat.

(SOUNDBITE OF A GOAT)

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SIMON: Any more than you'd confuse Kenneth Braunagh with Billy Bob Thornton.

Alan McElligott is an associate professor at Queen Mary University in London, one of the authors of this study.

Thanks very much for being with us.

PROFESSOR ALAN MCELLIGOTT: Thank you. No problem.

SIMON: How do goats get different accents then?

MCELLIGOTT: So, I guess happening is the various goats kids are calling out at a similar pitch to the other kids that are in their social group. And so they have to listen out to the other individuals that are calling, and modify their own calls according to what they're hearing themselves.

SIMON: Our goats with different accents weary of each other? You know, is there a goat equivalent of you don't sound like you're from around here, buddy?

MCELLIGOTT: I guess the simple answer is we don't know. But it is possible that this is related to forming a sort of group identity, wherein knowing members of your own group is actually important, and also knowing if other individuals actually don't belong to that group.

SIMON: And this has implications beyond just goat accents, right?

MCELLIGOTT: The larger implications are of this are that we've discovered another group of mammals with some evidence for vocal flexibility, because, until now, it's been limited to humans, bats and dolphins, for example. So to find it in an animal species like a goat with a relatively simple vocal repertoire - I mean goats only produce a couple different kinds of calls - that's why it's particularly surprising. Finding a little bit of it in goats is very interesting.

When humans first learned the ability to speak in a complex language, we know now that had to start off in our evolutionary history at some stage with very basic vocal flexibility.

SIMON: We began at a much more primitive level so we shouldn't feel too superior or too smug, I guess.

MCELLIGOTT: No, not necessarily - or not at all, in fact.

SIMON: I have to ask with vast respect for what you do. I mean, do you turn to a woman at a pub and say...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SIMON: ...I research goat accents?

MCELLIGOTT: No, I tend not to talk about my work.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SIMON: But you should be proud. This is interesting.

MCELLIGOTT: Well, if somebody asks me. But they mean I spend all day, every day thinking about deer vocalizations and goat vocalizations, so when I go to the pub I tend to talk about other things.

SIMON: Alan McElligott, associate professor at Queen Mary University in London, thanks very much for being with us.

MCELLIGOTT: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC AND GOATS)

SIMON: This is NPR News.

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