ILS Colloquium


20 February 2020
15:30 - 17:00
Drift 21, Sweelinckzaal

Leonie Cornips & Marjo van Koppen

Embodied grammar in dairy cows

Maastricht University, NL-Lab, Humanities Cluster (KNAW)

Utrecht University, Meertens Instituut

In linguistics, language is defined as human language which is probably the form of language that is studied in most detail. Linguists have been investigating the grammatical, sociolinguistic, pragmatic and communicative aspects of human language in much depth. For the talk at hand, we are mainly interested in the grammatical aspects, and more in particular, the syntactic aspects of human language as they are interpreted by the formal framework of generative linguistics. There has been extensive research on the basic properties of human language within this framework. The most current stance is probably something like the following “there has to be some mechanism in the mind/brain generating an unbounded array of hierarchically structured expressions, each receiving a systematic and determinate interpretation at two interfaces, meaning and sound/sign (the latter called “externalization”) – a modern version of Aristotle’s familiar dictum that language pairs sound (and sign) with meaning.” (Everaert & Bolhuis 2017:100).

The aim of this talk is to explore whether linguistics can a priori exclude research of non-human animals since many new biological and ethological studies about non-human language, cultures, cognition, and emotion affirm Darwin’s thesis that differences between humans and other animals are of degree, not kind (Meijer 2017). There is vast discussion in the generative literature on whether animals employ a linguistic system that is comparable to that of human language or not (see a.o. Chomsky, Hauser & Fitch 2002, Everaert & Bolhuis 2017, Everaert et al. 2017, Suzuki & Zuberbühler 2019).

We will take a bottom up approach (De Waal 2012) and investigate the language of dairy cows. Dairy cows constitute an example of a far-reaching implosion of nature and culture (Haraway 2003). Cows were domesticated in herds around 10,500 BC and have adapted their behaviour to intensive farming and close contacts with the farmer (Bos et al. 2018). The entanglements between cows mutually and with farmers provide an excellent opportunity to study intra- and interspecies language (Håkansson & Westander 2013) of cows (Cornips and van den Hengel in press). Drawing on fieldwork in an intensive Dutch dairy cow farm in fall 2018 and throughout 2019, the aim is to address the question whether it is possible, and if the answer is positive, how to conceptualize the cognitive and social capacities of cows as grammar.

In this paper, we will apply insights from generative syntax to our fieldwork data, that is audio- and video recordings of how cows interact with each other and the farmer(s). We will explore the hypothesis that non-human animals have grammars like human animals characterized by lexical items that are further modified by functional material like negation, tense and modality, speech acts and features like [person] and [number]. We show that the grammar of cows includes structures that are comparable to verbal (CP) and nominal (DP) structures. We furthermore show that cows modify events and nouns with functional information that is absent in human language (i.e. trajectory). From our theorizing of animal languages, we will discuss our exploration in light of restrictions on human grammar as conceptualized hitherto. We will focus in particular on externalization of cow language, which is actually much wider than sound and signs and may involve gestures, bodily movement, bodily positions, facial expressions etc. This talk thus will move beyond the assumptions of human exceptionalism and species hierarchy in order to explore an understanding of grammar that displaces the centrality of the human subject (Cornips 2019, Cornips and Van Koppen 2019).


Bos, J, M., B. Bovenkerk, P. H. Feindt & Y. K. van Dam (2018). The Quantified Animal: Precision Livestock Farming and the Ethical Implications of Objectification. Food Ethics 2:77-92.

Hauser, M. et al (2002). The Faculty of Language: What Is It, Who Has It, and How Did It Evolve?. Science 298, 1569 (2002)

Cornips, Leonie. 2019. The final frontier: non-human animals on the linguistic research agenda. Berns Janine and Elena Tribushinina (eds.) Linguistic in the Netherlands, vol. 36, issue 1, Nov 2019, 13-19. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Cornips, Leonie and Louis van den Hengel. In press. Place-making by cows in an intensive dairy farm: A sociolinguistic approach to nonhuman animal agency. Animals in Our Midst: the challenges of co-existing with animals in the Anthropocene, ed. By Bernice Bovenkerk and Jozef Keulartz, Springer.

Cornips, Leonie and Marjo van Koppen. 2019. Embodied grammar in Dutch dairy cows. Poster presentation. Animal Linguistics: take the leap! Workshop by Mélissa Berthet and Guillaume Dezecache. L’École normale supérieure. June, 17. Paris.

De Waal, Frans B. M. 2012. A bottom-up view of empathy. In F. de Waal & P. Francesco Ferrari (Eds.), The primate mind: Built to connect with other minds: 121-138. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Everaert, M.B.H., Huybregts, M.A.C., Berwick, R.C., Chomsky, N., Tattersall, I., Moro, A., and Bolhuis, J.J. (2017). What is language and how could it have evolved? Trends Cogn. Sci. 21, 569–571.

Everaert, M. & J. Bolhuis (2017), The biology of language, Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews 81, 99-102,

Håkansson, G. & J. Westander (2013). Communication in humans and other animals. Amsterdam: Benjamins.

Haraway, D. (2003). The companion species manifesto: Dogs, people, and significant otherness. Chicago: Prickly Paradigm Press.

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Meijer, E. (2017). Political animal voices. Unpubl. Dissertation, University of Amsterdam. Schlenker, P., Chemla, E., Schel, A.M., Fuller, J., Gautier, J.P., Kuhn, J., Veselinovic, D., Arnold, K., Casar, C., Keenan, S., et al. (2016). Formal monkey linguistics: The debate. Theor. Linguist. 42, 173–201.

Suzuki, T.N., Griesser, M., and Wheatcroft, D. (2019). Syntactic rules in avian vocal sequences as a window into the evolution of compositionality. Anim. Behav. 151, 267–274.

Suzuki, T. & K. Zuberbühler (2019), Animal syntax. In: Current Biology 29:14, R669-R671, Townsend, S.W., Engesser, S., Stoll, S., Zuberbuhler, K., and Bickel, B. (2018). Compositionality in animals and humans. PLoS Biol. 16, e2006425.

Zuberbühler, K. (2019). Evolutionary roads to syntax. Anim. Behav. 151, 259–265.