Animal Utterance: A two-day interdisciplinary conference

Date and venue

25-26 May 2017

The Orangery
Goldney Hall
Lower Clifton Hill

Invited speakers

  • Gillian Beer (Dame Professor of English, University of Cambridge)
  • David Rothenberg (Professor of Music and Philosophy, New Jersey Institute of Technology)
  • W. Tecumseh Fitch (Professor of Cognitive Biology, University of Vienna)
  • Stephanie Kuduk Weiner (Professor of English, Wesleyan University)
  • Johan J. Bolhuis (Professor of Cognitive Neurobiology, University of Cambridge)
  • Daniel Karlin (Professor of English, University of Bristol)
  • Martin Everaert (Professor of Linguistics, Utrecht University)


In 1827 the poet, John Clare, exchanged a series of natural history letters with his publisher, James Hessey, in which they discussed the 'solemn trifling' of naturalists regarding the notes of the nightingale – whether the birds sang by night or by day, whether their notes expressed joy or melancholy.

This two-day interdisciplinary conference at the University of Bristol aims to bring together researchers from a variety of disciplines, across the Arts and Sciences, to discuss their approaches to the sounds of the animal world, both human and non-human.

The conference seeks to draw together recent research in the Arts and Humanities, which has discussed the difficulties of 'translating' the sounds of animals into human forms of representation, with studies of animal sounds and animal cognition across the Sciences. We invite papers from speakers of all backgrounds and disciplines: historians and natural historians, musicians and philosophers, literary critics and cognitive scientists, linguists and bio-linguists.

Since our understanding of animal sounds has changed alongside advances in technology, the conference is not restricted to any specific historical period. The conference aims to examine how these developments have changed the way that we interpret, represent and 'understand' the sounds of animals: from written transcriptions to the sonograph and the advent of recorded sound. However, we do ask that papers do not pre-date 1771, the year in which Gilbert White debated with a naturalist friend whether owls hoot in the key of B flat.

Evening events

The musician and philosopher David Rothenberg will also be participating in two evening events during his stay in Bristol. For those of you arriving early, on Wednesday evening there will be an interactive talk and concert at Bristol Museum and Art Gallery, in which Rothenberg will appear alongside the artist Andy Holden and his father, the ornithologist Peter Holden. On Thursday evening there will also be a trip to listen to – and hear Rothenberg play live with – nightingales at Highnam Woods, Gloucestershire. We hope that you can join us!

* Please note that booking for these events is separate from conference registration; click here for more details.

Key information


Francesca Mackenney

Image provided by Wein Museum

Papageno: "I am the bird-catcher, yes! Always cheerful, fiddle-di-i, fiddle di-da!” Act I of The Magic Flute by Wolgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-91),engraved by Friedrich Wilhelm Meyer Senior (b.c. 1770). Copyright Wein Museum.