A cat with an accent sounds like a character in a whimsical children’s tale, but Swedish scientists are trying to figure out if domestic cats actually do have differing ‘dialects’ based on their geographical location. They also want to understand if the owner’s voice might have a role to play in the way cats’ meow. If they’re successful, the team of scientists from Lund University hope to put together a ‘dictionary’ of cat sounds.
“It seems that cats can consciously vary their intonation or melody constantly, perhaps to convey a certain message, perhaps to alter or increase the urgency of a message, or emotions,” said Susanne Schötz, a reader in phonetics and head of the project. “We want to find out to what extent domestic cats are influenced by the language and dialect that humans use to speak to them, because it seems that cats use slightly different dialects in the sounds they produce.”
The project, titled ‘Meowsic’ (short for ‘Melody in Human-Cat Communication’), will be carried out over the next five years. Schötz explained that she and her team will use phonetic analysis to compare cat sounds from two parts of Sweden – Stockholm and Lund – with differing human dialects, and figure out if the cats from these regions also have different dialects. They will focus on intonation, voice, and speaking style in the human speech that is addressed to cats, and also cat sounds that are addressed to humans.
Photo: Jonas Andersson
While it all sounds rather fanciful, the main idea behind the project is to improve the human-cat relationship. Since their domestication about 10,000 years ago, cats and humans have learned to ‘talk’ through audio and visual signals. Even today, wild and feral cats have no need for meowing in adulthood, while their domesticated counterparts continue to meow as a way of communicating with humans. And by understanding more about this communication, Schötz and her team hope to impact the way cats are treated in animal hospitals, shelters, and care homes.
“We know that cats vary the melody of their sounds extensively, but we do not know how to interpret this variation,” she said. “We will record vocalisations of about 30 to 50 cats in different situations, for example when they want access to desired locations, when they are content, friendly, happy, hungry, annoyed, or even angry – and try to identify any differences in their phonetic patterns. We want to know if cats prefer pet-directed speech or prefer to be spoken to like human adults.”
Photo: video caption
“It seems that cats can vary the intonation of melody consciously, perhaps to convey a certain message or increase the urgency of a message or to convey emotion,” Schötz added. “I have found with my cats they have a different sound in their melody when they are sad compared to when they are happy.”
The project is yet to begin officially, but the researchers have already started testing their equipment and techniques by recording a few examples of cat ‘melodies’. And they’ve already made a few interesting observations. In one of the recordings, they noticed that when a cat is begging for food its meows rise slowly in pitch. But the opposite happens when the cat is unhappy – the pitch gradually drops. By the year 2021, Schötz and her team hope to have entirely cracked the feline code by interpreting all their meowings and purrings.