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.
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.