Published by: Ingrid King. Last Updated on: February 2, 2023 by Crystal Uys
A fascinating new Swedish research project is looking at gaining a better understanding of human-cat communications by analyzing how voice, melody (intonation) and speaking style – in human speech as well as in cat vocalizations – influence the communication between cats and humans.
Researchers from the universities of Lund and Linköpin will look at these parameters in human speech addressed to cats, and in cat sounds addressed to humans. The results may have profound implications for how we communicate with cats in our homes, in service care facilities, animal hospitals and shelters. Researchers hope that the results will lead to better communication between cats and humans, and to better quality of life for cats.
How do cats vary sound to convey different messages?
The research team includes Associate Professor of Phonetics Susanne Schötz, Associate Professor in Computational Linguistics Robert Eklund, PhD., and Associate Professor of General Linguistics Joost van DeWeijer. The study will include 30 to 40 cats. It will be conducted in the cats’ natural home environment to minimize stress. “This means that we will visit the cats’ homes and then leave a video camera for about a week in every home,” said Susanne Schötz. “We want the cats’ human companions to use the camera in situations when the cats normally communicate using sound, for example when they’re seeking attention or soliciting food, or when they want to be let outside.”
Cats in the study will also have small video cameras with a built in microphone attached to their collars in order to record cat sounds at close range and to get additional information from the cats’ perspective about the situation where the vocalization was made.
Researchers are specifically interested in the melody (or intonation) of cat sounds and cat-directed human speech. “We found in earlier pilot studies that cats do vary the melody in their vocalizations to a much larger extent than we first expected,” says Schötz. “It seems that they do so consciously, for instance, to convey a certain message, or to emphasize or alter a message in certain ways to signal a higher degree of urgency (“I am REALLY hungry!”).
Do cats and humans imitate each others’ sounds?
Researchers also found that cats and their human companions seem to imitate the melody of each others sounds – something that I’m sure most of us can relate to. I know I occasionally talk to Allegra and Ruby in a different tone of voice at times than what would use to talk to humans. “We wanted to learn more about the nature of this variation in melody,” adds Schötz. “Do some types of melodies or tonal patterns occur more frequently in certain situations or when the cats seem to convey certain emotions or desires? Do cats have different ‘dialects’ according to breed, or the dialect (or language) spoken by the humans around them? How do humans perceive the variation in cat melody? And how do cats perceive the melody in human speech? Do they prefer a certain speaking style or tone of voice? How do they react to adult-directed speech as opposed to pet-directed speech?”
Pilot studies to test different methods and types of recording equipment began in 2016. The first results were published in 2017.
I cannot wait to hear about the results of this study. I will, of course, share them with you here on The Conscious Cat as soon as they become available.
For more about the study, please visit Meowsic’s website.
About the author
Ingrid King is an award-winning author, former veterinary hospital manager, and veterinary journalist who is passionate about cats.