Several people have asked me about an item that appeared this morning on the BBC's Breakfast on Sunday show, "Making sense of moggie meows":
Phonetics specialists at Lund University in Sweden hope to have cracked the feline code by the year 2021, to be able to interpret a whole range of 'meowings' and 'purrings'.
Susanne Schotz, Associate Professor of Phonetics at the University, said "about 90%" of the meows are likely to be cries for human attention, but that the study may allow us to learn how our dialects might affect our cat's own accent.
Ms Schotz said she hopes learning to understand cats better will help provide a better way of life for our feline friends as well as aiding vets and other people who work with cats professionally.
A 3/10/2016 Lund University press release includes this YouTube video:
The press release text starts out this way:
Do you understand what your cat is saying? And does your cat understand what you are saying? The new research project “Melody in human-cat communication” at Lund University in Sweden may find the answer.
“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”, says Associate Professor of Phonetics Susanne Schötz.
“In this project we will use phonetic analysis to compare cat sounds from two dialect areas in Sweden: Stockholm in the central part of Sweden, and Lund in the very south of Sweden.”
The project will be carried out over five years, until 2021, by three researchers from Lund and Linköping universities who will study intonation, voice and speaking style in human speech addressed to cats, as well as in cat vocalisations addressed to humans.
There's been a bit of media uptake already, from what is surely a looming cat communication tsunami:
Sarah Knapton, "What is your cat saying? Swedish scientists launch five year project to find out", The Telegraph 3/10/2016
Sarah Griffiths, "Does your cat have an ACCENT? Study hopes to reveal if felines 'speak' with different meows based on where they live", Daily Mail 3/10/2016
And this prescient piece from a couple of weeks ago — Karin Brulliard, "Meow experts agree: Your cat is demanding (but maybe not that grumpy)", Washington Post 2/24/2016.
There are a few published papers from earlier stages of the Lund project:
Suzanne Schötz & Joost van de Weijer, “A Study of Human Perception of Intonation in Domestic Cat Meows,” Speech Prosody 2014:
This study examined human listeners’ ability to classify domestic cat vocalisations (meows) recorded in two different contexts; during feeding time (food related meows) and while waiting to visit a veterinarian (vet related meows). A pitch analysis showed a tendency for food related meows to have rising F0 contours, while vet related meows tended to have more falling F0 contours. 30 listeners judged twelve meows (six of each context) in a perception test. Classification accuracy was significantly above chance, and listeners who had reported previous experience with cats performed significantly better than inexperienced listeners. Moreover, the two food related meows with the highest classification accuracy showed clear rising F0 contours, while clear falling F0 contours characterised the two vet related meows that received the highest classification accuracy. Listeners also reported that some meows were very easy to classify, while others were more difficult. Taken together, these results suggest that cats may use different intonation patterns in their vocal interaction with humans, and that humans are able to identify the vocalisations based on intonation.
Susanne Schötz, "A pilot study of human perception of emotions from domestic cat vocalisations", Fonetik 2014:
This paper presents preliminary results from a pilot study where 36 human listeners classified 28 cat vocalisations into seven emotion categories. Classification accuracy and between-listener agreement varied considerably between vocalisations. The vocalisations were subdivided into categories based on the emotions perceived by most listeners and compared in an acoustic analysis. Preliminary results suggest that cats vary their intonation to signal different emotions, and that humans perceive them based on cues used to signal emotion in human speech. Surprisingly, the trill vocalisation used for friendly greetings was often misjudged as anger. Future work includes a deeper analysis of the results and also a comparative study of human–directed and cat–directed cat vocalisations.
Susanne Schötz, "Agonistic vocalisations in domestic cats: a case study", Fonetik 2015:
Introducing a new cat to a home with resident cats may lead to stress, aggression and even fights. In this case study 468 agonistic cat vocalisations were recorded as one cat was introduced to three resident cats in her new home. Six vocalisation types were identified: growl, howl, howl-growl, hiss, spit and snarl. Numerous other intermediate and complex vocalisations were also observed. An acoustic analysis showed differences within and between all types. Future studies include further acoustic analyses of cat vocalisations produced by a larger number of cats.
So much for Paul Basken's question in the 1/24/2016 Chronicle of Higher Education: "Is University Research Missing What Matters Most?"
Seriously, billions of internet users have voted with their clicks to identify cat communication as a key topic for scientific inquiry. Though not a heavy consumer of cat videos, I myself think that this is excellent and interesting work, and I look forward to future reports. And I'll add that dog vocalizations should not be neglected.
Also, for those non-UK readers who (like me) are new to the word moggie, the OED explains that it's
Probably variant of maggie n.. Compare also malkin n., Meg n.
and gives the following glosses:
1.a. colloq. (orig. and chiefly Sc. and Eng. regional). Originally: a girl, a young woman. Later: an untidily dressed woman. Now rare.
b. Eng. regional. A stuffed figure; a guy, scarecrow, etc. rare.
2. Eng. regional (chiefly west midl.). A calf, a cow.
3. colloq. (chiefly Brit.) A (domestic) cat, esp. a non-pedigree or otherwise unremarkable one.