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Maybe it’s the Toxoplasmosis gondii talking, but humans love cats. The feeling is mutual since, according to Carlos Driscoll of the University of Oxford, cats domesticated themselves 12,000 years ago in hopes of mooching off unsuspecting Homo sapiens. [1] Charmed by their inscrutible personalities, we talk back to our feline companions by imitating their vocalisations. Arabs greet kitties with “mawa”, the Japanese famously intone “nyan”, French and Germans say “miaou” and “miau” respectively. Are these different onomatopoeias representative of human dialects, or are cats of faraway lands influenced by their humans’s language?

Cat language is not such a silly prospect to consider. Last year scientists claimed a group of chimpanzees altered their vocalizations after being moved from a Dutch safari park to the Edinburgh Zoo, suggesting they have accents. [2] Less contentious are the accents of whales, evinced by a study published in the Royal Society Open Science illustrating how whalesong differs between populations of these magnificent beasts. [3] So why not cats?

Susanne Schötz from Lund University in Sweden is spearheading this maverick study. She told Josh Hrala at Science Alert, “We know that cats vary the melody of their sounds extensively, but we do not know how to interpret this variation. We will record vocalisations of about 30 to 50 cats in different situations – e.g. 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 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”.

It’s going to be a long five years ’til the results are published.

You may also enjoy:

  1. Why Do Cats Hang Around Us? (Hint: They Can’t Open Cans) http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/06/28/AR2007062802343.html
  2. Debate over chimpanzee ‘accent’ study – http://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-34705461
  3. Individual, unit and vocal clan level identity cues in sperm whale codas – http://rsos.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/3/1/150372