Cats Speak but They Don’t Necessarily Have a Language


Every cat owner knows that their pet makes noises as a way of communicating with them. Not all cats make the same noises, so those with several pets may notice that each of their animals makes different noises. There are also differences between breeds. Some cat breeds make very specific noises unique to them, others noted for being very vocal, and others that hardly make any noises at all. While it is widely recognized that these noises are a form of communication, can cats talk?

What Noises Do Cats Make?

As already stated, the noises a cat makes can differ from one animal to the next, so not all cat noises are the same. However, some are common enough that they have been given words to describe the sound. Some of these include meowing, purring, chattering, murmuring, hissing, yowling, squeaking, moaning, trilling, tweedling, and growling. How animals communicate has long been a subject of interest for scientists, including feline communication. Now a group of Swedish scientists has focused their research on the way felines and humans communicate with each other, and it has won them the 2021 Ig-Noble prize for biology. The Ig-Noble prize is an award given by the Institute of Improbable Research, founded by Marc Abrahams. It is given to scientists who achieve things through their research that make people laugh and then make them think.

The Swedish Research into Cat-Human Communication

The research into cat-human communication was led by Professor Susanne Schotz and Joost van der Weijer, both of Lund University, along with Robert Eklund of Linkoping University. Their research focused on analyzing the variations in the noises that cats make and how felines communicate with humans. Schotz is a professor of phonetics, and she has studied the melody in human-cat interaction, which she has called meowsic. At the Ig-Noble award ceremony, she demonstrated some of the noises she had studies to help people relate to the findings of the research.

Difficulties in Understanding Cat-Human Communication

There are clearly some difficulties in researching this topic. Although interactions clearly take place between the two species, it is hard to define how much each species understands the communication of the other. Observing behaviors and events at the time noises are made can potentially identify the meaning of the noises, but it is almost impossible to say what each cat noise means definitively. However, Schotz and her fellow researchers have discovered some key elements that are indicative of the noises’ meanings.

Understanding the Meow

One of the best-known cat sounds is the meow, but not every meow is the same. There are variations in the sound made in different situations. Part of Schotz’s research has focused on these differentiations, says HAARETZ. Back in 2018, the professor recorded cats meowing at feeding time and compared these to recordings of cats meowing in a vet’s waiting room. There was a clear difference between the two noises. Cats meowing at feeding time made a tonal rise at the end of the sound, while there was a tonal fall in the meow made by cats in the vet’s waiting room. A crucial element of this research is that it was not only Schotz that could differentiate between the two noises made. Many of the other humans who listened to the recordings could also tell the difference between the noises made by cats being fed and those at the vet.

Schotz’s Interest in Feline Communication

So, what inspired Schotz to research feline communications? It may seem strange that a researcher of phonetics, someone who studies human speech, begins to take an interest in cat communication. However, it was her interest in speech that inspired her. Due to her training and field of expertise, Schotz sometimes focuses more on how people are saying something than listening to what they are trying to tell her. Schotz also owns five cats and noticed that there were significant differences in the sounds they made, in the same way that humans say things in different ways. Furthermore, she noticed that the differences in intonation varied depending on factors such as the cat’s situation, context, or mental state.

Initial Recordings

The researcher’s observations led to her making recordings of her own cats in different situations. Schotz then used the same methods to analyze the sounds as she uses when analyzing human speech. Many people assume that the only sound that cats make is ‘meow,’ and they just want to let you know they want to eat. However, the vast range of vocal cues observed by Schotz shows that is not the case. However, these observations only involved her own cats. To expand her research and make it viable, she consulted with the two scientists who became her co-researchers and with whom she won the award. They then obtained a small grant to fund further research.

The Research Findings

Schotz states that her findings show that cats have a language that they use to communicate with humans and other cats. Her results put an end to some people’s doubts that cats and humans cannot communicate. Furthermore, Schotz claims that it is possible for the animals to develop a feline group dialect in homes with multiple cats. In some multi-pet households, it is not uncommon for cats not to get along with each other. However, they will still communicate. They learn from each other which sounds are successful in getting what they want and adopt these sounds in their own vocabulary. On the other hand, Schotz acknowledges that cats do not necessarily communicate and use language in the same way as humans. They use a far more simplistic form of communication. She also acknowledges that further research in this area is needed. There are still doubters, so Schotz posted a video on YouTube that shows the different sounds her cats make. She hopes that this will dispel myths about how cats communicate.

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