There’s a mystery in The Aristocats — that classic 1970 Disney movie about felines falling in love, dodging murder, and prowling around Paris — that no one has been able to satisfyingly explain: Why, when all of the cats are French, do they have such a wide variety of accents? Family matriarch Duchess is vaguely French, I guess, but O’Malley the alley cat is American, and I don’t even know what the kittens are — British, maybe.
The simplest explanation, if we’re going to seriously engage with the linguistics of a kids’ movie about anthropomorphic cats, is that they have different accents for the same reason humans do: They’re all from different places. Previous research has found that whales, cows, and macaques all have their own regional dialects, after all; maybe cats do, too.
Anyway, that’s one of the hypotheses of a new research project out of Lund University in Sweden, spearheaded by a team of linguists and supported by a group of consultants that includes animal behaviorists, a zoologist, and a veterinarian. Officially named “Melody in Human-Cat Communication,” the project — delightfully nicknamed “Meowsic” — is investigating the nuances of how cats speak to their humans.
In late 2015, the team received a grant to start its first wave of research (and, oh my God, please look at the cakes they made to celebrate). Their initial focus will be on prosody, the patterns of pitch and inflection that add another layer of meaning to spoken words. If you hear a muffled conversation in the next room, for instance, you may not be able to make out the words, but prosody can help you figure out if it’s a happy exchange or a fight. Similarly, they believe that there may be measurable, universal differences in the tones cats use to communicate pleasure or annoyance, and plan to record and analyze them to find out.
Meowsic researcher Robert Eklund, a linguistics professor at Linköping University, says that knowing the meanings of these tones can prove beneficial for cats and humans alike. “If you know how to interpret the vocalizations, you can read the mental states of the animals,” he says. “How can this kind of information help us actually treat the animals better, to read their intentions and understand what they are trying to say?” And understanding their intentions, in turn, may help us better adapt cats to our needs — for instance, helping them become more effective therapy animals. (Past research has shown that owning a cat can positively affect blood pressure and stress, and they’ve also been used to ease symptoms of depression and anxiety.)
And, of course, Eklund and his colleagues also plan to investigate whether a given cat sound differs from place to place. Informally, he says, his research partner Susanne Schötz has already been collecting anecdotal evidence for accents when she presents on their project at conferences: “People approach her and say, ‘Oh, my cat doesn’t say that, it goes like this,” he says, making two meowing noises. (And they were discernibly different — throughout our conversation, Eklund used a pretty wide range of meows to illustrate his points.)
Ecklund, who also runs Purring.org, an online repository for research on, well, purring, believes that, over time, people and housecats may have co-evolved unique ways of speaking to one another — the same way you might lower your voice when talking to someone in a position of authority, for example — but on a much longer time scale. “Cats and humans have lived together for 10,000 years. That’s way longer than we can trace human language back in time,” he says. (Some researchers estimate that we domesticated the first wild cats up to 120 centuries ago.) “We constantly adapt to each other. It’s part of being a social animal that we have these huge adaptations when it comes to vocalizations.”
Over those 10,000 years, though, some people have had an easier time than others adapting to life with feline friends. Eklund — cat researcher, cat enthusiast, recorder of cat purrs — is also allergic to cats.