Did you ever wonder if cats in your part of the world speak differently than those in other parts of the world?
I have. It all started when I found out what “meow” sounds like in various countries. In France, it’s “miaou,” whereas in Germany it’s “miau,” and in Japan it’s “nyaa.”
And now a team of Swedish researchers led by Susanne Schötz, who is a student of phonetics at Lund University, is launching a study to determine whether cats take on their guardians’ regional accents in their own vocalizations.
Schötz writes in her Lund University bio, “I am interested in the sounds cats use in their vocal communication with cats and humans, and how these sounds are combined and varied (and how humans perceive them).”
Cats use vocalizations primarily for our benefit, since we humans are just a bit too clueless to interpret the subtleties of feline body language. But even so, I think it’s possible that cats may misunderstand one another’s vocalizations, which can lead to some strange situations.
I can’t help but wonder if that’s part of the problem with the relationship between my cats, Thomas and Bella, and their relatively new housemate, Tara.
You see, Tara’s a Washington cat, and who knows what languages the people in her former home spoke? Thomas and Bella, however, are Maine cats, and they may have a distinctly New England-ish feline accent. I don’t know if they would get their accents from me, though, because although I may have a light Northeastern accent, it’s not strong enough that most people would immediately be able to determine that I’m from Maine.
But there will always be those regional differences in the way I talk. For example, I grew up pronouncing the word “route,” as in a road you take to get from one place to another, as “root,” whereas out here it’s pronounced “rowt.” From the years of studying the Spanish language, I learned that certain verbs that are pretty innocent in some countries are downright obscene in others.
Do these dialectical differences also play into feline misunderstandings? I suppose it’s possible. It’s also possible that even body language may have different meanings or implications in certain regional cat dialects.
Although body language is pretty universal in cats since it comes partly from instinct – think of a scared kitty’s “bottle-brush” tail – some of it is certainly taught to kittens by feline mothers, just like we humans learn our native tongue from listening to our parents and other adults around us speaking. Orphaned and bottle-fed kittens sometimes have trouble interacting with other cats because they don’t learn kitty language and social skills from other felines while they’re still young and their brains are developing at their quickest.
Many people’s accents change when they move to a new place, though. I find myself saying “rowt” for “route” a lot more often than I used to. I’ve also switched from saying “no problem” to “noo worries” as part of my Northwestern dialectic migration.
Maybe Tara’s accent will change as she continues to live with us, or maybe Thomas and Bella will start to understand her better and take on a Pacific Northwest accent.
In the meantime, my cats and I will be waiting to hear the results of Schötz’s research.