Chatty cats became a global media hit
Cats that meow with a dialect have caused a sensation in the world media. Robert Eklund, senior lecturer at the Department of Culture and Communication, and language researcher and associate professor in computational linguistics, has lost count of the number of times that the research carried out in the Meowsic project has been reported in the media.
National Geographic, The Washington Post, the BBC, Le Matin, Der Spiegel, … media in Argentina and Vietnam, and pretty much the complete media spectrum in Sweden: Rapport, Aktuellt, Expressen, SvD, Gokväll, local TV and radio throughout Sweden, and not forgetting the popular science programme “Vetenskapsradion” from Radio Sweden, even cultural shows such as radio programme “Spanarna”, no one has been able to resist reporting on the Meowsic research project, which is investigating communication between humans and their cats.
The news items range from serious research journalism to pure entertainment. Somehow, cats seem to inspire both witty headlines and cute photographs.
How does a serious scientist react to so much attention in the media?
“Well, I suppose you just have to accept that some people are going to make a joke of it. But when research is presented as something that is just a bit of fun, in a pastiche news item that lasts a minute or so, not everyone finds it funny. This is clear from my e-mail inbox: some people think I should start looking for a new job, while others are upset that research funds are being used for such rubbish. I have to spend time answering these and explaining that the work is based on serious research questions,” says Robert Eklund, senior lecturer in language and culture specialising in phonetics at the Department of Culture and Communication.
This is a new experience for Robert Eklund. He has been a focus of media attention before, when working as language specialist at Swedish telecommunications giant Telia where he developed computer systems to carry out a dialogue with customers, listen and answer questions.
“That project also received a lot of attention from the media, but there was none of the frivolity that the Meowsic project has aroused. That’s the big difference this time round: people making a joke of it all. As researchers I suppose we just have to accept that certain research areas and projects are natural targets for this sort of thing.”
The Meowsic project, Melody in human-cat communication, has a five-year research grant from the Marcus and Amalia Wallenberg Foundation, and is led by Lund University. The project started officially in August 2016, but as early as February the researchers working in Meowsic, Susanne Schötz and her colleague Joost van the Weijer in Lund and Robert Eklund at LiU, had been noticed by the international media, including National Geographic, The Washington Post, Der Spiegel, and the BBC.
It’s possible - indeed probable - that cats meow in a melody that they take on from their owners. And the very thought that cats are able to adopt a form of dialect-based meowing really got the media’s attention.
The media circus was in town.
“I told the research group that I would keep track of reporting in the media, but I had no idea then how much it would be. Wow! We lost count after hundreds of news items,” says Robert Eklund.
And interest has remained high after the initial rush.
It was particularly intense on 19 November, and he was forced to weave together his teaching in speech and language pathology with three radio interviews.
“I did one interview on the staircase between the lecture theatre and my office at the University Hospital, another on the way to the train station in Linköping, and the third live on the train between Linköping and Norrköping, on my way home to Stockholm. It was totally crazy,” he says, laughing.
The idea of cats talking to humans – Robert Eklund describes it as a form of pidgin language – had previously been dealt with in depth by the radio programme Vetenskapsradion Forum at the end of August.
“This programme became one of the most popular episodes in the history of the programme, and has been re-broadcast more times than nearly any other, the people at Radio Sweden have told us.”
The researchers have not even tried to keep track of social media: it’s enough to have an overflowing inbox.
“Untold numbers of cat owners are more than happy to tell us all about their cats, or want answers to their questions. There’s no way we can reply to them all. But on the other hand, it’s really positive that our research is arousing attention, so the project has opened its own website where people who are interested can follow what’s happening.”
Why are people so fascinated by cats?
“That’s a question for someone other than me! I’ve got no idea! And remember - there’s been quite a bit of research done on the way that many other species vocalise, so basically the work we are doing with cats is not new. Whales, seals, apes … as long ago as in Ancient Greece Aristoteles concluded that birds in different parts of the country used different dialects.”
But simply googling “cat” is enough to show that cats are special.
The Swedish word “katt” gives 8 million hits, while the English “cat” gives 500 million. The estimated number of pet cats in the world is 600 million, so it’s clear that there is something special about this animal with which we have shared our homes for around 10,000 years.
And the research carried out in Meowsic is definitely something new, as was the work the researchers carried out for several years before the start of the project.
“It all started for me with cheetahs when I was working as a volunteer on a South African conservation project. They purr during both inhalation and exhalation, and as a phoneticist I found this interesting. I waded through innumerable research reports about various species of cat, but found that their vocalisation or the sounds they make in different situations is rarely mentioned, other than in passing and as an anecdote,” says Robert Eklund.
One humorous exception is the study ”Pussy and her language” from 1895 (Marvin R Clark). This presents cat glossaries, rules of grammar, and prosodic analysis (showing the rhythm and pitch of cat language). It points out that cats have a word for cooked meat: bleeme-bl.
“It’s probably a good idea to make it clear that Clark’s work should not be taken seriously,” Robert Eklund points out, with a glint in his eye.
How the anatomy of the speech organs of various species influences their possibilities to produce sound, and the different cognitive abilities of species when learning to communicate by sound are, of course, interesting, not just to linguists.
“Communication between species has become a branch of science that more and more people are finding interesting. We can generally say that current research shows that animals have impressive abilities in communication, much more advanced than we have realised.”
“In the Meowsic project we want to study the ability of cats to communicate across species boundaries. They have learned to use the melody of language in a specific way in their day-to-day interaction with their owners. They way in which they learn language can tell us a great deal about how humans developed language abilities.”
Do the cats benefit from the project?
“The better understanding we have of their communication, the better life they can experience as pets. We can adapt the way in which we care for cats better to their needs. And when they need medical care, for example, vets will be better able to interpret the cat patients.”
Text: Gunilla Pravitz
Photos: Gunilla Pravitz, the Meowsic blog (newspaper placard Le Matin) and Wikipedia Commons: John B. Moisant with his famous cat Mademoiselle Fifi, the first passengers to fly across the English Channel, 23 August 1910.
Previous articles on LiU.se:
Does your cat speak a dialect? (LiU Research news, 6 April 2016)
Solving the mystery of purring
First Swedish conference: Vocal Interactivity in-and-between Humans, Animals and Robots (VIHAR)
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Last updated: 2017-02-13