Blog Post

Stop Right Meow!

Picture this: A girl, surrounded by bubbles and dubiously suspending her phone a couple inches from the bathwater as she’s crying about the usual angsty life issues a 20-something faces on the precipice of graduation. She looks to her best friend and confidant, a lanky black cat named Monkey. She sobs, “I know I’m pathetic, but thanks for always listening”. Monkey stares blankly, he appears to just enjoy being near water and staring at naked bodies. Strange, pervy being.

“I don’t think anyone understands me like you do,” she adds, “I love you.” Like Bagheera from The Jungle Book (1967), he becomes more animated, stepping along the edges of the bath like a tight-rope walker. Once he’s close enough, he looks directly into her eyes before making the “prrrp!” sound that all cat-owners will know and love. Boop. He touches his nose against hers.

Monkey, my miniature panther (Image: Peter Thompson, edited by Joan Redelinghuys)

While the whiny and pathetic girl being described here is yours truly, this also features my darling of a cat. Confession: I have two cats, but Minion kind of hates me, unlike Monkey. I’m already convinced that I can understand him and communicate with him fully, but this got me thinking about how cats and humans communicate. After all, I’d much rather spend a day with my cat than most of the humans that I know. (As I’m typing this, I realise that no one won’t take offence to that. Unfortunately, the only being I’m complimenting here can’t read.) Call me a crazy cat lady all you want, but cat linguistics is my new future career.

Yes, cat linguistics. Linguists at Lund University in Sweden are leading a project titled “Melody in Human-Cat Communication,”, Meowsic for short. Their study focuses on how cats speak to their humans. By looking at different families and recording the cat-human interactions in their homes, they may discover cats having varying accents.

Studies have revealed other animals, like the sperm whale, have ‘accents’ or regional dialects. What this basically means is that a sperm whales from different groups have varying codas. One ‘clique’ will sound slightly different to another. When we look at dialects among humans, they’re used as social identifiers, creating belonging. We tend to speak like our peers and those we identify with. Dialects create both a sense of inclusivity and exclusivity. I can’t help but chuckle at the thought of sperm whales in a scene from the Oceanic Mean Girls (2004): If you’re not using ‘like’, you can’t sit with us. (Check out my post on ‘like’ for more.)

But in all seriousness, these differing codas create a sense of belonging. With cats, perhaps each family has their own dialect. Maybe I’m not just a crazy cat lady, maybe I really can understand my cats and everyone else just thinks I’m nuts because they don’t understand our human-cat dialect.

In the meantime, I’ll continue trying to fit in with my cats. (Ears from Wandering Neko, photo edited by Joan Redelinghuys)



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