'Meow' isn't language, but enough to manage humans

ITHACA, N.Y. -- After more than 5,000 years of human-feline cohabitation and enough elaborations on "meow!" to fill a dictionary, cats still haven't mastered language. But a Cornell University evolutionary psychology study -- analyzing people's reactions to feline vocalizations -- shows that cats know how to get what they want.

"No matter what we like to believe, cats are probably not using language," says Nicholas Nicastro, a self-described cat person who has documented hundreds of different feline vocalizations in the common house cat (Felis catus ) and its ancestor, the African wild cat (Felis silvestris lybica ). His study, which he will describe June 5, 2002, at the 143rd meeting of the Acoustical Society of America, in Pittsburgh, "shows that some very effective cat-to-human communication is going on," he says. "Though they lack language, cats have become very skilled at managing humans to get what they want ---- basically food, shelter and a little human affection."

The communication study began when Nicastro, a graduate student, compiled a sample of 100 different vocalizations from 12 cats. No cats were harmed in the experiment, although a few human eardrums were stretched by what came next: He played back the recorded cat calls to 26 human volunteers and asked them to rate each sound for pleasantness and appeal, on a scale of 1 to 7. Nicastro played the same 100 sounds to a second set of 28 volunteers and asked them to indicate how urgent and demanding the sounds were, also on a 1-to-7 scale. He then analyzed the calls to see which acoustic features tended to go with pleasant or urgent meows.

Nicastro, who is a student in the laboratory of Cornell psychology assistant professor Michael Owren, found a clear negative relationship between pleasantness and urgency, rooted in how the calls sounded. "The sounds rated as more urgent (or less pleasant) were longer,". Nicastro says, "with more energy in the lower frequencies, al

Contact: Roger Segelken
Cornell University News Service

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