A new, internet-breaking viral video appears to capture a cat speaking English, prompting a wave of speculation about whether cats are basically furry parrots when it comes to talent for mimicry.
The TikTok clip features a voice saying “Hello” and “Are you coming?” followed by an amused narrator turning the camera on his cat and incredulously asking “What did you just say?”
The video’s viral success has led to a net-wide conversation about animal cognition, and whether cats in particular understand far more than they let on.
“And this is a proof that animals can talk,” one TikTok user commented, summing up much of the online reaction to the clip.
It should be noted the handful of times cats have been recorded producing vaguely human-sounding speech, the sounds were stress vocalizations from terrified or anxious cats.
That’s what’s happening in the famous “Oh long Johnson, oh don piano!” video, in which a stressed out tuxedo vocalizes a few phrases before proceeding with more gibberish. To people who aren’t familiar with cats the video may seem funny, but those of us who care for the little tigers can recognize the signs of extreme agitation.
Here’s the “Oh long Johnson” video:
And here’s the new “Hello!”/“Are you coming?” video:
The viral TikTok video is a whole different ballgame: The words are well-formed, the sound is clear, and the phrase makes sense.
Unfortunately, it’s not real.
First I’ll point out the obvious: The cat is off-camera when it “speaks” because painstakingly editing video to make its mouth move in sync is a much more difficult task than dubbing in a vocal file.
Secondly, a careful listening with headphones makes it clear the “Hello” and “Are you coming?” are not from the same source as the meow, and the directional mix isn’t right. The sound should be distorted and should be directional if it’s coming from a cat in the next room, to the right of the person recording the scene on a smartphone.
This was an audio cut and paste job without much attention paid to detail. The video’s creator didn’t bother panning the clip.
But perhaps most damning of all, the sound looks wrong. I isolated clips of the cat “speaking” in a wave editor — an old copy of the ultra-reliable Cool Edit Pro — and compared them to various samples of cat meows pulled from the Internet and sampled from Buddy himself.
When visualized in an audio editor, “the waveform of speech is complex and variable, reflecting the variety of vowels and consonants that are used and the dynamic nature of speech articulation.”
In other words, you can see the stops and starts of human speech and the articulations of different sounds reflected in how the audio appears visually. This is because we have fine motor control over our vocal apparatus, something animals lack. (A 2016 Princeton study determined macaques, for example, have the necessary vocal anatomy to mimic human speech, but they don’t have the “brain circuitry” to form the precise articulations.)
Cat vocalizations, on the other hand, lack those markers. Additionally, at higher resolutions you can see patterns indicative of rhythmic sounds in samples of cat vocalizations, not unlike isolated drum tracks in a studio recording.
This is because feline meows often have embedded purrs, and trills are naturally quantized. They’re rhythmic sounds. If you’ve ever had a purring cat laying on your chest, this will be familiar to you: You can hear the percussive sound, which persists while the cat is exhaling and inhaling.
Solicitation purrs and even basic meows have similar qualities. It’s a well-known fact that cats communicate with each other via body language — tail, eyes, ears, posture — and scent. Adult cats rarely vocalize to each other, so when they meow to us it’s because they recognize that we don’t “speak” tail or whisker, and they’re trying to communicate with us in a form we understand.
But cats are like macaques — they do not possess the brain circuitry to form the precise articulations necessary for human speech.
As primates, macaques have similarly-formed mouths, tongues, teeth and lips. Cats do not, which presents another set of problems when imagining them mimicking human speech. Think of “t” sounds, both the hard t and the soft “th” — they require us to rest our tongues against our upper front teeth or the roof of our mouths.
Cats don’t have substantial front teeth. They’re more like little shredders.
Likewise, to speak the phrase “Are you coming?” requires fine motor control to form the hard “c” sound. It involves precise control of air flow from the throat to the mouth and subtle placement of the tongue
Although the idea of talking pets may be appealing to generations that grew up on Disney movies and other media featuring anthropomorphized animals, the truth is they do talk to us in their own ways. The least we can do, as the supposedly more intelligent species, is to meet them halfway.