A few years ago when Bud was a bit more of a daredevil than he is now, I was sitting on my balcony on a warm summer night when the little dumbass squeezed through the railing bars and did a circuit of the balcony outside the rail — with only three or four inches of ledge between him and a potentially brutal fall onto the concrete below.
“Bud!” I said, feeling my own fear of heights bubble up as I watched him take his precarious stroll.
He ignored me.
“Bud!” I said again, loud enough to make sure he heard me but not so loud as to startle him and cause him to fall. “Bud! I’m talking to you! Get back over here right now!”
He paid me no mind. I stood up, put my hands on the railing and looked down at him.
“Buddy, get back here now! I’m not gonna say it again!”
At that point I realized there was a couple about my age, probably returning from the bars, drunk-walking toward the back door of the building and watching me have a furious one-sided discussion with my cat. They seemed to think it was hilarious, not only because I was speaking to my cat, but also because I was talking to the little stinker like he was a person.
I don’t baby talk with Buddy, and I’ve noticed my brother doesn’t baby talk his dog, Cosmo.
Sure I’ll speak to Bud warmly and encourage him when he’s clearly frightened of something. (Which is very rare, of course, because he’s such a fearless and brave tiger!) But it isn’t baby talk, and 95 percent of the time I speak to little man as if he’s, well, a little man.
It turns out I may be “doing it wrong,” at least according to some veterinarians and animal behaviorists who say baby talk is a good way to communicate with pets. Animal behaviorists call it “pet-directed speech,” and although the studies so far have been limited, they seem to suggest cats (and dogs) are more likely to respond to it than typical speech in normal registers and cadences. (A study published in the journal Animal Cognition earlier this year found horses respond well to “baby talk” too.)
Despite that, I just can’t bring myself to do it. There are certain standards we must uphold in this home, and besides, I’m pretty sure Bud would paw-smack me if one day I scratched his head and started saying “Who’s a good widdle boy? Is that you? Are you the good widdle boy? Yes you are! Yes you — OUCH! What the hell, dude? Why’d you do that?”
A while back I wrote a post about MeowTalk, a new app that uses AI — and input from thousands of users sampling their cats’ vocalizations — to translate meows, trills and chirps for the benefit of those of us who don’t fluently speak cat or might need some clarity on what our furry friends are trying to say.
Now that I’ve finally had the opportunity to give MeowTalk a spin, it turns out Bud is a much more polite cat than I thought he was!
What I thought was an unenthusiastic “I acknowledge your presence, human” turned out to be “Nice to see you!” according to MeowTalk.
Buddy’s next meows were “Love me!” and “I love you!”, the app informed me. Weird. I thought he was complaining that I was only half-heartedly simulating prey with his wand toy while watching Jeopardy.
After Jeopardy I headed to the bathroom, which was the real test.
I intentionally closed the door before the little stinker could sneak in the bathroom with me, then held up the phone to capture his muted vocalization. I was sure Bud was saying “Open the door!” but the app told me Buddy was saying “I’m in love!”
Awww. What a good boy. How could I not let him in?
Once inside, Buddy began talking again as I knew he would. He’s a vocal cat.
“I’m looking for love!” the app translated as Bud pawed at the door, demanding to be let back out again. “My love, come find me!”
What was going on here?
Was Bud really professing his undying love for me, his human, or was he workshopping cheesy dialogue for a feline romance novel he’s been secretly working on?
Thankfully, MeowTalk allows you to correct translations if you think the app’s gotten them wrong. This looks more like it:
MeowTalk is in beta, and it can only get better as more users download the app, make profiles for their cats and make an effort to tag vocalizations with their correct meaning.
The app was authored by a software engineer who was part of the team that brought Amazon’s Alexa to life, and the algorithms that power it already show promise: When the app is listening (which it does only actively, after you have explicitly given it permission to do so), it does a great job of distinguishing cat vocalizations from background noise, human chatter, televisions and other incidental sounds. Even my fake meows were unable to fool it.
Each vocalization is sampled and saved to the history tab of your cat’s profile, so you can review and adjust the translations later. If you’ve got more than one cat you can make profiles for each one, and the app says it can tell which cat is talking. I wasn’t able to test this since the King does not allow interlopers in his kingdom, but given MeowTalk’s accuracy in distinguishing meows from every other sound — even with lots of background chatter — I have no reason to doubt it can sort vocalizations by cat.
In some respects it reminds me of Waze, the irreplaceable map and real-time route app famous for saving time and eliminating frustration. I was one of the first to download the app when it launched and found it useless, but when I tried it again a few months later, it steered me past traffic jams and got me to my destination with no fuss.
What was the difference? Few people were using it in those first few days, but as the user base expanded, so did its usefulness.
Like Waze, MeowTalk’s value is in its users, and the data it collects from us. The more cats it hears, the better it’ll become at translating them. If enough of us give it an honest shot, it just may turn out to be the feline equivalent of a universal translator.
And if it’s successful, its creator wants to make a standalone version as a collar, which would translate our cats’ vocalizations in real time. As far as I’m concerned, anything that can help us better understand our cats is a good thing.
I’d been in Japan for almost two weeks last year when I dialed back to the States on a Facetime call and my mom — who had been taking care of Buddy in my absence — held Bud up to her iPad.
“Someone wants to say hi to you,” she said.
Buddy looked at me, then tentatively blinked with one eye. When I returned the blink, he meowed excitedly, reaching a paw out to the screen.
Aside from making me feel bad about leaving my cat for so long, the exchange between Bud and I seemed to confirm the importance of the slow eye-blink in feline-human communication. It also confirmed that he missed me.
Now there’s a formal study that, for the first time, shows cats are more relaxed and more likely to approach humans — even strangers — if they’re greeted with a slow blink. Cats also like to reciprocate with a slow blink of their own when greeted that way, the study found.
“This study is the first to experimentally investigate the role of slow blinking in cat-human communication,” said Karen McComb, a psychologist from the University of Sussex and co-author of the study. “And it is something you can try yourself with your own cat at home, or with cats you meet in the street. It’s a great way of enhancing the bond you have with cats. Try narrowing your eyes at them as you would in a relaxed smile, followed by closing your eyes for a couple of seconds. You’ll find they respond in the same way themselves and you can start a sort of conversation.”
Why does a slow blink put cats at ease?
Tasmin Humphrey, a Ph.D. student and study co-author, said it’s “possible that slow blinking in cats began as a way to interrupt an unbroken stare, which is potentially threatening in social interaction.”
The researchers say their results could help people communicate more clearly with their cats, and could be useful in shelters, where staff and volunteers are often tasked with trying to calm scared cats.
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.
We know the meow originates as a way kittens communicate with their mothers, and adults generally don’t meow to each other. In fact, the iconic vocalization — which is the cat’s actual name in some languages — is a feline’s attempt to communicate with us, their human caretakers.
Give the little stinkers the credit they deserve: They know we don’t read tail, whisker, ear or even feline facial expressions very well, and they know we communicate verbally, so they meow to us.
We also know house cats develop exclusive “languages” with their favorite humans, forming personal and proprietary ways of exchanging information.
They’re even capable of meowing at the same frequency as a human baby’s cries by embedding the infant-like call in their purrs: Because we humans are hard-wired by evolution to respond urgently to those frequencies, our feline friends quickly realize their “solicitation purrs” are the most effective way to get our attention.
Clearly they’re manipulating us, not the other way around.
Have you decoded your cat’s repertoire of meows and other vocalizations? In addition to the meow — which comes in several different types and forms — cats can chirp, trill, chatter, growl, chirrup and purr.
Buddy is a very vocal kitty, and he likes to use trills to communicate. Here are Buddy’s favorite “words” and sentiments:
Hrrrruuuhh – “Okay then”/”I have no idea what you’re talking about”/”Sorry, not interested”
Brrrrr! Brrrrt! – “I don’t like this!” or “I don’t know about this!” (Heavy trill sound.)
(The brrrrt sound goes all the way back to Bud’s babyhood, when he wasn’t litter box trained and got nervous every time he had to eliminate. To this day, he makes that sound when he’s nervous and unsure of what to do.)
Brrrrruuuup! – “I’m fast! Watch me run! I’m running!”
(A vocalization that serves as a prelude to an energy-expending burst of activity.)
Rrrrooow! – “No!”/An expression of annoyance. May also mean “Get away from me!” in certain contexts.
Ahhhhmmmm – “Interesting!” High-pitched.
Hurrrrr – Affirmation. “Bud, do you want turkey tonight?” “Hurrrrr!”
Mmmmohhh! – “Oh, but I want to!” (Reserved for when he’s told not to do something, like scratch the couch.)
Excited chatter – About to receive catnip or one of his favorite foods.
Mrrrump! – Straining or jumping down. Often heard as he hits the ground when jumping down from a couch or bed.
Nyeeea – Okay, I’m awake!
Mmmyeoowww! – I WANT FOOD!
Mrrrrrrrooww! – I WANT FOOD!
Mrrooww! Mrrooww! – FOOD NOW!
Bah! Bah! – You jerk!
Mnyakk ak ak! – A chattering sound. “I see birds! I see birds and I can’t attack them!”
Incessant crying – Open the door so I can come in, and after five minutes I’ll cry again until you let me out. Then I’ll do it again until you let me in…
You, dear reader, have your own private language with your cat(s) too, whether you’re consciously aware of it or not. If you haven’t given it much thought, pay close attention to the sounds your cat makes and the ways you respond…and don’t get too freaked out when you realize who really runs your home. 🙂
Feline humor, news and stories about the ongoing adventures of Buddy the Cat.