Cat phonetics

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Several people have asked me about an item that appeared this morning on the BBC's Breakfast on Sunday show, "Making sense of moggie meows":

Phonetics specialists at Lund University in Sweden hope to have cracked the feline code by the year 2021, to be able to interpret a whole range of 'meowings' and 'purrings'.

Susanne Schotz, Associate Professor of Phonetics at the University, said "about 90%" of the meows are likely to be cries for human attention, but that the study may allow us to learn how our dialects might affect our cat's own accent.  

Ms Schotz said she hopes learning to understand cats better will help provide a better way of life for our feline friends as well as aiding vets and other people who work with cats professionally.

A 3/10/2016 Lund University press release includes this YouTube video:

The press release text starts out this way:

Do you understand what your cat is saying? And does your cat understand what you are saying? The new research project “Melody in human-cat communication” at Lund University in Sweden may find the answer.

“We want to find out to what extent domestic cats are influenced by the language and dialect that humans use to speak to them, because it seems that cats use slightly different dialects in the sounds they produce”, says Associate Professor of Phonetics Susanne Schötz.

“In this project we will use phonetic analysis to compare cat sounds from two dialect areas in Sweden: Stockholm in the central part of Sweden, and Lund in the very south of Sweden.”

The project will be carried out over five years, until 2021, by three researchers from Lund and Linköping universities who will study intonation, voice and speaking style in human speech addressed to cats, as well as in cat vocalisations addressed to humans.

There's been a bit of media uptake already, from what is surely a looming cat communication tsunami:

Sarah Knapton, "What is your cat saying? Swedish scientists launch five year project to find out", The Telegraph 3/10/2016
Sarah Griffiths, "Does your cat have an ACCENT? Study hopes to reveal if felines 'speak' with different meows based on where they live", Daily Mail 3/10/2016

And this prescient piece from a couple of weeks ago — Karin Brulliard, "Meow experts agree: Your cat is demanding (but maybe not that grumpy)", Washington Post 2/24/2016.

There are a few published papers from earlier stages of the Lund project:

Suzanne Schötz & Joost van de Weijer, A Study of Human Perception of Intonation in Domestic Cat Meows,” Speech Prosody 2014:

This study examined human listeners’ ability to classify domestic cat vocalisations (meows) recorded in two different contexts; during feeding time (food related meows) and while waiting to visit a veterinarian (vet related meows). A pitch analysis showed a tendency for food related meows to have rising F0 contours, while vet related meows tended to have more falling F0 contours. 30 listeners judged twelve meows (six of each context) in a perception test. Classification accuracy was significantly above chance, and listeners who had reported previous experience with cats performed significantly better than inexperienced listeners. Moreover, the two food related meows with the highest classification accuracy showed clear rising F0 contours, while clear falling F0 contours characterised the two vet related meows that received the highest classification accuracy. Listeners also reported that some meows were very easy to classify, while others were more difficult. Taken together, these results suggest that cats may use different intonation patterns in their vocal interaction with humans, and that humans are able to identify the vocalisations based on intonation.

Susanne Schötz,  "A pilot study of human perception of emotions from domestic cat vocalisations",  Fonetik 2014:

This paper presents preliminary results from a pilot study where 36 human listeners classified 28 cat vocalisations into seven emotion categories. Classification accuracy and between-listener agreement varied considerably between vocalisations. The vocalisations were subdivided into categories based on the emotions perceived by most listeners and compared in an acoustic analysis. Preliminary results suggest that cats vary their intonation to signal different emotions, and that humans perceive them based on cues used to signal emotion in human speech. Surprisingly, the trill vocalisation used for friendly greetings was often misjudged as anger. Future work includes a deeper analysis of the results and also a comparative study of human–directed and cat–directed cat vocalisations.

Susanne Schötz, "Agonistic vocalisations in domestic cats: a case study", Fonetik 2015:

Introducing a new cat to a home with resident cats may lead to stress, aggression and even fights. In this case study 468 agonistic cat vocalisations were recorded as one cat was introduced to three resident cats in her new home. Six vocalisation types were identified: growl, howl, howl-growl, hiss, spit and snarl. Numerous other intermediate and complex vocalisations were also observed. An acoustic analysis showed differences within and between all types. Future studies include further acoustic analyses of cat vocalisations produced by a larger number of cats.

So much for Paul Basken's question in the 1/24/2016 Chronicle of Higher Education: "Is University Research Missing What Matters Most?"

Seriously, billions of internet users have voted with their clicks to identify cat communication as a key topic for scientific inquiry. Though not a heavy consumer of cat videos, I myself think that this is excellent and interesting work, and I look forward to future reports. And I'll add that dog vocalizations should not be neglected.


Also, for those non-UK readers who (like me) are new to the word moggie, the OED explains that it's

Probably variant of maggie n.. Compare also malkin n., Meg n.

and gives the following glosses:

1.acolloq. (orig. and chiefly Sc. and Eng. regional). Originally: a girl, a young woman. Later: an untidily dressed woman. Now rare.
b. Eng. regional. A stuffed figure; a guy, scarecrow, etc. rare.
2. Eng. regional (chiefly west midl.). A calf, a cow.
3. colloq. (chiefly Brit.) A (domestic) cat, esp. a non-pedigree or otherwise unremarkable one.



  1. Rod Johnson said,

    March 13, 2016 @ 12:05 pm

    Thanks for the moggie note. That was completely unfamiliar (except possibly for the existence of a cat named Mogget in a book I once read).

  2. john burke said,

    March 13, 2016 @ 12:07 pm

    "Would you like a moggie? They make nice pets."

  3. Victor Mair said,

    March 13, 2016 @ 12:13 pm

    Definitely should not leave dogs out of the picture. There are countless videos of talking dogs, including this one that is singing a duet with a human:

    duet qen-hoxhë në krujë / dog & imam duet

    [(myl) See also "Talking seals and singing dogs", 11/28/2003.]

  4. Richard said,

    March 13, 2016 @ 1:03 pm

    An article about the meaning of dog barks:

  5. cameron said,

    March 13, 2016 @ 2:05 pm

    I'm hoping someone releases a version of "När en Flicka talar Skånska", as När en Katt talar Skånska . . .

    It should be done

  6. Starry Gordon said,

    March 13, 2016 @ 2:06 pm

    I have read that cats do not use meowing to communicate with each other; it develops as an attempt to communicate with humans, and may sound to cats something like human speech. In that case cats' meows ought to be affected by the language of the humans they have been listening to and are trying to communicate with.

    I have also observed dogs attempting to produce human-like speech, as with the dog-imam duet, but people don't make as much of this as they do of cat meows for some reason, possibly because of its lower frequency. A meowing cat can sound like a crying human infant.

  7. Evan Harper said,

    March 13, 2016 @ 2:12 pm

    > "about 90%" of the meows are likely to be cries for human attention

    Relevant Gary Larson:

  8. john burke said,

    March 13, 2016 @ 2:23 pm

    Sorry, wrong clip:

  9. Mike Maxwell said,

    March 13, 2016 @ 2:51 pm

    I already know what my cats are saying to me: "Pay attention, servant!"

  10. kitteh said,

    March 13, 2016 @ 5:43 pm

    I wonder if the dog is trying to sing along with imam or complaining about the volume hurting his ears. It sounds loud in the video and I know those speakers are cranked to a level that can be painful for humans. He does look more like he's harmonizing than the usual backyard victim complaining about a fire truck or traffic cop going by but it would take more data to prove there's a real difference.

  11. David L said,

    March 13, 2016 @ 5:59 pm

    I recently came across another piece of in-depth analysis by the Beeb — a two-part series "Cats vs Dogs: which is best?"
    (you can find both shows on YouTube if you're sufficiently intrigued).

    In one segment they assembled half a dozen cat owners and played recordings of their various cats. They asked the participants to identify their cats from the sounds, and also try to guess what the cat was saying (e.g. feed me, let me out, pick me up etc).

    As I recall the owners were very good at identifying their cats but only a little better than random at guessing the message.

  12. V said,

    March 13, 2016 @ 9:54 pm

    I remember reading that mewing is cats retaining neonatal behaviour as they perceive their owner as mother-figures, and they don't use it when communicating with each other, which is mainly hissing. This apparently arose as part of their domestication?

  13. Mark Mandel said,

    March 13, 2016 @ 10:12 pm

    Back in the mid-eighties, pre-WWW, I created on a BBS an online persona that I still use:
    Dr. Whom: Consulting Linguist, Grammarian, Orthoëpist, and Philological Busybody

    The Doctor's page on the BBS described him as working at a desk covered with books, journals, and papers, with four of them open around the article he was working on: "Sigmoid-F₂ tetraphthongs in Ailurin". Ailurin is the name the fantasy author Diane Duane uses for the language of cats in her "Young Wizards" series.

    And my cat is complaining to me. I think she wants more snackies.

  14. Starry Gordon said,

    March 13, 2016 @ 10:56 pm

    Domestic cats that could engage the favorable attention of humans would have a better chance of survival and reproduction than those that could not, and cats have been hanging around with humans for several thousand years, so ruthless old Evolution would select for meows. Not only are the cats trying to communicate with us, but their genes are trying to communicate with ours. Looks like it worked to some extent.

  15. rwmg said,

    March 14, 2016 @ 3:18 am

    A warning of where this may lead from Saki.

  16. Mark P said,

    March 14, 2016 @ 11:56 am

    I think the real question is whether dogs can understand what cats are trying to communicate with their vocalizations. I know from personal experience that when some of our cats get into a loud vocal disagreement, our dogs get very excited. They can tell that something is going down. I don't know whether they are cheering on one side or the other, but there is obviously some general enthusiasm about the idea of a cat fight. The dogs also seem to understand what a cat hiss means, especially when directed at them.

  17. maidhc said,

    March 14, 2016 @ 5:15 pm

    Cats don't normally meow to each other, but they make all kinds of other sounds. Mothers meow to kittens and vice versa. I think cats meow to humans because they think we are stupid like kittens.

    That said, we have one cat who never meows. She does have a wide variety of other sounds–like when she wants her breakfast she does a series of little grunts.

  18. Chas Belov said,

    March 14, 2016 @ 6:26 pm

    Okay, my experience with cat language as a non-pet person:

    Normally, my father's cat Fuzz and I would ignore each other. But occasionally, there would be an afternoon or evening when the rest of the family was out and I stayed back. I'd be reading in the recliner, and Fuzz would come by, make a rising trill, and jump into my lap. That was her signal to me for "Here I come," I suppose.

    One time, I was stroking a cat named Pyewacket. He would award the strokes with a purr. I was not doing this action continuously though, and he would meow to inform me to resume. What was interesting to me was that the purr had not run its course prior to the meow, so the meow came out with a vibrating sound. This happened multiple times during this stroking session.

  19. Jason said,

    March 15, 2016 @ 6:57 am

    I think there is even more ways we can communicate with cats (and indeed other animals for that matter). Things like body language (aka horse whispering), learning about behaviour traits in cats and even picking up on their vibes when we quiet our minds.

  20. Bean said,

    March 15, 2016 @ 10:21 am

    We also had a non-meowing cat who vocalized in other ways. She meowed about once a year, if something was really wrong, but it always sounded rusty. Like your own voice for the first thing you utter in the morning.

    Animal vocalization is a perfectly respectable field of research. The field as I am familiar with it skews heavily toward marine mammals, because that's where the funding is (e.g., and many others). But it's always interesting going to a session of animal bioacoustics talks; it reminds you that there's a big world of non-human communication out there.

  21. Catanea said,

    March 15, 2016 @ 2:27 pm

    But the (rather NON-domestic) cats in our village yowl something fierce. That's meowing with a vengeance. And it is at each other. Usually when it is two toms challenging each other over a young queen. It goes on and on. Unless we get out the watergun. I am sure they are NOT trying to communicate with their mothers, nor with any humans.

  22. Joyce Melton said,

    March 15, 2016 @ 4:51 pm

    I had a cat that had four distinct meows for different needs. One was "I'm hungry," with another different meow for "waterbowl is empty" and a third for "empty the litter box". The last was her "You may pet me now," meow. She had other sounds she made, including other meows, but I was never able to attach distinct messages to them.

  23. RuthAnne said,

    March 15, 2016 @ 9:22 pm

    Will the study overlap or otherwise interact with tail movement and body language?

  24. Graeme said,

    March 16, 2016 @ 8:37 pm

    Selection for domestication extends to a lot of traits – once hunting skills, now the reverse. Meowing. Purring. Soon there will be just one huge, non moulting, lazy, 'smiling' and leg rubbing cat to dominate the market.

    Cynicism aside, I've had moggies that rarely meowed and yet one now that has a distinct if limited vocabulary set: one each for greeting, hunger, door-opening requests and – touchingly – an acknowledgement (a thank you?) as it walks through the now-opened door.

  25. Stan Carey said,

    March 19, 2016 @ 6:39 am

    Joyce, in Ulysses, rendered a lovely sequence of cat vocalisations while it waited for breakfast: Mkgnao!, Mrkgnao!, Mrkrgnao!, Gurrhr!.

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