My cat is something of a legend among people who have met him. He’s a handsome fellow in a fur tuxedo, but that’s not what makes an impression. It’s his meow — a raspy, baritone, reproachful mrow that you can experience for yourself, if your eardrums dare, in the video above (he’s cat No. 1).
He wields it around the clock, loudly. Visitors take video of the spectacle. Why, they ask, does Enzo meow like that?
It’s a good question. Unlike dogs, which range in size from teacup Chihuahuas to ursine Newfoundlands and usually have barks to match, domestic cats’ body types don’t vary that much (with some exceptions — ahem, Ulric). But some have meek mews and others fervent yowls, as seen in the video.
Although there isn’t a lot of research on cat voices, meow experts — and there are a few — say the explanation probably lies in the same complicated mixture that leads to different human voices: Anatomy, such as body size or length of vocal cords; gender; the amount of effort the cat puts into talking; and no small dash of personality. Breed, such as it exists in the average mutt cat, likely also plays a role.
More clear is that although Enzo sounds like a professional scold, it seems he might actually be happy. But we’ll come back to that.
First, some basics on cat conversation — or vocalizations, as researchers refer to the sounds they make. In 1944, researcher Mildred Moelk outlined what remains the definitive — though still debated – cat lexicon. She identified 16 sound patterns in three categories, and they include much more than meows. There are the mouth-open, heavy breathing sounds, such as hissing and shrieking, which cats use when they’re feeling aggressive. There are sounds cats make with their mouths closed, such as purrs and trills; those seem to indicate contentedness.
Cats make more typical meow sounds by opening and closing their mouths, and those sounds can be friendly or — shocker — demanding. But adult cats meow only to humans, not to each other, probably because their mothers stopped responding once they were weaned.
“Cats vocalize so well to us because they’ve learned that we humans are really not all that on the ball in figuring out what the tail swish means, what the ear twitch means,” said Gary Weitzman, president and CEO of the San Diego Humane Society and author of “How to Speak Cat.”
But people do respond to cat calls — with their own voices or their can openers — in part because they are charmed by a sound that almost resembles a language, said Nicholas Nicastro, who published two widely-cited studies on meows more than a decade ago. But it’s not one, he said.
“It’s clearly not a situation where they’re saying specific things. I have to emphasize that for some people, this is a radical idea. I get people telling me all the time, ‘I can understand my cat,’ ” said Nicastro, who studied whether people could listen to cat sounds and identify the circumstances in which they were made. They could — but only slightly better than half the time.
Cats are “trying to get what they want. But it’s only language in a very loose emotional sense,” he said.
Researchers have reached only a couple of conclusions about cats’ voices, but they’re interesting ones. One study of South Korean cats found that domestic felines make shorter and higher-pitched meows than feral cats, suggesting that socialization matters. African wild cats also make lower meows that human subjects surveyed by Nicastro found to be “much less pleasant to listen to” than those of their domesticated descendants, he said. Nicastro — who is now a novelist but says his meow research was his most attention-getting work — theorized that sweet meows evolved over millenniums as people selected house cats who made nicer noises.
So, back to my cat. Maybe Enzo’s strange meow is due to his semi-feral bloodline? His parents were street cats in Pakistan, after all. Or maybe he has an accent, which has been detected in some other animals? Nicastro said no, it’s probably just an individual thing. Weitzman surmised that Enzo might be part Siamese, a breed known for being chatty.
The latest researcher to tackle cat-speak is Susanne Schötz, an associate professor of phonetics at Lund University in Sweden, who uses the acoustic analysis tools she usually uses on people to study meows. She recently embarked on a five-year study — titled “Meowsic” — of how cats use melody and voice to communicate with humans and how people use the same things to speak to cats. One thing she’s interested in, for example, is how cats use rising and falling intonation to get their points across. The goal: A “prosodic typology of cat vocalizations.”
To help Schötz’s research (and ours), we sent audio of Enzo and three other Washington Post journalists’ cats — Sharkey, Roger and Randy — off to Scandinavia for her expert interpretation.
For starters, she said, the cats didn’t just meow. They made what Schötz calls “complex utterances.” And it is probably no surprise that Schötz heard all four cats ask for something at one point or another.
Sharkey, she said, may have held onto his kitten-like mew to get attention or food. Roger has the most typical meow, a rising and falling sound that indicates he might want food, or company, or, she said, “to be let out in the garden.” (Unfortunately for him, he is an indoor cat.) Schötz said Randy, another talkative feline, brandished a rising, “question-like meow: ‘Could you please give me some food?’ ”
Evidently Randy has very good manners.
Enzo, I can attest, does not. But it turns out he’s not obnoxious at all to a cat meow researcher. His meow, Schötz said, “is quite unusual,” making him a very interesting subject.
“Enzo has a very beautiful low-pitched voice,” she said, though she could not explain just why. But to my surprise, she said he also employed a “complex vocalization beginning in a chirr and ending in a meow. And these are usually happy sounds.”