Animal behaviorists have identified sixteen distinct feline vocal patterns, including chirps and trills, hisses and growls, purrs, and meows. Recently, researchers from England determined that besides the regular persistent meows that cats use to get what they want, they also have a special “soliciting purr” that’s a meow embedded into a purr, and it’s especially useful when asking for a midnight snack or belly rub since the frequency and pitch mimic the urgent cries of human babies.
To cat owners, this isn’t news. Cats love to communicate with us, but they know that we prefer vocal communication to body language. Cats are experts at learning simple commands (words like “treat” and “play”) and their name, but what they usually respond to is the particular tone and pitch that humans use when talking to cats, and not necessarily the words themselves. The way we speak to pets is the same way we speak to babies, a simplified language called “baby talk” or “motherese,” and it’s full of repeated syllables, simplified words, and exaggerated facial expressions.Cats learn to respond to humans’ vocalizations by creating vocalizations of their own, even though their larynxes aren’t built for actual speech. They reply to human vocal communication in much the same way that babies learn to speak, through listening and imitation.
Cats and humans both use high-pitched tones to indicate friendliness or affection, and low-pitched grumbles when they’re displeased or upset. They even learn that certain sounds can serve different purposes. In my house, a request for dinner or a demand for play sound nothing like the particular sound made when my cat just wants to say hello. Cats quickly learn that when they respond to our vocalizations, they’re rewarded with food or attention. They learn to mimic our tone and expression just like babies do, so it’s no wonder that people think of their pets as furry children.