Learning to Understand Your Own Cat

Now that I have presented numerous cat sounds and their variations, I would like to use this chapter to categorize these according to a larger phonetic system. In the process, something like a verbal scaffolding for the language of cats will be produced. The different kinds of sounds will be presented in a table, so that the phonetic characteristics can be easily recognized. Furthermore, I will name more variations and will attempt to give possible reasons for these variations.

Summary of Cat Sounds:
The System of Cat Language

If we forget the articulatory-phonetic categories that Moelk introduced (see Chapter 1) for a moment and try to approach cat sounds using auditory (i.e. careful listening) and acoustic (analysis of acoustic patterns related to frequency, length [duration] and intensity [loudness or volume]) evaluations, we can categorize the various sounds that cats can produce according to a phonetic system and try to compare them to the sound systems of human languages such as English. As I have mentioned before, it is important to remember that the sounds made by cats cannot be directly compared with those existing in human speech.

Although cats communicate with their humans in a complex fashion, I have not yet found any indication that cat sounds follow grammatical principles or that every sound or type of sound can be translated one-to-one in a specific word or sentence in human language. That is not to say that cats cannot express their feelings, moods, wishes and needs with sounds. They most certainly can. But every cat develops a system—together with their humans, as well as possibly with cats they are close to—that allows them to communicate in a unique and special way. Every cat uses multiple forms of communication (with scent, with tactile signals, with visual signals, such as body postures or ear movements, and with sounds). In the end, they seem to choose the form of communication that best serves their needs and continue to apply it in similar situations.

Sounds often seem to be the preferred means of communication with humans, and meowing has proven to be especially effective as we react to it immediately. But meow is not a word, as it does not have a unique and unambiguous meaning. The cat communicates its needs and desires to us using different voice qualities, melodies, volumes (acoustic sound level pressure or intensity), and combinations of vowels and consonants. We humans learn, too, with a little practice, to understand these nuances and can even use them ourselves when we speak to our cats in human language.

A quiet, soft, and bright (with acoustically high resonances) voice usually indicates friendliness and affection, whereas a loud, hard, and deep voice shows that we are unsatisfied or angry—regardless of which words we use. Intonation, the rise and fall of the pitch (melody), for example, often expresses more than the words themselves. We humans also often communicate wordlessly with our close friends and family members. An expressive mmmmm, for example—pronounced with various melodies, lengths or volumes—can have a number of different meanings.

Although cats do not communicate in a language that is similar to human languages, I would still like to try and organize the sounds that cats are able to produce using a phonetic system. This would contain all the vowels and consonants that I have observed so far, as well as additional phonetic characteristics. I’m interested to know which vowels and consonants cats can actually pronounce and in which combinations they occur.

The system is far from perfected—I have not yet investigated, for example, whether cats use nasal vowels, such as in the French un bon vin blanc (a good white wine). Still, I would like to present my results so far.

For an overview of the cat sounds that I have described in this book, you will find Table 2 at the end of the book, that summarizes all of the sound types and their corresponding phonetic characteristics. The table presents all of the various designations for the sounds as well as their subcategories, the type of articulation (position or movement of the mouth), the register of the voice (high or low pitch), the typical phonetic transcription, as well as some additional comments—all at a glance.

Not all nuances and variations are contained in this overview, which presents only the most important categories and types of sounds. Nevertheless, I believe that you can use the table as a starting point when you hear a cat sound and are not sure what it could mean. The sounds are categorized by type—meowing, trill-meowing, trilling, growling, hissing, howling, growl-howling, snarling, mating calls and chattering, as well as by the subcategories of those types. Under Articulation, you can find out whether the sound is made with a closed, open, opening and/or closing mouth, while Voice indicates whether the sound is voiced or voiceless, whether the pitch is high or low, whether the melody rises or falls. A brief description of the sound can be found under Phonetic Category, and Typical Phonetic Transcription represents the sound in phonetic characters. There are also some additional notes on the sounds.

Just like in human speech, most cat sounds consist of more than one individual sound (vowel, consonant). The English word meow consists of one consonant sound, the m, two vowel sounds, e [i], o [a], and a semivowel sound, the w (the w is called a semivowel because it sounds very similar to the vowel oo [u] in the Indian or Irish English pronunciation of foot). The cat sound [miaw] also consists of one consonant, two vowels and a semivowel. These building blocks provide hints about the anatomy of a cat’s vocal tract and the movement that a cat can make with its mouth, tongue, lips and vocal folds (vocal cords).

Cats have much higher voices than humans. That is because they have much smaller vocal apparatuses. Smaller vocal folds produce higher pitches (and tones of voices) and smaller resonance chambers in the mouth produce higher (brighter) sounds.

It should not be assumed that cats can produce every individual sound that is present in human speech. The lips and tongues of cats are differently shaped and of a different size than those of humans, and the larynx (voice box) is also differently shaped and placed. Therefore we cannot imitate every cat sound precisely either. Can you purr, trill or growl without a great effort, for example?

Let us begin with the smallest building blocks of speech, namely individual sounds—vowels and consonants.

Vowels

So far, I have discovered more than ten vowels in cat sounds. In the graphic that follows, I have transcribed these vowels using phonetic symbols and arranged them in a kind of phonetic space. The vowels are arranged according to tongue position (height, frontness) and lip position (unrounded/spread or rounded) in a vowel diagram or vowel chart, also sometimes referred to as a vowel quadrilateral.

The figure below shows the vowels of human speech that are included in the International Phonetic Alphabet, the vowels I have observed cats produce so far (circled), as well as those that I think cats can produce (in dotted circles). When two vowels are arranged on the right and left sides of a dot, the vowel on the left is formed without lip rounding, and the right is formed with lip rounding. Otherwise the pronunciation is identical.

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