When your cat vocalises, what kind of sound does it make? Probably the most common sounds you hear are purring and meowing. We had a blog about purring a few weeks back, so let's focus on the latter. Interestingly, cats don’t meow to communicate with each other; meowing is not a normal cat vocalization in the wild, but rather seems to be something they do to communicate with people.
Different cats develop different meowing patterns independently, the nuances of which only their owners can decipher. Each meow is "an arbitrary, learned, attention-seeking sound,” says John Bradshaw, an anthrozoologist at the University of Bristol. A cat will use meows to communicate to its owner that it wants something, frequently food, but the meow won't necessarily mean anything to another cat— especially one from a different household.
On a broader scope, though, the basic good meow/bad meow can be easier for us to understand. A cat vocalization study done in Sweden showed that human listeners, when hearing recorded cat vocalizations, were usually able to discern which was a positive meow and which a negative. They heard six meows related to feeding, and six meows recorded while the cats were waiting to be seen by a veterinarian.
According to the study, "Classification accuracy was significantly above chance, and listeners who had reported previous experience with cats performed significantly better than inexperienced listeners."
A possible explanation for our ability to decipher a meow is that the cat's intonation may have evolved to mimic parts of human speech, which would help to ensure that the cat's needs and desires are met.