Coming home late on a Tuesday evening after hours of reporting and running errands, I dropped my bag right at the door. Settling into a seat at the kitchen table, I turned my exhausted gaze to my girlfriend, who was sitting at her laptop. When she looked up, I could tell she was ready to begin the daily recap of who we called, what projects we accomplished and how many buckets we sweated on the subway.
Except that’s not how our conversation started.
“MEYYYYOWWWWW,” I wailed mournfully.
“Meowww,” she responded sympathetically.
“Meow,” I affirmed, with a huff.
Over the past few months, my girlfriend and I have developed our own way of communicating that would turn heads in public: We speak Cat to one another. Not all the time, of course, but what started as the occasional meow — an initial “I’m joking-but-not-really” litmus test of how much weirdness a relationship can handle — has furballed into a regular means of expressing ourselves. Part of it, I think, is that it just feels good to let out a great meow, like a yoga “omm”; but really, each feline vocalization confirms that my girlfriend accepts, and shares, one of my most absurd habits.
Until last week, I thought we were unique in our weirdness. But it turns out we’re not alone. When I asked my mom back in Houston about this idea, she directed me to her colleague, Brittany Anderson, who often communicates with her boyfriend David by “honking” at each other to signal that they were done with a fight. The idea came from her parents, who would imitate penguin sounds at each other when they wanted to call it quits on an argument. After a few months of dating, she tried, and successfully adapted, the practice into relationship with David, whose nickname not-so-coincidentally is Goose.
“When I felt like ‘I don’t want to any fight anymore,’ I just honked at him,” Anderson told me. “At first he looked at me like I was nuts, but now it’s a thing.”
My girlfriend and I haven’t used cat-speak to settle arguments — at least not yet — but we do use it to communicate ideas: I let out an ecstatic meow recently when she told me she’d landed a new job; she made a disdainful yawp, like someone had stepped on a kitten’s paw, when I told her she should stop procrastinating an assignment; and sometimes we make purring sounds when we’re just relaxing.
Romantic baby talk
It turns out there’s a psychological explanation underlying my tendencies to meow with my partner — at least that’s what Rosemarie Sokol-Chang, an evolutionary psychologist at State University of New York at New Paltz, and Justin Garcia, an evolutionary biologist at the Kinsey Institute, are researching. Like Anderson and her partner’s honking, they said our meowing qualifies as “loverese,” or romantic baby talk, characterized by louder, higher pitched speech, which definitely describes a lot of our meows. (Sometimes I wonder what the neighbors think.) Our tendency to coo and call our partners infantilizing pet-names is apparently not unlike parents speaking in baby talk to their children to offer affection and security. So even if you relate to the “Seinfeld” character George Costanza, whose stomach churned at the idea of calling a partner “shmoopy” and squealing baby talk, according to Chang and Garcia, over two-thirds of their subjects, regardless of their gender, engaged in some form of loverese. Even those who insist they don’t.
“If you ask the kinds of things we have to do in research, like, ‘Do you have these tonal expressions with each other? Do you raise your voice like in baby talk to a pet?,’ you can start to tease out finer-grained responses,” Garcia said. “A lot of people who say they’re not doing it are probably doing it.”
So maybe baby talk is a bonding strategy, but why are we and other couples channeling animal noises when we’re alone? When I spoke with Jeffrey T. Child, a professor of communications at Kent State University who specializes in interpersonal communications, to figure out if my girlfriend and I are venturing into the relationship dialogue deep-end, he assured me that our meowing is nothing too concerning. He says that as people develop a long-term relationship, they create words, codes and mannerisms that are unique to their relationship with that person. When I divulged to him our daily messages often include cat GIFs or Instagram videos, and that we share a New York City dream of one day finding a landlord who will let us raise a kitten of our own, Child was not surprised that my girlfriend and I have picked up meowing as our personal dialect. Hopefully it won’t end in a cat-astrophe.
But even in a previous relationship, in which my ex and I both fawned over cats, I never felt comfortable using baby talk — much less meowing. Danielle Shepard, one of my girlfriend’s friends, said she had a similar experience, but that changed when she met her husband. Both of them are dog people, and their dream is to one day wake up in bed with a pooch between them. When they’re alone, she said they “full-on become dogs,” which includes making “nuzzling dog sounds” and pawing at each other for attention.
Shepard can’t recall being comfortable enough to do this kind of thing with previous partners. But she thinks she understands why it works with her husband. “It’s some sense of total comfort or vulnerability or something that feels like very innocent,” she said about their behavior, adding that “it’s like this innocent, sweet language that you know intellectually is inappropriate, but there’s some safety with this person that you’re comfortable with being vulnerable.”
If the connection between parentese and loverese is correct, eventually the cat-speak in my relationship will become less frequent. Amanda Gesselman, a sex researcher at the Kinsey Institute, said in an email that, based on her research with Chang and Garcia, “participants in more loving, trusting, supportive, exciting relationships were more likely to be baby talking with their partner, but it seems that this is only true in the earlier stages of the relationship.” She speculated that loverese serves to prevent a breakup, so it declines when the bonds between partners are cemented.
It’s odd to think that our cat-speak, which has become such a regular part of our relationship that it accidentally slips out at parties and bars, will someday decline. Although there may be dozens of cat-loving couples out there who speak like this with each other, we’re the only ones who understand what our meows mean.
“It’s a stand-in for just, understanding/commiseration/love,” my girlfriend texted me when I asked her about speaking Cat. “Whatever purpose needs to be met, there’s a meow.”