Why Do People Use Weird Voices When Talking To Their Pets?

It turns out talking to cats and dogs isn’t necessarily a waste of time.
June 18, 2020
Why Do People Use Weird Voices When Talking To Their Pets?

We humans love to talk to our pets, even if we haven’t gotten a single verbal response in thousands of years. Animals don’t have to respond to let us know they’re listening, though. Research has found that some animals, including dogs, can understand a certain amount of human language. But beyond just the words people use, there’s another odd feature of speaking to dogs and cats: the weird voices we use.

People speak to animals in all different ways, from the very cartoonish to the very normal (as in, just using your normal voice). There are a few common vocal adaptations people make, though, like higher pitch, pitch variation and slower speech. What is it about animals that makes us want to talk this way, though? And does changing our voice actually have any effect on our pets?

Why Do Humans Like Speaking To Dogs And Cats?

While talking to animals may seem like a frivolous topic of research, linguists would disagree. There is even a specific term for talking to pets: pet-directed speech. This term broadly refers to anything humans say to a dog, but it’s not entirely random.

Researchers have found that pet-directed speech is similar to another kind of communication humans often use: infant-directed speech, which is often called baby talk or motherese. The primary traits of baby talk are a slow tempo and a higher pitch. Baby talk has been found in many different languages, and studies suggest a correlation between using baby talk and a child’s language acquisition. The idea is that slowing down and exaggerating speech makes it slightly easier for babies to understand the language. 

It’s worth mentioning that the benefits of baby talk are somewhat controversial, however. Some cultures don’t use baby talk at all, and the studies that do show the benefits of baby talk are limited in scope. Still, baby talk is a widespread phenomenon, meaning there could be some ingrained reasoning behind it.

The way humans talk to animals might provide some answers on why we love speaking to dogs and cats. As mentioned, pet-directed speech and baby talk have a lot in common. They both are slower, more melodic and of a higher pitch than adult-directed speech. What this means is that humans might naturally adjust their way of talking when they know that the person or animal they’re talking to doesn’t speak your language. Studies have even found that English speakers use some features of infant-directed speech when talking to non-native English speakers (which, yes, can come across as very condescending).

Further evidence for this theory is that there is one difference between infant-directed speech and pet-directed speech: vowel articulation. In usual speech, English speakers replace expected vowels with unstressed schwa vowels. When humans are using baby talk, they hyperarticulate their vowels, meaning they make all the vowels very clear and use less schwas. Hyperarticulation also shows up when native speakers of a language speak to non-native speakers. When talking to animals, though, people don’t hyperarticulate vowels. This might mean that humans only hyperarticulate when there is a chance that the being they’re addressing might respond. Even more weirdly, humans are more likely to hyperarticulate their vowels when talking to parrots rather than dogs or cats, which might be because parrots can technically sometimes respond.

Another factor that comes into play is the gender of the person doing the pet-directed speech. Women are far more likely to talk to their pets than men. And when men do talk to their pets, they’re not as likely to use a weird pet-directed speech voice.

What all this means is that the desire to talk to your pet like it’s a baby is natural, even though it’s not embraced by all people and cultures. Of course, there’s no accounting for calling your dog “Mr. Cutie Tooty Little Scwuffy Muffins” in public.

Do Cats And Dogs Like Pet-Directed Speech?

We’ve established that humans likely talk to animals with a weird voice because we think it’ll help them understand, but the next question is whether it actually has any effect on animals. Like with many things, cats and dogs disagree.

We’ll start with speaking to dogs, because canines are likely the most common recipient of pet-directed speech. One study collected examples of dog-directed speech and played them for dogs of different ages. There are some limitations to this research because recordings are different from one-on-one interactions, but the results of this study pave the way to further research. Researchers found that younger dogs do respond to the high-pitch pet-directed speech better than they do to regular speech. As puppies get older, though, they become less responsive to dog-directed speech in comparison to adult-directed speech. In contrast, humans continue to use dog-directed speech on dogs of any age. 

It’s hard to know exactly why puppies respond better to pet-directed speech — it could be evolutionary or it could be something learned — but there do seem to be some benefits to talking to a puppy in this way. When your dogs get older, though, you can start talking to them like human adults and still be fine, though.

Cats are a slightly different story, as anyone who has ever tried to train a cat can probably attest to. For one, humans don’t change their pitch quite as much when talking to kittens as they do when talking to puppies. There also is almost no difference between human-directed speech and adult cat-directed speech. That said, a study found that kittens do respond more to kitten-directed speech than to human-directed speech, if only slightly.

Another interesting finding from the cat-directed speech study is kittens respond better to strangers than to their owners. This makes sense, as both animals and humans respond more strongly to things we’re not accustomed to. But the fact that cats respond so poorly to their owners is probably unsurprising to most cat owners.

The way we talk to our pets is a little silly, but overall there does seem to be some evidence to back it up. At the very least, making your voice stand out from the surrounding noise is a good way to get an animal’s attention. So the next time someone glares at you for spending half an hour saying “Who’s a good dog? You are! Yes you are. Ooooooh, you’re such a good dog,” let them know that you’re just trying to help your puppy become the best dog they can be.

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Author Headshot
Thomas Moore Devlin
Thomas grew up in suburban Massachusetts, and moved to New York City for college. He studied English literature and linguistics at New York University, but spent most of his time in college working for the student paper. Because of this, he has really hard opinions about AP Style. In his spare time, he enjoys reading and getting angry about things on Twitter. He's spent a lot of time trying to learn Spanish, and has learned a little German.
Thomas grew up in suburban Massachusetts, and moved to New York City for college. He studied English literature and linguistics at New York University, but spent most of his time in college working for the student paper. Because of this, he has really hard opinions about AP Style. In his spare time, he enjoys reading and getting angry about things on Twitter. He's spent a lot of time trying to learn Spanish, and has learned a little German.

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