Title: Can Cats Talk?
Author: Sarah Hartwell
Date: 2009/12/01

Can cats talk? Many cat owners would like to think so and some even claim that their cats speak a number of recognizable words. A Brazilian cat takes claims one step further by apparently being able to sing a number of well known songs while the Fortean Times carried a report of a cat which speaks several words in Turkish and suggested, with tongue firmly in cheek, that the reason many owners cannot understand their cats is because the cats are speaking Turkish. But before cat-owners rush out for phrase books, are these cats really speaking or are their owners

For humans, the terms 'speech' and 'talk' are not restricted to vocalization, but encompass human body language (which most of us read without realizing it), gestural languages (sign language) and tactile languages (of deaf-blind individuals) which are equally expressive among those fluent in their use. Further, human language comprises both verbal and non-verbal components (including the written extension of body language through gestural substitutes such as the :-) symbols within
Internet communication).

The cat's vocal apparatus differs from our own and is not designed with speech in mind. However cats need to communicate, both with other cats and with owners. They "speak" to each other through body language, communicating feelings and intentions through posture and facial expression. Scent is also an important component of cat communication. In addition, they have a vocabulary of sounds ranging from caterwauls to mewing sounds, from hisses to the "silent meow" which is probably a sound pitched too high for human ears to hear. The familiar "miaow" is used mainly for communicating with humans as we are evidently too thick to understand anything other than kitten-talk.

The remainder of this article will be concerned with vocalizations - the vocalizations used in cat/cat communication and the vocalizations used in cat/human communication.

Do cats have language?

In "Alice Through the Looking Glass", Lewis Carroll wrote "It is a very inconvenient habit of kittens that whatever you say to them, they always purr. If they would only purr for 'yes' and mew for 'no', or any rule of that sort, so that one could keep up a conversation! But how can one deal with a person if they always say the same thing?"

Lewis Carroll, it seems, was not a keen observer of cats, otherwise he would have noticed that cats do not always say the same thing! They make a variety of different sounds which, among humans would be called "words", but in our belief that we are naturally superior to "dumb" animals, we don't call cat-sounds "words". Since the sounds don't conform to our notion of grammatical structure, it simply appears that cats lack language.

To the uninitiated, and probably to Lewis Carroll, the simple "miaow" is an all-purpose word. Most cat-owners, however, are aware that there are a whole variety of miaows that differ in pitch, rhythm, volume, tone and pronunciation.

There is more to felinese that the simple miaow though. In 1944, Mildred Moelk made a detailed study of cat vocabulary and found sixteen meaningful sounds, which included consonants and vowels. She divided cat-sounds into three groups:-

  • murmurs made with the mouth closed
  • vowel sounds made with the mouth closing as in "iao"
  • sounds made with the mouth held open.

Although these may not be used in grammatical sentences, one definition of language is "any means, vocal or other, of expressing or communicating feeling or thought" (Webster's Dictionary).

In his dealings with Scottish Wildcats, Mike Tomkies noted that the wildcats would greet him with a loud spitting "PAAAH" accompanied by a foot-stamp. I have received the same greeting from feral cats. The meaning ("*** off!") is unmistakable and only a fool (or a cat-worker intent on packing pussy off for neutering) ignores it. Some cats may use some of these cat-sounds
in different ways when communicating with humans and only our familiarity with our own pets tells us that a certain type of growl is a play noise and not warning of imminent attack.

Cat-owners will recognize many of the cat-sounds listed, although we may refer to them in more anthropomorphic terms: greet, grumble, nag, whimper, swear, sing etc.

Learning the lingo

Kittens learn a great deal from imitating their mother, and cats retain the ability to learn and adapt into their adult life. They soon discover that humans use sounds in order to communicate and most cats react to this by developing different sounds for certain circumstances.

A plaintive miaow is best suited to achieving a goal such as extra grub or an open door while a friendly chirrup elicits a favourable response when the cat greets its owner. Many of these noises are accompanied by exaggerated actions as the cat "acts out" its communication - by running back and forth between owner and closed door or by licking invisible crumbs from an obviously empty food dish.

Humans have an innate language instinct and a need to communicate vocally (or through sign language etc) with everyone about them. Adults with small children use a simplified version of language known as baby-talk (called "motherese" by some linguists) where certain words and syllables are greatly stressed and frequently repeated. These efforts are rewarded when baby makes noises back and parents readily identify meaningful noises ("mum-mum") in their babies when the rest of us hear only random babble. In response, parents talk even more to their offspring.

Whether or not we consider our cats to be surrogate children, we tend to relate to them in a similar way, using motherese to communicate with them. Cats may respond to this verbal barrage by making noises of their own.

After all, if their humans need to communicate through all this audible chit-chat, any self-respecting cat is going to have make noises if it is to stand any chance of getting attention! And since the owner lacks much of the necessary apparatus needed for speaking felinese (tail, mobile ears, whiskers, erectile fur) it is up to the cat to learn humanese.

One feature common to both cats and people is the use of a slightly raised tone of voice to indicate friendliness and a lowered tone of voice to indicate displeasure, aggression etc. Friendly chirrup and food-seeking miaow are usually uttered in a raised tone of voice while the low-pitched growl of a cross cat is undeniably unfriendly.

Volume is sometimes used for added emphasis e.g. a strident miaow for urgency, a gentle "brrp" for contentment. Cats which simply feel compelled to add their two penn'orth to a conversation often do so in a neutral tone of voice to indicate that they are not being particularly hostile, nor unduly friendly, nor is there any great urgency about the subject matter.

Can cats talk people-talk?

Humans have an instinctive need to communicate with fellow humans and to receive communication in return. This drive is often extended to our interaction with non-humans. Just as we look for recognizable sounds when babies learn to talk, we look for recognizable sounds in our cats' "vocabulary". Rather than simply distinguishing a "feed me" miaow from a "let me out
please" miaow we try to interpret some of these sounds as words and are remarkably good at self-deception, so if the "I want more grub" noise sounds a bit like "keow" we think our cat is calling us a cow for not giving it a big enough helping in the first place. Cats which "talk" are probably making native feline sounds that sound a little like human words and which, if delivered under the right circumstances, are interpreted as words by beings geared to verbal communication.

I say probably, because here there is a slightly gray area. According to American vet Dr Michael W Fox cats can learn behaviours through observation. My own observations suggest that some cats learn to imitate certain sounds as well. Cats can make sounds and work out which sounds elicit suitable responses from humans (positive feedback).

Can cats therefore learn to make certain sounds i.e. imitate certain human sounds if they know it will get a favourable response? Here I will have to give cats the benefit of the doubt. It may be that, in spite of lacking the apparatus for speech, some cats do indeed make the effort. Equally, it may be that owners are over-compensating for the cat's inability to talk and are hearing what they want to hear, regardless of what the cat has really said!

Another feature of human speech is that it comes in bursts; a mix of different sounds and pauses between sounds, plus inflection and intonation. Tone of voice probably means much more to a cat than the actual words used, although many owners maintain that their cat understands every word they say. Cats certainly manage intonation and can miaow in a questioning manner, a demanding manner, a forlorn manner or simply as a statement.

By observing our response they adopt the various tones of miaow for appropriate circumstances. Puss probably isn't thinking "I want to go out so I shall ask nicely," he is more likely to be thinking "I want to go out and I know that this type of noise usually does the trick."

In their attempts to communicate with us on our own level, some cats put together full "sentences" of noises and pauses. They might simply be inviting us to talk back to them (most cats like this sort of attention from their owners). It is interesting that such cats string together a series of different sounds into a single burst of communication, with pauses between "words", which an owner likens to a sentence.

I doubt very much that cats, those from C S Lewis's Narnia excepted, can truly speak, although cat-sounds are more diverse and more meaningful than Lewis Caroll suggests. What I don't doubt is that there are a number of cats having a jolly good attempt - whether in Turkish or any other tongue. What is worrying though, is when I am doing the evening shift at a cat shelter and I am convinced that I can hear someone talking, even though there are no other humans, only cats, in the vicinity. So far none of the cats have owned up!

Have cats evolved to communicate with humans?

While not claiming that cats have acquired the power of human speech, in 2002, a Cornell University researcher investigated whether cats vocally manipulate their humans. Nicholas Nicastro, a graduate student working under psychology professor Michael Owren at Cornell University's Psychology of Voice and Sound Laboratory said that cats were obviously very dependent on people for their needs and that they may have evolved to become better at managing and manipulating people. While domestic cats may not know language, his study suggested that cats, which have lived alongside humans for thousands of years, have adapted their "meows" to better communicate with humans.

One way Nicastro attempted to prove his theory was by analyzing a range of domestic cat vocalizations, playing these back to humans and then screening people's reactions to each type of sound. He did the same using the calls of wild cats in order to compare domestic cat and wild cat "speech".

He recorded more than 100 different meows from 12 domestic cats (2 of them his own), soliciting various sounds from the cats by placing them in different situations (with their owners' help since cats rarely co-operate with strangers). These situations included delaying feeding time, before feeding them, putting them in empty rooms with the recorder, brushing them beyond the animals' patience for brushing and simply recording the contented meows of cats in a good mood.

Nicastro played the recordings to two sets of people. The first group of 26 people was asked to rate each meow in terms of how pleasant each sounded. The second group of 28 people rated the sounds in terms of urgency. He compared people's ratings with acoustical analysis of the meows and found a clear pattern.

"Pleasant" meows were shorter in duration, with higher frequencies and tended to descend in pitch (change from high to low notes). "Urgent" meows were longer in duration, with lower frequencies and ascended in pitch (began on low notes and escalated to higher ones). Rarely was a meow classed as both "pleasant" and "urgent" at once. The highly urgent calls tended to be the least pleasant-sounding while the highly pleasant ones were rated less urgent.

Nicastro suggests that cats may therefore have developed different kinds of calls to "hook into human perception tendencies" and alert us of their mood and needs. He points out the animals have certainly had time to adjust for people since their domestication in Egypt over 5,000 years ago [Note: cats were domesticated simultaneously or earlier in Pakistan]. With their shorter life spans than people, cats have had many more generations to evolve ways of manipulating their owners through their calls.

This theory is flawed because in order to pass on the meow-manipulation skills, those cats more adept at manipulating humans would breed and those less adept would fail to breed. The proliferation of feral cats around the world shows that cats can co-exist with humans very well without manipulating people through their "speech".

Does the ability to communicate with humans provide a clear survival advantage so that good communicators/manipulators survive longer and produce more offspring than poor communicators? Probably not since it is only relatively recently that cats have become house-pets rather than utilitarian animals (rodent controllers). Other researchers admit that it is possible that
cats may have co-evolved with humans to better communicate with people, they caution it's easy to jump to conclusions.

Douglas Nelson, a professor of bio-acoustics at Ohio State University reminds us that cats have evolved different calls to communicate with each other. The communications with humans are modifications of the noises they use among each other.

As well as recording pet cats, Nicastro went to a zoo in Pretoria, South Africa to record the calls of the wild desert cats from which modern domestic cats evolved. These are still being analyzed and have not been tested on humans, but his preliminary findings reveal very different vocalizations. The wild cats have cries which are harsher and less musical-sounding than domestic cats or, as other people have commented, "like cats on steroids".

Strangely, it does not appear to have occurred to Nicastro to record the cries of feral cats - cats which are domestic cats in all but their habits. If feral cats have the same range of meows as their fully domestic counterparts then cat language probably evolved for inter-cat situations and is merely modified for the cat-human situation.

My own experience with rescue cats leads me to conclude that Nicastro would do well to analyze inter-cat communication (particularly that between mother and kitten) for its pleasantness and urgency - and compare their use of body language in cat/cat and cat/human situations - before jumping to any co-evolutionary conclusions!


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