Can Cats Talk?

by Sarah Hartwell
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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 just talking turkey?

Himalayan Cat

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 <VBG >, :-) 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.

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