My Cat Says Hello

Zelda would like to tell you something.

Actually, that’s a bit presumptuous on my part. She may very well be telling me to go away or asking me for a little head scratch. I really don’t know. It’s hard to tell with cats, you know. It’s not like they can speak.

Or can they…?

I’ve heard countless claims from various people over the years that their pet – dog, cat, iguana – can understand exactly what is being said, and though they can’t form the actual words (with the exception of a few elite examples), the pet can “talk back” to their owner. Of course, I generally look at them askance and wonder what they’re on and if they’re really hearing voices talking back to them. If that’s the case, my friend, it surely isn’t the dog. David Berkowitz anyone?

The fact is, many people think that animals can use and understand language when they really just mean to say that animals can communicate. All animals and even plants have their own way of communicating, but is that the same thing as human language? It is a matter of controversy, actually. Some claim that systems of communication amongst prairie dogs, dolphins, and chimpanzees have the same characteristics and level of complexity as human language does. Others, however, may concede the relative sophistication of certain communication systems, but argue that they still do not perform all the functions of a full human language.

At the core of the matter is what defines language. Most linguists will agree that certain things must be present for a system to qualify as a language. Simplifying for the sake of brevity, I will focus on three of those things: meaning, productivity, and displacement.

Meaning seems self-evident. The sounds (or gestures) of human language are all connected – quite arbitrarily – to a meaning, whether it be a reference to a physical object (chair, computer, martini) or a concept (love, respect, curiosity). When I say these sounds are arbitrary, I mean that there is nothing inherent in the sounds /c/, /a/, and /t/ that naturally refers to the small furry animal that chews the belt of your favorite sweater dress. The existence of other languages is evidence that any sequence of sounds can be used as long as everyone who speaks that language understands and agrees upon that sequence. For example, when I write cat, it only works because those reading this a) understand English, and b) have the same furry reference in mind when reading that sequence of letters.

Productivity refers to the ability of a limited number of sounds or rules to generate infinite possibilities of meaning, including those never uttered before. The sounds and rules generate new meanings and phrases, and aren’t just used for the same purposes or chunks of information over and over again. For example, I may write “Something’s burning!” and we’ve all heard it before. We know what it means and we know when it’s said, someone had better be running towards the kitchen with a fire extinguisher. It’s instantly recognizable and communicates a clear message. However, we are not limited to these types of utterances. I could also write, “Premature mint gum consumption ruins the taste of the remainder of my cup of joe”, and I’d be willing to bet what little money I have that no one has ever said that before. (Excuse me while I go throw out my gum and refresh my coffee cup…).

Finally, displacement essentially refers to our ability to talk about past and future, and not just present. Human languages all have ways to talk about things that happened not just in the recent past, but even historical events that took place long before the speaker was born. We are also able to discuss ideas or events that may happen long after we die. We are able to see beyond our present existence and express these ideas through – depending on which language is being spoken – verb tenses, word order, time words or transitions. In fact, aren’t we always trying to tell ourselves to forget the past, not worry about the future, and just live for today? This wouldn’t be such a problem if we weren’t able to do it in the first place, and for some, with such alarming frequency.

So what does this mean for the question at hand? Do animal systems have these same characteristics? Animal communication certainly can be said to have meaning. The prairie dogs, for example, have seemingly arbitrary sounds to refer to different types of threats or functions. Apparently, there is even some dialectal variation between groups of prairie dogs that live in different areas. And certainly, an owner of a cat will learn to recognize the difference between the “hello”, the “food!”, the “don’t touch my paw!”, and the “crap, it’s a hairball!” meows. Also, there have been notable examples of certain animals that learned an extraordinary amount of vocabulary and grammar.

What about productivity? Animals certainly seem to be limited to certain chunks of informative utterances that aren’t generally productive.  A cat may have something completely different in her mind, like “I’d really like a belly rub now”, but there are only so many variations on the meow theme that they have at their disposal, so we humans are left to guess what it might mean. Of course, body language can come in handy, but again – a fluffy tail will always mean “Holy crap!” and will never be used in novel ways to express something completely different.

Moreover, animal communication nearly always refers to the present time, which means there seems to be little or no capability for displacement.  Sure, bees have been known to be able to communicate the way to a good pollen source, which is technically speaking, the past tense. But it’s the immediate past tense and never more than that. They can’t dance to communicate something like, “Dude, do you remember that great pollen we found last month? Yeah, that was great. They don’t make flowers like that anymore.”

Mrs.Parker will never be able to explain why she so loves the sleeve of a fleece robe.

And finally, while some animals may have very sophisticated systems that can inform, express intention, and even convey emotion, they are still limited in what they can “say.” Meta-cognition, or meta-linguistics refers to our ability to think about thinking, or talk about talking. We are aware of the behavior itself and can discuss it. We don’t just have feelings; we lie on couches and pay good money to talk about those feelings, to analyze and process and understand those feelings. Who knows, maybe animals can do this too, but aren’t foolish enough to pay anyone to listen to them, but at this time, we don’t know if they can because they can’t tell us, at least not in a way we can understand. We humans, though, have language to do so.

To give some explanation of an additional factor – the multilayered nature of human communication that doesn’t seem to exist in animal systems – I refer you to the capable and more entertaining hands of linguist Steven Pinker and his animator.

If it’s not clear by now, I’m coming down on the side of the linguists who believe that, according to our current understanding of both language and animals, no – cats can’t talk. I understand that our knowledge and understanding of both are evolving as we speak, so perhaps evidence yet to be presented will provide a clearer answer one way or another. In the meantime, I have to be content with never knowing whether or not the cats are engaged in an intense staring contest with the ghost in the corner, or if they’re just messing with me.

174 thoughts on “My Cat Says Hello

  1. I agree. I don’t think they can talk either – certainly not in a way that I/we can understand the way we do English. But let me ask you this. Can they sing? Purring and yowling seem to convey moods (emotions??) whose meaning seems pretty clear even across the species barrier. Is that not meaningful communication?

    • It’s absolutely meaningful communication, I agree. I used to have parakeets that demonstrated that beautifully. Their songs were complex and communicative, and often even mimicked human language sounds well enough that I became embarrassed at how they came to learn such naughty words ;)

      I don’t think anyone would argue that animals can’t communicate. The question is whether or not they are capable of using human language or the equivalent to do so. For example, humans have many ways to communicate without language as well. We can use sounds (non-linguistic), body language, behavior to communicate and not say a single word. But we also have language at our disposal. Even the most formal, sophisticated systems of animal communication – such as that of dolphins, for example – still don’t seem to have the level of complexity as human linguistic systems.

      Again, this is all according to our current level of knowledge and I know a lot of work is being done. Jane Goodall once said that the only things that separate us from even our closest relatives are language, toolmaking, and war. Then she discovered that chimps make both tools and war. Last I checked, she’s still holding firm on the language part of that, though :) I think the jury is still out, but for now, I’m leaning towards the idea that language is the last thing that we humans have all to ourselves.

      • Absolutely. No argument there. Human language is, well, human. In a sense a defining characteristic. But, if we’re talking about boundaries and whether or not they’re blurred, by asking whether cats can sing I guess I’m inviting to you speculate along another dimension – language vis-à-vis music, the so-called “universal language”. All sorts of parallels between the two – contrastive use of rhythm, stress, intonation etc. Some folk have dabbled in musico-linguistics, though it’s not my field, and speculated about a Universal Grammar that would cover both. The question then would be, if the calls of other animals are meaningful/emotive in a musical if not linguistic sense, is there really a clear dividing line?

        Even if there isn’t, I don’t think we disagree that we pass all three of Goodall’s tests with the highest degree of sophistication. Yippee…

      • That’s a fascinating topic to speculate on. Unfortunately, I know nothing about it so couldn’t comment on it at the moment, not until I do some reading on it. The one thing I may be skeptical about is whether or not the element of displacement would be satisfied musically. Is there tense in music? Is there a way to communicate remote – both in time and space – concepts or events? It can certainly convey emotion, but language is more than just a vehicle for our feelings or immediate intentions. I’d think the languages to start with would be the tonal languages, which use pitch to create meaningful differences between individual sounds. Take those sounds away and how much meaning stays behind? Hmmmm…(I’m stroking an imaginary beard in thought right now ;)

        It’s definitely something I’d love to learn more about. Thanks for introducing it to me!

  2. There are levels of communication, I agree, and different species can reach a real interaction if they learn the signals and their meaning. A word? A purr? A nod? A push with the snout? We can learn how to understand.

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  4. They certainly don’t speak the way humans do. On the other hand, I find that animals communicate quite effectively without speech, which is something I’ve heard others argue against. Most people aren’t paying attention to non-verbal language.

    While my dog is not at the genius level of some animals, as a herding dog she’s been selectively bred to pay attention to humans and what they want her to do. I find she understands a large number of words and phrases, and not just the tone of my voice. I also usually understand what she wants.

    • If I may be cynical, I think many people don’t pay attention to a lot of things in this life, not the least of them non-verbal communication ;)

      I think certain animals can certainly reach higher levels of connection and communication if the will, ability, and opportunity for training are there on both ends.

  5. When I first met the cat my family got while I was at college, we would ask her if she was “amendable” to being picked up. I was really bad at this whole cat picking up thing and she hated it. One night, I decided the only way to learn how to pick up the cat correctly was to keep trying. I looked at her and asked “Are you amendable?” She ran and hid. If we rattle treats, they come. If we talk about “trim nails” or “vet” the cats suddenly become hard to find and won’t come out for treats. They look at us in defiance when we say no and with big sweet eyes when they want attention. One even trained us to pet her when she blinks at us. Cats are smart. If you would have told me four years ago, I wouldn’t have believed you.

    • That’s funny about how you asked her if she was amendable. I just picked up a book called “The Natural Cat” at a library book sale. It mentions the correct way to pick up a cat and part of it is announcing your intention to pick her up. It goes on to describe some other methods of approaching or connecting to a cat, and when I tried those methods, I got such immediate and remarkable responses from both of my cats.

      Neither of my cats are very talkative and every time I’ve had them in the carrier to bring them to the vet, they were almost totally silent. When I brought them to be spayed, however, oh how they howled! There’s no other conclusion to make other than they just knew!

  6. I am the proud owner of a 10 month old chihuahua, who seems to understand language when he chooses to do so. I recently lost my 19 year old cat who definitely communicated and understood… when she chose to do so. Animal communication is not so much verbal as physical…. I think it is more effective to show them what you want rather than tell them….and repetition is king…lol.

  7. I think cats are masterful communicators. And it has been my experience that they spend most of their time telling anyone who will listen to back the hell off! ;)

    Actually, I’ve seen many affectionate cats; but the ones who are clearly pissed off are amazing at communicating that message.

    Great post… :)

    • I’ll have to pick that one up. I’ve read his Language Instinct and some other individual essays/lectures. I think he’s brilliant, really, not just for his knowledge but also for his ability to bring concepts to such an approachable level without ever oversimplifying or dumbing down.

  8. i come down on the side of animal communication. animals are just another species that inhabit this earth with us. just because we do not understand their all of their vocal language does not mean they can not communicate. sometimes when i look into their eyes i get the feeling they think i am the dumb one for not understanding. i have four cats each with different personalitys and i dare anyone to say they are the same.

    many years a go a took a young friend to the zoo and we went by an elephant who was chained with no room to move and was very vocal and upset. when she ask me why i told her the elephant was unhappy being chainned. the ignorant zoo person came over and said we should not put human emotions on to dumb animals. i told her she did not know what she was talking about and we left. and know we know that elephants are very inteligent and zoo keepers did not know what they were talking about. again just because we do not understand them does not mean they can not communicate.
    maybe i am the crazy one but i can hear in my head when my plants want new pots or to be moved and they can drive me crazy till i get them what they want.

    the earth is a living entity who gives life. cares for that life, excepts the end of life. and i think punishes when the circle of life is disrupted.

    • Hey, you’ll get no argument from me saying that animals don’t have emotions or can’t communicate. The only thing I am unwilling to do at this point is to call that communication a “language”, simply because I’ve got probably a more narrow definition of the word than is in common circulation.

      It reminds me of a conversation with my boyfriend in which I used the word “strategy.” Being a military historian, he corrected my use of the word because for him, it’s much more narrowly defined than it is for me. He said I should have used the term “tactics” or something like that. For me, they are interchangeable more or less, but not at all for him.

      It’s the same with the word “language” for me. Animals communicate, absolutely. But the tools they use to do so (vocalizations, body language, pheromones…) are not “language” in my view.

      And the zoo keeper just sounds like a jerk ;)

  9. What an epic way to introduce a common argument. :) My dog may not be finding new ways to discuss philosophy any time in the near future. But then again language is so much broader than words, and animals have certainly mastered the art of body language as a form of communication.

  10. My cats understand “No”, “Get Down” and he will come running to meet me when I say “Kitty Kitty Kitty”. The rest I’m pretty sure he doesn’t understand but he’ll talk back to me in cat language if I ask him questions. He’s very talkative :) When we first got him he was in a pen with a bunch of dogs… and I swear he barked for weeks every time he got upset. It was really funny to hear a cat bark. So, who knows what they capable of!

  11. Interesting entry. Perhaps cats have their own language among themselves. Certainly they communicate, no doubt about that. Funny that someone mentioned when they said “trim nails”or “vet” the cat hid. One of my cats got fat and we had to wash her bottom because she couldn’t reach it (and it was stinky). It got so if my husband or I said “bath” or “wash” she’d jump off the bed and hide (she’s since lost enough weight to groom herself w/out our help)!

    I’ve heard the theory that they get mental pictures from us. I’ve also experimented with calling a cat mentally, in my head. This worked really well with one cat (who was a sweetheart and always eager to please), and less well with less compliant cats. I once got a “reading” from an animal communicator for each of my 3 cats. She described each of their personalities perfectly, and we communicated by email only, plus I only told her their names, ages, and sex. It was very strange that she was so accurate!

    I wonder why we need to know whether they have “language” or not? It’s enough for me that I am able to communicate pretty clearly with my cats, and they with me.

    • Poor kitty! I’m glad she can groom herself again.

      It’s an interesting question, why we even need to know. For me, anyway, understanding language better is a way of understanding ourselves. Defining the boundaries between what is technically a “language” and what isn’t may offer insight into our own development and nature. Why can we use language and other animals can’t? (If that is, in fact the case) Or, why do they rely so much more on smell and body language and we don’t? Understanding differences helps understand ourselves, but to find useful differences means defining the boundaries and discovering what things really are different.

  12. Cute cat=) Looks like she want to have a head scracth. My cat loves it,and I often think that she understands me in a way,but can’t speak in the language we human do. But maybe show her answers in different sound(low/high etc) :)

  13. I have not detected any English speaking in any of my cats, but they certainly get me to do as they wish; open doors, food, affection needed, to be ignored, or letting me know one of their own in behind the closed door.

  14. I agree with Elizabeth that pets can be extrememly receptive to and cognizant of subtle human behaviour. My favorite example is when my husband and I prepare to go out of town. Our Himalayan will jump inside our suitcase, daring us to try and leave her. What’s interesting that, when we return, if we unpack and leave the suitcase open for a few hours before storing it back in the closet, the cat has no interest in it. While they may not have mastered language, there is no doubt that domesticed and wild animals possess complex systems of emotions and communication in my mind.

  15. I think you’ve well summarized the boundaries of non-human communication, at least as we currently understand them. Though certain parrots, such as the famous Alex, call into question whether those boundaries are strictly coterminous with those of the human species.

    Equally to the point, double congratulations are in order today: to you for being Freshly Pressed and to WordPress for having the discernment to honor a blog about linguistics.

    Please say hello to your cat for me. I’ll pass her greetings on to our crew. (And to the possum if he happens to be visiting.)

    • Thanks so much on all counts!

      Alex (rest his little feathered soul!) was really an exceptional bird and I think there is still much to learn from him – perhaps even more so than the famous examples of primates learning aspects of language.

      It is nice for linguistics matters to be recognized, and in a good way – not the more predictable thousand-yard stare when someone even says the word ;)

      I will pass your greetings to Zelda and Mrs.Parker, whether they know it or not :)

  16. I’m not sure if cats communicate verbally in speech patterns human readily recognize, but I am sure cats can express themselves very well. Look at their eyes! Look closely and you will see all the emotion a feline can muster from discontent, boredom, love and that ever-present streak of playfulness.

    In the photo, Zelda’s eyes are saying she has love and happiness in her spirit. Give her a BIG hug! :)

    • I’ve always been amazed at how much expression a cat can have on its face without anything actually changing or moving. They really do communicate remarkably, and I’d never dream to argue otherwise.

      Zelda certainly is a little snuggler! I’ll certainly give her hugs for you :)

  17. what an interesting post! (and congratulations for making it into freshly press!)
    i had a cat once that was VERY talkative and have been told he might have Siamese in him (they’re chatty). Also I have heard or read that cats actually ‘speak’ different with us then they would with their own species (and it’s true, our tom cat was not much of a talker to his companion at all), so it’s basically like they ‘learn a foreign language’ ?!
    (I now have no more cats but still dogs. our new puppy also is a bit of a ‘talker’, it’s very funny, even if he doesn’t have the vocabulary of some youtubedogs. it also makes me think that maybe it depends how much WE talk to our animals and I tend to do that A LOT.. )

    • I had parakeets once upon a time. At first I only had one, and she was very young when I got her. I got her very used to being around me so I could leave the door open and she could fly free (hate birds in cages!). She used to hang out on my head or shoulders and sing when I’d talk to her. After a while, I realized that she was “talking” – incorporating human speech sounds into her song. She talked a lot. I even did an experiment/research paper with my Phonetics class in college and they all heard her “speak” as well, so it wasn’t just me projecting my desire to hear her talk.

      After I got my second bird and they bonded, she didn’t really talk anymore. She started mimicking the other bird instead, and not me anymore. So she really was learning from her environment and other animal communication.

  18. Communication is so far above human beings, it’s amazing we’re still on this planet. Animals are very much clued in to what is going on around them: how they are interacting with past/present circumstances and what future circumstances are likely to develop given a set of actions upon them or upon their sphere of influence. Sorry, but I just find it so laughable when any human being attempts to decide for another, human or non-human, what they are or are not capable of, wither it’s emotion, pain, guilt, remorse, joy,or absolute cantankerousness. (My specialty) What we are really trying to do, of course, is justify ourselves as “the height” of eveloution. And if we all were’nt sitting on the eve of destruction, I might sit down and have a good giggle about your all this.

  19. In a lot of ways cats are like babies… they use looks, body language and noises to communicate, but not words. Personally I think cats are quite happy being treated the same way as babies – fed and loved every day and kept warm and snuggly inside our sleeves (maybe less so for the babies).

    Why would they need to communicate (with humans) in any more complex way?

    Great post!

    • Thanks! And it does seem to be a much simpler existence – I know I think of my girls as my “babies.” They are getting what they want when they want it…they are no fools, these cats! ;)

  20. My cat for sure talks to me. I have no idea what she’s saying some of the time, but sometimes it’s VERY clear; I guess a lot of it is inference. We do have conversations sometimes, when she meows I sometimes imitate her for my amusement, which prompts a response from her, then back to me, and so on and so forth. I always feel bad because I might be saying something to her without knowing. It’s almost like speaking to someone who doesn’t speak or understand English – sometimes you just “get” what they’re saying.

  21. I agree with those who say that the cats / dogs etc speak to their owner or peaple however I dont think they (the cat / dogs etc) can undrestand the fact that peaple cannot undrestand what their saying (99% of the time).
    For example my neighbour has a pregnent cat which somtimes comes to our house and I feed her with cat food but she is a bit wild, somtimes she looks at me and says meaooow meaooow and expects me to rub her head but also somtimes she says meaoow meaoow and its a warning to not touch her as I did and she scratchd me..

  22. My opinion and and not fact…Cats are closer to the human species than monkeys. Observe, analyze, act, react an so forth. Cats are on my forever list.

  23. Very enjoyable post. I don’t think my cats understand human language, but they do understand the tonality of my voice and the context in which I’m speaking, on a certain level. Sometimes, I communicate with them on their level by touching noses and rubbing their face with mine. (I swear I’m not a creepy cat lady!)

    • I mentioned a book – The Natural Cat – in another reply, and how it tells people to “inform” the cat of your intentions to pick her up. But it also mentions touching noses, and how, especially if your hands are pulled back, it conveys trust to a cat. You’re approaching, claws retracted, and showing vulnerability, and they will come and return the greeting. I tried that and it totally works. My two girls were purring and rubbing against me in no time flat. It’s a winner.

      I don’t think that makes us creepy cat ladies ;) (Love the avatar, btw.)

  24. Our first cat would say ‘mama’ when we touched the can opener. Early on he must have picked up on how popular that was with us (his three ‘moms’ and presumably – I don’t remember – his ‘dad’), so he kept using it.

  25. Love your piece, and especially love the fleecy sleeve pic. My Birman, George, would love that too! (You can see his photo on my first attempt at blogging!). At 7 months old he is totally down with communication. I had a builder in this morning, and on opening the door, George was off, dashed out to the balcony with his STRANGERdanger face on! But I told the builder, just say “George, aren’t you gorgeous”, and sure enough the fluffball came trotting back. Was pretty funny.

    • Too cute! They do recover fairly easily, don’t they :)
      Mrs.Parker loves to be under blankets or in sleeves, or even under a basket! She was playing with a wicker garbage bin I have and I put it over her and it covered her completely. The little noodlehead just curled up and started purring :)

  26. I love this post! I totally stumbled on it in the freshly pressed section. That “hello” picture is such a perfect pic for the description, cause I swear if my cat came up to me looking like that I’d swear she was annoyed that I was laughing too hard.

    I have 2 cats. Pita has 2 distinct meows when she’s looking for me vs. my brother. His name has one syllable, and when she meows at his door, she meows in one syllable, “Meow”. My name has 2, so when she’s looking for me she says something like “Meowow”. She even has different sounds of meow for playing and food (mostly glares) and petting. Her sister Coco, on the other hand, has 1 sound of meow, and one sound only, for everything: “Maaah”. (She sounds like sheep with a Boston accent). I find it totally fascinating that these girls from the same litter recognize making sounds for stuff in totally different ways.

    Thanks for the post. Great one!

    • Thanks! I think it’s great how much attention you pay to your cats that you can discern their different meows. My girls are usually pretty silent, and the context usually lets me know what their meows mean (and it’s usually “Please stop squeezing so tightly! ;)
      Mrs.Parker also gets the crazy voices in her head (which usually tell her to chase her tail in the bathtub) and makes some very amusing sounds that Zelda never makes.

  27. I think once you get to know a pet you can read them pretty well for what they’re saying with ‘language.’ And, I’ve come across a few animals here and there who seem to outsmart me. I know they’re smart but every time they’d still get me, and I’d swear they would be laughing too. Your pictures are too cute of your cats, I can see your cat is thinking something with the first picture.

  28. I think animals can ‘talk’ but their ways are very different than ours. Most of their intentions are conveyed by body language and the pitch of the sounds. I’ve loved cats and dogs and have observed them closely. I’ve actually seen kittens ‘talk’ to their mom (weird, I know) and each time, the pitch varied, indicating a possible difference in the thought conveyed. It is still a mystery for us, though. Interesting post!

    • I agree. The only question is whether or not their system of communication could technically be considered a “language” given a very narrow definition of the word. But you’re absolutely right that there’s probably a lot of things that we haven’t discerned yet about animal communication systems, and also about language.

      • I don’t know if it is relevant, but if we are able to decode their way of communicating things, we could also know the reasons for some of the animals behaving in a very peculiar way. A cat family used to visit my house very often (a Tom cat, A she – cat, and 3 kittens – two male and one female – I guessed by their stupid ways :P ) and the she – cat or the mama cat had actually trained her kittens to do odd things that cats generally don’t. Like, they would NEVER pee anywhere else but the loo (My mom didn’t appreciate the manners. She hated them using her bathroom), to close the lids of containers proper after they’ve taken (read: stolen) enough food, to clean their paws on the doormat before entering my room (again, my mom was not impressed), to stop mewing after 9 pm (this is weird, but happened after one night those little rascals woke me up and I went to their mom and actually said, “Mind asking your kids to keep quiet? I want to sleep!” (I know, alright. I talk to animals). I have never seen other cats understand human language and imitate our manners so closely. Peculiar?

      • I don’t know how peculiar that is. Cats are certainly intelligent enough to learn certain behaviors and be trained, and I’m sure there are variations in abilities just as there are in the human population (not everyone can learn to play guitar like Stevie Ray Vaughn, for example!)

  29. I think that animals only communicate with us when they have a need to. I have two cats and one almost never vocalizes anything whilst the other one (a Tabby) is constantly telling me one thing or another. When I can tune into the cat’s head space the communication can be quite clear. Birds, especially parrots, are very intelligent animals and I believe that they can communicate quite cognitively with humans. I am sure that a great deal of their vocabulary is just mimicking the sounds of their environment but I have also experienced parrots that seem to be very aware of what they are saying and who they are saying it to. To my mind that is the basis of conscious communication. One case in point was a pink-breasted grey cockatoo (called Galahs here in Australia) that flew into my life about twelve years ago. She was very tame and like your parakeet she would sit on my shoulder and talk into my ear. One day she told us the entire story of how she had come adrift from her previous home by using the sounds of a crash and the voices of the people that she heard at the time to form a very legible tale of being forcibly emancipated from her aviary and then blown on the wind to my doorstep. I may have imagined the whole thing but even now in retrospect it still seems as if she felt compelled to tell us her story as best as she could communicate it to us with the vocal powers at her disposal.
    Great post! Super cute cat! Congrats on being freshly pressed- you have a new fan.

    • Thanks so much!

      There were certainly times when I thought my bird knew exactly what was going on. And she had such a personality – so fresh sometimes! When I got a second bird, I thought I’d gotten a male but it turned out to be a female and they fought a lot. I was talking about this with some friends in my living room and Macoco was just sitting very quietly the whole time. There was a sudden lull in the conversation, just after saying how mean the new bird was, and at that moment, she said “Oh, poor Macoco!” I mean, I’m sure she was just as likely to have said any of her other phrases that she had in her repertoire (“You’re a pretty bird!” was one, and there were some unmentionables…;) – but it sure did seem at that moment like she’d been following the whole conversation.

      I love birds and I think there’s so much we don’t know – which is why I may come down on one side of the argument at the moment, but have to keep an open mind to any new knowledge that is still waiting to be discovered. Linguists have been turning their attention away from primates and towards whales, dolphins and birds and so far, I think this may yield more interesting information.

    • Thanks, Clay, especially since it’s mostly due to your awesome Movie Madness! And if I make it to the next bracket, you bet I’ll have a better review for Four Weddings and a Funeral up here to convince people that they should definitely keep voting for it :)

  30. Brilliant post – thought-provoking, funny and entertaining. You can’t ask for more. Our dogs communicate by looks and skips and jumps! If they want a biscuit they will look at the biscuit tin over and over – nothing like behaviourism to explain language acquisition! Tilly will skip about if she’s happy, and Molly will shove you with her nose if she wants to sit with you… The more I know my animals, the more I know what they’re trying to communicate! And, to boot, I can speak perfect ‘hen’ for “I’ve laid the most enormous egg and I’m so damn pleased with myself!”

  31. I’ve heard it said that there are ‘cat people’ and ‘dog people’; those who just get along better with one or the other. Some people can get along with /communicate with both. When I see a cute kitty, I start to ‘speak Cat’. I’m not sure what I’m saying or if the feline thinks, “What’s she saying?” or ‘This chick’s out to lunch!”

    It’s also been said that animals don’t have souls . Well, this, of course, is IMPOSSIBLE or they’d all be dead. The ‘soul’ is the mind, will, and intellect. In other words, PERSONALITY. To that end, cats have a great deal of SOUL. They seem to be more independent than dogs, who are more social. If cats could, they’d be drunk writers. “Leave me alone! I’m creating!” And then, after all their snobbery, they’d expect you to make them dinner. And sometimes, a cat will look at you as though he/she expects you to read his or her mind. Especially if the owner is male and the cat is female. A cat wants food and some spoiling. Dogs, on the other hand, like to go out and then spend a rainy evening watching movies with you. Then they will kiss your tears if you’re watching a sad movie.
    Still, I can’t help but wonder what dogs and cats say to each other when their human parents get together.

    • I love the description of cats as drunk writers. I’ll be chuckling at that one all day :)

      I definitely enjoy both cats and dogs, though I also know that having cats suits me better than having dogs. They both have their charms and it’s fascinating watching them interact!

  32. Personally, I think it’s wrong for anyone to say whether a non-human creature can or cannot talk. Just because we cannot fully understand them does not mean they do not have a complex language system: It just means that they do not have one that we can understand. Cats (using your example) and humans are inherently different. Our brains and vocal chords simply do not work the same, and so it is improbable that we will ever be able to tell whether or not a cat can talk, though I will admit that I don’t think a cat can talk to us.

    I also think that animals have a much better system of communication than we humans do. I once read a book by Jon T. Coleman called Vicious: Wolves and Men in America that suggested wolves have a much simpler way of communicating, as they use mostly body language, and thus are able to avoid so many of the misunderstandings that humans come across. Wolves from different areas can, certainly, communicate (“talk”) with each other easily, whereas we come across a significant language barrier. Just think about how much simpler and, arguably, more peaceful life would be if we didn’t have different languages to mess with!

    • Well, no one is arguing that literal talking is possible for cats. It’s been tried on chimps, but the most successful case in the 1960s involved a chimp named Vicki who learned 4 words. Mostly experimenting is done with either sign language or an artificial linguistic system. Even the most successful cases of animals learning human language reveal limitations in what the animals could learn, but which humans can do with ease.

      There’s no judgement here; only a search for answers. Based on the evidence I’ve seen, I can only come to one conclusion. You’ve come to a different one. That’s just life :)

      Life would certainly be simpler if we didn’t have the barrier of different languages to impede communication. More peaceful, however? So no one’s ever argued, fought, gone to war with other people who speak the same language? Sorry, I don’t buy that one. We’re still human, after all, and conflict is just part of the deal.

    • I was surprised she liked the sleeve so much. I’d already discovered that she likes to burrow under the blankets, but then one day I was holding her while wearing my big fleece robe, and she went right in and down the sleeve! Too funny :)

  33. Nice post! I have two cats myself, and both of them love to “answer” me with little meows whenever I say something to them! Yet I do not think that they can speak to us the way we speak to them, and they probably have no idea what we’re saying. I could be telling my cat, “I should buy you more food,” or, “What have you done to my dress?!”, but when she meows pitifully at me she could simply mean, “Shut up and feed me.”

    • Ha! You’re probably right. I remember seeing a Far Side cartoon – a rare one with two frames. The first one showed a dog barking and a person standing next to it. The caption was “What you hear: Bark! Bark! Bark! Bark!” The second frame’s caption was “What they are saying: Hey! Hey! Hey! Hey!”

  34. This has become quite an interesting comment line… and fast growing! Probably a lot of visits are for being Freshly Pressed but no one comments if the subject has no appeal.

  35. My dog says ‘Hello’ back. Either that, or he’s very interested in your cat for the wrong reasons. I can’t reall be sure, since he hasn’t learnt to talk yet! :)

    I haven’t got any cats, so I’ll just apply your theory to dogs (of which I have one – a whippet called George), and it works. George can definitely communicate by body language (position of his ears, tail, etc.), facial expression (I swear he can smile when he’s happy and put on a long face when he disapproves of our behaviour) and sounds. He probably thinks he can speak ‘Human’, because he’s got a wide repertoir of sounds he uses for different occassions, like when he’s asking for a game, for example. And we’ve learnt what each of them means, just like he’s learnt what ‘walkie’, ‘dinner’, ‘naffy-naffy’, ‘mummy’, ‘daddy’ or ‘in your bed’ mean.

    Animal communication aside, as a trained linguist myself, I really enjoyed reading your little lesson in linguistics and the key concepts of language. Very nice, it brought back sweet uni memories.

    Congratulations on being FP!

    Didi

    • Thank you Didi, and thanks for stopping by! My theory worked on my birds, too, when I had them (they wouldn’t work out so well now, what with the overly-curious cats ;) Since they flew free most of the time, they learned to come to my finger if I just held it out. Sometimes, though, Macoco would just look at me from her perch – usually a curtain rod – and laugh. Cheeky!

    • I’ve read research somewhere that studied pain sensation in…I want to say pigs. I would be interested in knowing if they feel the same duration of pain. It seems to make sense from a survival/evolutionary point of view that the pain becomes less intense and more tolerable than it would for humans, simply because if it didn’t they wouldn’t be able to stay alive, either because they couldn’t feed/hunt, or run away from predators. Either that or humans are big-time wusses ;)

  36. Wow … a cat-loving linguist; what could be more interesting? I am so glad I found your blog! (And my kitty says hello to you and yours.)

    Aside from once adopting a 14-year-old cat who could be called in both English and French (ici, Faust!), thanks to its previous owner’s mother, I never thought much about the specifics of cat communication until I adopted Billy about a year and a half ago. Once he got cleaned up, fattened up, and rested up, it became clear that there was a whole lot more going on in that furry little brain than had had a chance to be expressed on the streets of the Bronx! I’ve read that cats can communicate with over a hundred different sounds … and once Billy realized someone was paying attention, he began to use them. And when I realized how intently attuned to communication he was, I started teaching him tricks; in short order, he learned “high five,” “shake,” and “up.” (You can see him on YouTube at Smartycat360.) He understands hungry, breakfast, lunch, dinner, hug, kiss, drink (prompting him to jump onto the rim of the bathtub by the faucet), bad, no, down, where’s that Billy? (prompting him to run and hide), jump, and treat (which I can’t even SPELL unless I’m prepared to give him one). The phrases “do you want” and “would you like” elicit great excitement, no matter what follows them. And those are just the words that I know he understands. He’ll toss his head in the direction of the kitchen (or paw me) when he wants to eat, and hold entire conversations with his tail when he’s too comatose to move anything else. Occasionally, I’ll get some look from him that I don’t understand … and it makes ME feel like I’m lacking in language skills!

    • I just watched some of the videos and your cat is awesome! that is a smart cat, and you have done a fantastic job of training him. Mrs.Parker…not so much. Her “trick” is getting her head stuck in a tissue box – on purpose!

      Plus, he looks like my previous cat, Gomer Pyle, who was put to sleep last year (still sad!) It’s profile but his picture is in the “Proud Mama” post on this blog, back in June 2009.

      • Thanks! Awww … your Gomer Pyle looks like he was a sweetie; I’m sorry he’s no longer with you. I missed my white cat Simon for some 15 years before I finally decided it was time to get another kitty. I think it’s hilarious you have a cat named Mrs. Parker. Critter Outfitters, where I used to buy my cat food when I lived up in Washington Heights, has a resident cat named Mrs. Parberry. She was named by one of the visiting children!

      • People always ask me what I call Mrs.Parker for short, but I don’t have a shortened version. It’s always Mrs.Parker. Well, unless it’s ‘noodlehead’ or something like that ;) Understandably, I think Mrs.Parberry is an excellent name :)

        Gomer was definitely a sweetie. Never scratched, never bit, and if someone so much as looked his way, he would immediately start purring and kneading his paws (or rather paw – his front leg had to be amputated because of a tumor).

  37. Congrats on Freshly Pressed. I have a cat named Zelda as well with very tiny voice she hardly ever uses, more into body language. Btw, good luck in March Movie Madness, I’m LOTR:Fellowship of the Ring.

    • Thanks, jlheuer! And good luck with LOTR! I can’t remember who you were up against. There were some tough match-ups there! I’ll keep my fingers crossed that we both make it through to the next round!

      Zelda is an awesome name! And apparently they share the characteristic of not being very talkative. My Zelda has very expressive eyes, a bit more so than Mrs.Parker, who is more vocal.

  38. Aw cat chat.
    Here’s a thought; when you tell a dog to “speak” does he/she not bark? Yes it does! When I talk to the cat, the cat meows back, it is a verbal communication. When I go outside and the cat can see me, he meows like crazy because he wants to come out.

    When I say the word “cheese” to my dogs, they FREAK out! They know what cheese is and they know they want some :) We may not understand everything our pets want/need or even think, but they are pretty good at anticipating us; they cuddle with you when you’re sad, and dogs know when you don’t like a person, and they won’t like that person either. They are more intuitive than we ever will be.

    Nice post, congrats on being freshly pressed

  39. Cats may not “speak” in the formal aka human sense, but they certainly get their point across to humans and to each other when they are hungry, angry, wanting affection, curious, or staking their territory.

  40. I don’t believe he comprehend English as you or I can, but my cat Ashcroft can mimic me exactly when its meal time.
    If I ask him to say ‘please’ or ‘lamb please’ he’ll respond in the same tone and inflection as me, which cracks me up laughing and is so cute too!

    But surely, he can’t THINK in English….can he?

    • They’re such little clowns, aren’t they? And who knows what language the voices in their head speak ;)
      Zelda and Mrs.Parker respond with very squeaky meows when they hear the…okay, this is embarrassing…high-pitched “Time for night-night snack!” come out of my mouth.

    • Thanks for stopping by!
      I never had pets as a child, but I had parakeets in college and grad school, and I’ve had cats for about 6-7 years. I like dogs too, but cats better suit me for the moment, and when you get used to them, they are such great company!

  41. From the comment up above about “Far Side”. That was the funniest comic strip ever. Always making the animals look smart and the humans stupid. Maybe they really are saying “hey,hey,hey,hey”. Cats like to look at you like they are not amused or that you are stupid. Far Side had it right. haha.

  42. “I have to be content with never knowing whether or not the cats are engaged in an intense staring contest with the ghost in the corner, or if they’re just messing with me.” Fuuuunny! Sounds like a Far Side comic! I could relate to that. I miss my two cats.

    Congrats on being Freshly Pressed.

  43. I don’t know how relevant this is…but they also say dogs have no capacity to understand “past.”

    And I’m perplexed every time my dog will walk downstairs or to the loft or wherever she left it, and collect her favorite stuffed animal before bed.

    It’s not like she looks everywhere. She makes a beeline to the spot.

    • I’m no dog whisperer of course ;) but I know that both dogs and cats are creatures of habit. It also occurs to me that they might be able to locate things by smell, which we always forget about because the human sense of smell is so underdeveloped.

      I also don’t discount that animals can remember. The question would be if they are ever able to express the things they remember with the same level of detail and precision that we can using language.

      I love the image of your dog getting her toy before bed :)

  44. For a college course a few years back the professor asked us to answer a similar question for our final paper. Too bad this wasn’t written back then, it might have helped me articulate a few points better :)

    I believe my cats communicate with me because they learned the essentials to manipulate me into doing what they want. They do not speak, or have such complex language as us humans, because they have no need. Humans make life complicated and need a language to match, cats (animals) live simpler and have a simpler language as a result. However, I think we underestimate their understanding, hence they understand “get off my book” but choose to ignore it but “food”, that is relevant to their needs so they decide to listen.

    And your kitties are very cute!

    • Thanks, Indigo! It would be very difficult to prove that they can understand but choose to ignore it, but it certainly does seem that way, doesn’t it? Little stinkers :)

  45. Those linguists who say that cat’s cant talk probably never shared their home with a cat.

    I’m no crazy person, though I do talk to my cats, and I believe that they do talk back. They have different vocal patterns that refer to specific things. Granted, most of them are variations of “meow,” but we can often tell what our cat wants just by the sound, timber, volume, and pitch of their “meow”.

    Their morning greetings are loud and very clear-sounding. When they want to be fed, they meow incessantly and beggingly, making a lower-pitched noise that sounds like they have marbles in their mouths. When they want a treat or to play, they go to whichever one of the closets where we keep the cat treats or their feather toy, and emit an excited, questioning “merow”? while making eye contact with us. When our new kitty is somewhere in the house, and can’t find her brother, she meows very clearly and loudly; it sounds like she’s calling someone’s name.

    I know that scientifically, there might not be a real language, and context plays a big part in some of what we consider to be vocal communication with our cats, but it’s the closest thing to a language that you can get.

    Thanks for a great post – cats!!! – and congratulations on being Freshly Pressed.

    • Thanks for the congrats and for stopping by K.B.!

      I’ve known some linguists who were better at talking to their animals than they were at talking to people! ;) But yes, we can’t help but be very narrow in our definition of language, so based on that, I still don’t believe animals – not just cats – can use human language, but there is no doubt whatsoever that real communication takes place between different species. Take Mrs. Parker, for example, who is just now trying to see if I really mean it when I tell her to stop walking on the keyboard, and then got the message that it just ain’t gonna happen! ;)

  46. Congratulations on being freshly pressed!

    An interesting post. So, about cats. Do they talk? Probably not really. Do they communicate? Probably more often than we realize. My last cat quite amazed me with her apparent perception when something was not right. Having always thought cats to be aloof and self-serving – which our “little girl” could be quite capbably – she surprised me frequently when somebody was having a bad moment. There was some kind of intuitive awareness about her that suddenly changed her into a soft bundle of empathy and comfort.

    Not quite sure how that can be explained, and it probably does open another can of worms similar to the speech scenario. Are cats capable of empathy? Do they really care about anything beyond their own comfort? Since cats do not speak, I guess they will never give us the answer to that one either. Nonetheless, they are certainly wonderful critters. I cannot imagine a world without them.

    • Neither can I. I’ve never had a dog but I love watching Cesar Milan (the Dog Whisperer) working with dogs, and there’s clearly something to the idea of energy being the medium of communication. Not having any way to objectively measure this (as far as I know), we can only conjecture.
      Gomer Pyle used to curl up with me on the couch whenever I had a bad day. He usually would do so eventually anyway, if I stayed in one place long enough, but on bad days, he’d come over immediately.

  47. My cat, who is 18, mostly deaf, and a bit senile, has learned that if I am not where she can see me and she says, maaaaaa-ma I come running. The first time she “said” this was just a couple of months ago and it not only scared me it hurt my heart.

    BTW, your cat is just messing with you. There are no ghosts and she knows it.

    • Oh, that kind of breaks my heart a little, too!

      And yeah, I kind of figured as much about the ghosts. It’s amazing the sense of humor cats can have with just butterflies and cotton candy in their little heads ;)

    • It’s true – I can understand Zelda and Mrs.Parker, but their ways of letting me know what they want wouldn’t necessarily be apparent to others, at least without enough time to get to know them. That would be unlike human language that is instantly understandable to other speakers of the same language.

  48. Congratulations on being Freshly Pressed and on a well written blog. My cat of sixteen years would communicate his needs quite clearly. He knew when something was going on with me. His intuition was magnificent and he would jump into my lap to soothe me when he could feel like I could not. His empathy went so far that I believe he took on my sadness & grief. He had anthropomorphic traits because he could communicate his needs to me so perfectly. I think what I love about cats so much is they communicate so well. No pretending about feelings with these creatures. Btw, I love the caption on the picture of Mrs. Parker & Zelda. Well done!

    • Thank you on all counts!
      I agree with you – there’s no pretending. Being a cards-on-the-table kind of girl myself, I think this is why cats and I are suited to each other.

  49. Despite your well-written and thorough breakdown and analysis of the question “Can cats talk?”, I think you missed some obvious points. Cats don’t have mouth structures that could facilitate proper word formation. Wrong shaped jaws, and hard lips triangular at the cleft. However, individual cats who are closely bonded to their owners do attempt to imitate human verbal behavior. They do NOT use these sounds with other cats or other animals – only with humans. Cats try to make sounds like our sounds, and if you respond with “mows” or imitations of their attempts, they will do it much more often. “He-ow” is an approximation their mouth and tongue shape can do, so they do it. We say hello as a greeting, They respond in kind as best they can. we reinforce their attempts by petting them, which they like, so they do it more often.

    • I don’t think I really missed the question of the ill-suited mouth, jaw and larynx structure, mainly because I was never claiming – nor has it ever been posited as far as I know – that cats specifically could “talk” in the sense of forming human speech sounds. (I also used my cats as a way to make the discussion more concrete, but I never meant to focus solely on cats.)
      As I said in a previous comment, I think most linguists interested in animal communication gave up on the idea of animals “talking” long ago and focused instead on “using” language – usually a signed language, but often an artificial system designed for the research. As far as I know, the only exception would be parrots, or birds of that family. They too have a physiology that is completely different from ours, and yet they are able to manipulate the frequencies of sound to mimic human speech. I actually wrote a paper on how my parakeet could make human speech sounds using her little bird anatomy. And the famous Alex was not only able to mimic the sounds, but seemed to learn quite a bit as well – meaning that he learned not only the sounds but the arbitrary reference – concrete or abstract – for those sounds, which I think is pretty remarkable.

      Thanks for your comment. It’s interesting that cats modify their vocalizations in the way you describe.

      • Parrots (and parakeets) have a tongue flexibility that can compensate for their difference in mouth-chamber structure, which is a round beak. Round (domed) chambers can accept an almost infinite variety of shaped sounds, just as bandshells or amphitheaters do. But cats have a triangular structure. It limits their will. Another thing unique to the species is that cats are the only wild animals that have ever self-selected domestication. Dogs (via wolves), horses, cattle and chickens were domesticated entirely by our choice. Cats chose US, because our earliest agriculture attempts attracted the rodents they so love to hunt. They want what we have.

      • Yes, I remember learning that our mouths are essentially Helmholtz resonators, and we create sounds (especially the vowels) by manipulating that resonance. Parrots can create the same resonances in their mouths and throats as we can, but other animals can’t.

        That’s really quite interesting about the cats’ self-selected domestication. Thanks for explaining that!

  50. I love the names of your Cats-
    Just like some people can understand French but not Speak French – such is My experience with the Animal world- they somehow understand me- and I them…. and that is all that matters. Perhaps its vibratory- or energetics?
    Or Magic.
    I believe it is a gift of Magic -Something that defies our human-ness explanation!
    cheers…. B

    • Thanks, Beverly. You can see an explanation of their names (along with a picture of each as a kitten) in the “My Latest Literary References” post. I think it was July 2010.

      I imagine a connection like yours to animals would be quite comforting.

  51. Pingback: Read my lips… or my mind « Great and Small
  52. Great post! I have discovered that I’m an “animal shaman” (and I think that also makes me sound like a wackjob) and so most animals are able to communicate with me, even if the tools they use to do so are not our traditional language. It’s been a really interesting gift to explore and has helped me gain a stronger perspective of my place in the world. Congrats on being Freshly Pressed. And send my best to the cats.

    • Welcome, Seasweetie, and thank you for your comment. I think it’s great that you are aware enough of the way animals communicate that you feel so comfortable with them and can learn from them. It’s a valuable and rare skill.

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