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.”
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.