Do Cats Speak? Of Course. Do They Have Language? Not Exactly

Variations in 'purring, chirping, chattering, trilling, tweedling, murmuring, meowing, moaning, squeaking, hissing, yowling, howling, growling, and other modes of cat–human communication' can tell us a lot, it turns out

Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
A cat and a kitten in the village of Krompach, Czech Republic, last year. And they have a lot to say.
A cat and a kitten in the village of Krompach, Czech Republic, last year. And they have a lot to say.Credit: DAVID W CERNY/ REUTERS
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster

Do cats speak? Of course they do. Ignore the haters. We know what cats want, ergo, communication has been established. Understanding exactly what our precious felines have to say is a whole other ballgame, but then again, how well do we understand our neighbors? Cats speak, and now research into human-cat communication has won Swedish researchers the prestigious Ig-Nobel prize for biology in 2021. Applause!

Prof. Susanne Schotz and Joost van de Weijer of Lund University with Robert Eklund of Linköping University were awarded the Ig for biology on Thursday for analyzing variations in cats' “purring, chirping, chattering, trilling, tweedling, murmuring, meowing, moaning, squeaking, hissing, yowling, howling, growling, and other modes of cat–human communication.”

Yes, there’s more. Meowsic – yes, it’s a thing: melody in human-cat interaction. Schotz, a professor of phonetics, has studied meowsic and written a paper about it: “Melody in Human–Cat Communication (Meowsic): Origins, Past, Present and Future.”

At the award ceremony, Schotz helpfully demonstrated some of the sounds she had studied, Reuters reports. And how did she feel about being awarded the Ig Nobel, the prize by the institute of Improbable Research founded by Marc Abrahams “for achievements that first make people LAUGH then make them THINK?” Look, she actually showed up.

Susanne analyzing cat vocalizations with Donna and Turbo.Credit: Lars Gustafsson

One thinks that cats and people can trade noises all they want, but how much we understand each other will forever be unknown. If a cat isn’t kept captive but still sticks around, it wants to do so, indicating that you’re doing something right. But Schotz has discovered key elements that indicate that they’re talking, and people who know cats have some sense of what it’s all about.

As she explained in 2018, cats recorded during feeding time at home delivered melodies with a tonal rise at the end. Cats recorded in the vet’s waiting room meowed with a fall towards the end of the melody. Crucially, humans who listened to the recordings could often tell whether the meows were emitted in a feeding situation or a vet situation.

How did Schotz wind up studying feline vocalizations? As a researcher of phonetics, she studies human speech. “One of my occupational hazards is that I tend to listen less to what people are saying than how they are saying it,” she explained.

But as a right-thinking person, she had five cats and noticed vast variation in the magical sounds they emit, which also varied in intonation, “depending on the context or situation and their mental state.”

She recorded the cats’ sounds, analyzed them using the same methods used for human speech and concluded that in contrast to the blithe assumption that cats “meow,” they in fact have a vast range of vocal cues – and they’re not just saying "feed me."

To make a long story short, she consulted with her two co-awardees, somebody gave them a “small grant” and now they’re in the limelight.

To lay to rest the vicious claim by doubters that it’s all in our heads, Schotz suggests it possible that cats and their companions develop a kind of “pidgin language.”

Also, in homes with multiple cats, the animals may develop what she calls a “group dialect,” even if they can’t stand each other, which is not rare in multi-cat households. “They listen to what other cats are saying to get what they want, and they adopt those successful sounds,” Schotz explains.

Susanne with Donna.Credit: Lars Gustafsson

In contrast to the belief that cats only meow in a perpetual infantilized state, here is a video of some of her cats emitting some pretty extraordinary hissing and growling sounds to impress one another.

So do cats have language? Not like us exactly. None of this means they have syntax or are trying to talk about their career plans, and much work remains to be done. But it is already clear to her that every cat has its own personal voice, just as we do. They sing! And their melody seems to carry an important part of the message.

“For instance, the more variation in the melody, the more excited or urgent the message seems to be,” she explains. And they’re not just meowing.

Here is a video of Schotz’s cat Donna trilling, squeaking and purring.

This author attests that one of her own multiple cats chirps remarkably like a bird when she sees a bird. (Could she possibly be chirping like a bird ready for mating? No one's looked into that.) The others don’t chirp like birds when they see birds; they do nothing. They are overfed.

Not every vocalization is an intentional act of communication, of course. When the being that is your cat vomits on the carpet – it won’t cough up their dinner on floor tiles, heaven forbid, the carpet it must be –that cat may also emit an extraordinary sound. It's a sort of nya nya nya or amni amni amni, or a variation on that theme. The closer the cat is to actually throwing up, the more intense the sound grows. Different cats have differently themed meowsic for vomiting, one realizes.

Personal experience aside, there’s a pretty extraordinary wealth of videos of cats throwing up on YouTube. Here is one. Enjoy:

In other Ig news, Pavlo Blavatskyy was awarded the Ig in economics for his paper correlating obesity in politicians with corruption. The prize in entomology went to a team for their research study “A New Method of Cockroach Control on Submarines.” Thank you for that. We had wondered. Applause.

Click the alert icon to follow topics: