It is a fair question. Since this book presents the sounds that cats use in their vocal communication with other cats as well as with us humans and describes them carefully, and even uses sound and video to clarify, the language of cats is actually not a secret anymore, right? And yet, even after my numerous studies of cat sounds, something still seems to elude me, and remains hidden, like a secret. And is not this last little bit of mystery the reason that we continue to investigate, the reason that we want to comprehend everything a little bit more precisely? For me, at least, the answer is a resounding yes.
Cats express themselves vocally differently than humans. We have to begin by observing their behavior closely so that we can learn their vocal communicative signals and come to understand them as complete beings. We have to crack their “secret code.”
We begin by examining the assumption that everyone understands a word in the same way, that everyone defines words identically. But is that really the case? Take the word yes. Does yes always mean yes? Or is it sometimes actually more of a yeah? Or even occasionally a no? The meaning of a word, what the speaker intends when they say something, always depends on the context, as well as on the speaker’s emotional condition or attitude. It’s a good thing that if a word produced by a human speaker is unclear, you can always ask for clarification.
What about foreign languages? Well, if I do not know any Hungarian, for example, I can rely on Hungarian dictionaries and on translations. Hungarian has a grammar, and there are books about the Hungarian language which I can rely on for help. I can take language courses at a community college or a university. I can practice with native speakers.
It is different with cat language. Even if I think that I understand a cat sound correctly and can imitate it somewhat accurately, I can never be 100 percent sure that I have interpreted it correctly, whether I am using it in the right context, and how I might interpret it or even try to translate it into a human language. Cats do not have a language that works like a human language.
Even so, we can approach the vocal language of cats and learn to understand it better. The sounds of animals belong to a kind of communication that depends on the situation or context in which the sounds are uttered. You have to study the circumstances of those utterances very closely before you can begin to recognize patterns, let alone a system. In order to study cat sounds more systematically, we can play our cats prerecorded clips of cat sounds and study their reactions very closely. We can analyze the results and interpret the reasons that a specific sound produces a specific reaction.
These are exactly the kinds of studies I conducted with my cats. Although I am pretty sure that the trilling or cooing with which my cat Kompis greets me every morning is a form of friendly hello, I will never be able to enter his vocalization into a dictionary, as cat language does not have words and sentences with a grammar, with structural rules for how to compose words, phrases and sentences—and what these units mean—as is familiar to us from human language.
What does help, if we want to understand the language of cats, is paying attention to the context in which a cat expresses itself. While human languages ascribe identical or similar meanings to different words (a table is called Tisch in German, bord in Swedish and zhuozi in Mandarin Chinese), cat sounds always seem to be tightly bound to specific situations. One-to-one translation from human language to cat language and vice versa are therefore impossible. We cannot look something up in Cat. One more reason, then, that the language of cats remains a secret.
What is more, we still know very little about the various categories, subcategories and variants of cat sounds. Most human languages also have variants such as dialects and sociolects that are used within a specific group, sometimes defined geographically and sometimes defined sociologically, e.g. through geographical location, profession or age. These linguistic variants can still be understood, translated and described. Cats, too, may have developed something similar to dialects: in the situations where they have been successful with vocal communication, they will probably continue to communicate with such sounds, and can develop multiple variations (or even learn them from other cats or from their humans) in order to communicate their message more clearly. There are therefore similar sounds that can be distinguished through different vowels or different melodic patterns though they appear in the same context.
Every cat develops, in the course of the life they share with their humans, unique sounds that suit the specific relationship and needs for communication. It is highly likely that the cat has identified sounds that will trigger the expected results from their humans or fellow cats more quickly. Another reason that the language of cats remains a secret is that we can neither precisely interpret, exactly learn, nor perfectly describe these sounds. Every cat has its own “secret” language, known only to its trusted human—and even then, only if that human listens closely enough.
Yet there are still clues that enable a more general system of cat sounds. In this book, I present what I have learned from my past studies and my current research project, “Melody in Human–Cat Communication” (Meowsic). I summarize the various kinds of sounds, the situations in which they occur and the existing variations. I also recount my personal experiences in dealing and communicating with cats. Additionally, the book contains a quick introduction to phonetics, so that my linguistic descriptions can be better understood. Maybe some readers will even give my method a try with their own cats at home. It can absolutely lead to surprises. Or at least to better understanding. It will certainly lead to a better relationship.
Even after years of research, there is still a bit of mystery. But that is exactly why we find our cats so fascinating, isn’t it?