Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Our Uncommon Language

Years ago, I had an interesting experience in a grocery store. I heard a toddler yelling. This is not rare but what was not so rare was his purpose in yelling. He was shouting at another toddler, ensconced in a shopping cart, as was the first child. Neither was old enough to speak, but they were talking, in their own fashion. One would yell, and the other would answer. The communication was incoherent babble, probably meaningless - in terms of words - to the children themselves, but as far as they were concerned, they were speaking. They had no idea that adults used sentences; so far as the toddlers knew, adults used gibberish, just as they were. One spoke, the other answered. It was an astonishing example of a rudimentary attempt at communication which was, to the participants, quite successful.

I relate this incident because I was reminded of it during an argument with Cammie. I made the mistake at some point of holding her up to the kitchen window. This is not a window to which the beasts can get to on their own. Well, it is, but they must walk across the kitchen counters to achieve it, and they are forbidden from doing this. Cammie was engrossed by what she saw and smelled through the window, and then, perhaps predictably, wanted to continue viewing the wide world from this unusual vantage point. She tried to do so on her own, and was told more than once to get off the counters. This is, I accept, my fault.

One time recently, I caught her on the kitchen table. This is, as the border reivers used to say, ‘debatable land’. The cats can go up there, but cannot spend much time there. All right, they can, but they must be fastidiously clean about it. All right, I wash the table afterward. Anyway, the princess was on her way to the counters. I knew that, she knew that, she was caught and I told her to get down. There ensued an argument.

I repeated my command, several times, and she retorted with what sounded like different responses each time. None of the responses sounded polite. I eventually had enough of her backtalk and told her to go to her room, or the equivalent. She jumped down, gave me a rude reply and hissed as she walked away.

The point is that Cammie was communicating with me in a rudimentary fashion, just as the children were. She was not imitating adults; she is an adult cat, and so was telling me off in a precise manner - the manner in which a cat will talk. I’m sure each response had meaning, and likely a different meaning than the one before, though they all probably corresponded to some insult regarding my parentage. The princess was, in an elementary way, countering my statements. We knew what each other meant, we knew what we were trying to tell one another. We were trying to get our views across. That is the essence of communication.

Too much should not be read into this exchange, of course. Yet animals do send messages to each other verbally. A pair of wild beasts, meeting by chance in the forest, will issue, and respond to, challenges. This is, I believe, accepted as fact by most people. Cammie and I were not fighting, but the pattern of our exchange was similar: a short remark on my part, followed by her peevish reply. So I don’t think it’s unreasonable to claim that we were communicating, having a conversation, albeit primitive.

Being limited in what they can say cats will signify intent and meaning in action, as well as sound. And we humans, not always able to convey our purpose to animals, will do the same. Now and then, though, we find common ground for speech, and grunt and squeal and yell like cave-dwellers who haven’t yet devised language. There is often understanding, nonetheless, just as in the case of the cave-dwellers.

But all this doesn’t mean Cammie wasn’t up on the table, the counter and at the window after I’d gone to sleep.


  1. Recently read that cats and their owners develop their own unique style of communicating. That only the two understand. Cats and animals in general, communicate in very subtle body language which I think they are masters of interpreting. Of course if you live in the wild you'd better be a master of it or it could cost you your life. The only hisses I get from Annabelle is if I try to clean her bottom when she is unable to and wants it left alone and even then it's more a hiss to let me know it hurts rather than she is angry with me. I understand what she is saying and I only push her as far as she will allow.

  2. well said..... mom has been known to converse with Daiquiri - generally about Daiq's lack of ability to return the ball during a game of fetch and Daiquiri telling mom that dropping it a couple of feet away is still bringing it back

  3. Ah, I love this! Couldn't help but laugh, particularly reading your third paragraph. And I'm quite sure Cammie was up watching out that window in the middle of the night. :-D

  4. It is said that a cat will only vocalize to its mother and to its human - a cat rarely vocalizes to another cat. I have always felt that my cats not only knew what I was saying, but answered me. And, on occasion, they gave me "what for" when they felt I needed it! And just like people, some cats are chatterboxes (like my Willow), while others (like my Alex), speak only when they feel they have something to say.

  5. I think she was right in telling you off. Don't you know, cats are allowed everywhere. :)

  6. cammie....we willna tell yur dad;

    2) how manee times ewe R on de taybull & counter while him iz at werk

    p) that ewe used "werds" with yur dad we willna print coz ...thiz iz...yur blog....and R language iz R own & shall be kept sekrit frum man kind for all eee tern a tee !!

    we best ewe used de F werd huh !!

    ~~~~~~~~ flounder ~~~~ ☺☺☺♥♥♥

  7. I was thinking, you might have won the battle, but didn't likely win the war. Cammie just realized she'd have until you were asleep or out of the apartment.

    There are times when I think the cats and I communicate and then are times I know they're ignoring me.

    1. I like to think it's still communication in the latter case: they understand what we're saying, and we understand they don't care.

  8. I am convinced you are right and our cats do communicate with us. Flynn has always been very vocal but has a totally different vocabulary when I have done something he disagrees with. He also always must have the last word.

  9. I seriously adore this post.. seriously..

    and I talk to my cats all the time. It freaks my husband out when they answer and obey(ish)

  10. Hahaha! That sounds like Ralphie and I. We are having an ongoing argument about the back gate that is quite vocal right now and I am hearing quite a few things that I am sure are not flattering at all spoken back at me :)