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Talking to Cats

When I first became a cat-owner, I had no special way of talking to cats. I used the same pedantic style as I did with anyone else. Cats, after all, didn't understand words most of the time; so why should I baby-talk to them?

But over the years, as my cats and I have connected more and more with each other, I've developed a language I use only with cats.

It's not baby-talk. In fact, it's hardly even English (or German, which I speak marginally well because I am a first-generation, though early-childhood, immigrant from Germany).

The strange thing is, in this language, words don't really mean much at all. It's more about the rhythm and the pitch. I realized today that what I was speaking to my cats is a tonal language more akin to music than speech. It's full of neologisms and simplified English words. The words that cause tension on the tongue, or hissing noises, have been changed. "Whisker" is now pronounced like "Fishka"--the tension on the "W" and the "R", and the hissing "S", have all been changed. "You" is "Soo", with emphasis on the O sound and very little S. When I tell Tiny it's okay to come and snuggle in bed with me, I say "Come on up!"--but it sounds more like, "Komunup!", always with the same quick syllables and ascending tone. "Soo ma keeto" is a term of endearment, always said slowly and with a very steady pitch. "Tiliket" is a form of laughter that says, "I enjoy watching you play." (It comes from "Silly cat!".)

I think, when I first realized that cats don't really use words, I must have given myself the freedom to do whatever I wanted with language. I want to say something the way I think it? I want to sing a word instead of saying it? I want to say words that mean what I feel instead of being strictly symbolic? With cats, that is okay; and they never, never laugh at you for it. I think they put up with me because they know that my stiff body will never be able to make the movements and postures of a true cat-language; so they let me chirp at them. Sometimes I think they must understand me better than I understand them.


We have been domesticating animals for a terribly long time, and your interactions with your pets are not one way: it's quite possible that you've changed your speech to make it more understandable by your pets.
I speak to my cats with mews, chirps and hisses/growls. They know certain actions and certain sounds mean certain things. I have a different meow for either cat, but I know they know their names because they'll cock their heads whenever I use their names in general conversation.

Then they communicate back. One of my cats is way smarter because she knows just what to do to get me to react a certain way. The other one treats me like an idiot and only gets my attention the same way every time. Seriously. That's why we're not on so great terms because she'll meow the same way if she's hungry, wants to play, or something is bothering her especially when I'm trying to sleep or am sleeping. Hence, she is more my wife's cat than mine.
Have you ever seen Diane Duane's "Feline Wizardry" books? They're sort of an adjunct series to the "Young Wizardry" ones but they're told from the perspective of the cat wizards, and it includes some commentary on the cats' language and how it differs from human speech.
I have. They are very, very good books. I love the Young Wizards series in general, but the feline wizard books are good enough to make me forgive Diane Duane's truly clumsy portrayal of autism in "A Wizard Alone". (Darryl doesn't have autism, however much the book claims he does. I don't know what he has, but he's not autistic, that's for sure. Ah, well, even good authors make mistakes.)


Very interesting post. I've discovered something similar since getting a highly intelligent dog (border collie). She's extremely responsive to my slightest body language and all of the small noises I make, whether words or not. I've had to become much more subtle with my communication with her, and learn to recognise the associations she's formed around all the different sounds I make. She even learned two different meanings for the "fetch" command, based simply on my inflection. I was confused at the inconsistent results I got from her until I noticed my own inconsistent vocalisations.

I've even learned a little "doggish" to go along with her wonderful understanding of English. I can use a particular type of panting to tell her we're going for a walk. And I have to be careful of clearing my throat, as she tends to think I'm growling.

Cross-species communication is truly fascinating!
When I talk to my car, that sounds funny for sometimes, but he understands me, sure