Pet sounds and human idioms: not always the cat’s meow

Photo courtesy of

Photo courtesy of

By Joshua Wagner, Staff Writer

A 2003 study found that cats lack a universal language. Each cat has a different dialect of meows.

Anthrozoologist John Bradshaw claims that feral cats meow approximately once every hundred hours. Cats do not use vocalizations for cat-to-cat communication, so who learns all of these cat languages?

This study hypothesizes that only a cat’s owner is able to understand the meows of their feline friend. Every cat uses a different vocalization for a different situation. Hunger, boredom, stress, happiness etc. are communicated by varying forms of the simple meow. Roughly the same noise is used to convey many different messages.

Humans are similar to cats. People may say the same words, but the meaning can be completely different, depending on who is saying it.

Consider someone who says, “I’m sick.” From one person this means that he had a sniffle this morning. From another this means that an ambulance should be called. The meaning of words depends on the person speaking.

Care should be taken to avoid misinterpreting others’ language. One needs to appreciate the language of his friends in the same way a cat owner learns to distinguish the meaning of a cat’s meow.

For example, many people use idioms to politely say no. When asked to go to a sweater-knitting competition, they may respond maybe later or some other time.

This is the danger. With several possible interpretations of the same conversation, it is sometimes hard to understand what each speaker means.

To wait for your friend to go witness a sweater-knitting extravaganza some other time is waiting in vain. It is critical to learn the idioms of those around you. It is also imperative to use consistent language yourself.

If a cat started using its “hungry meow” when it was bored, its owner would become confused. How would the owner be able to correctly interpret this?

If someone who always answered no when asked to go to a party said maybe later while meaning no, there would be confusion. This person’s friend could wait outside the party for a long time and become frustrated. Who is at fault? The person that was asked the question meant no, but the person asking the question heard the answer yes.

Learning to communicate well requires understanding the hidden language behind each person’s words.

When asked, “Do you want me to come?” many people respond, “If you want to.” From some people, this is a straightforward statement: come if you want or not.

For others this means, “I really want you to come, but I am not going to say it.” These are dangerous waters. The safest way to navigate this conundrum is to know your friend’s language. Like a good cat owner, when a friend “meows,” one must find out what that “meow” means.

Unlike cats, people have a bountiful variety of words and phrases to choose from.

Despite this, humans repetitively use confusing idioms to express themselves. There is no hope of changing this fundamental language barrier, so friends must identify the individual linguistic quirks of those around them. Thus, many confrontations and misunderstandings can be avoided.

If one fails to learn, problems will arise. One may find himself attending a sweater-knitting competition, waiting at a party or upsetting a friend. Clearly, learning a few quirks is better than these inconveniences.

Perhaps this confusion is why cats only meow once to other cats every one hundred hours.

Maybe, at one time, cats were verbose creatures but slowly weaned themselves from talking due to confusing idioms.

If this is true, there may be hope for humans because cats have deemed humans intelligent enough to speak to. Cats have judged people capable of finding meaning in the subtle differences of their language.

Feline owners everywhere have proven themselves able to decipher the significance from these mews and meows. Perhaps the human race will continue to rise above the challenges that its feline companions perpetually pose.

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Author: Joshua Wagner

Josh Wagner '19 is a chemistry and mathematics double major who enjoys bike rides on the battlefield and waving around a red pen as the Gettysburgian's Managing Opinions Editor. When not editing for the Gettysburgian, he can usually be found working in the College Life Office, helping students with calculus as a PLA, or studying in the library.

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