You may not know, but there are a lot of library cats here at Hermetic Library. We live together and take care of each other. This week, one of the library cats is getting extra special care, trying to stay as comfortable as possible. I don’t want to say much more in specific on that right now, because it’s hard to type when I can’t see clearly with something constantly getting in my eyes. But, as I help her, figure out how she wants me to help, I found myself thinking again about how cats communicate with their humans.
A long time ago, I remember some science show or another where I learned that, in the wild, adult cats don’t meow at each other. Young cats will meow at their mothers, but they grow out of that. They do vocalize, but not the way that pet cats do with their humans.
So, why do cats meow with humans? Here’s what’s going on: They are learning what vocalizations cause humans to do the behaviours that they want them to do. They make a vocalization, and learn what humans understand that to mean. One vocalization they might learn means the human gives food, or another results in treats, or another in being let outside.
Let me further say that what is happening is that a cat is trying to figure out vocalization that a human understands. Cats try to learn to speak a language humans understand. By meowing, they are not speaking cat-language, they are learning to speak a cat-spoken human-understandable language.
You know that funny insistent look a cat gets when they meow and their human doesn’t do the thing? Yeah, that’s because suddenly their human doesn’t do the thing they’re supposed to do when the human hears cat-learned human language. The human has suddenly gotten dumb and failed to understand simple language.
You know that cat with the obnoxiously annoying meow? Yeah, that’s because they’ve learned their human isn’t very smart or quick at understanding reasonable soft-spoken cat-learned human language.
I’m going to brag a little bit here. My cats don’t meow much. Here’s the brag: They don’t need to. We’re on the same page most of the time. People have called me a cat whisperer, in fact. They do vocalize, but they mostly don’t meow. But for the most part what I get is the patient stare, whilst a cat waits for me to do the thing. Sometimes the stare is at me, like around dinner time I tend to have a circle of cats staring at me, waiting for me to call out the dinner bell. Sometimes the stare is at the thing they want to happen, like a door they want to go through that is closed and they sit in front of it, waiting for me to get around to letting them through, unless I’m trying not to, and then they kind of get huffy after a while, look at me not-mad-but-very-disappointed, and walk off. (We reconcile later, of course.)
A while ago, I was talking to another person about cat names, and I was sharing with them about a new name I’d given one of my rescued cats. The person I was talking to about cat names made an off-hand comment that changing a cat’s name doesn’t matter since they don’t understand their names anyway. I’ll tell you at that moment I felt like a cat that suddenly discovered a human that no longer understands human language. In my experience, that is completely untrue!
I attest to you right now that cats do know their individual names, and they understand basic vocabulary associated with things that matter to them. When I call out one cat’s name that cat understands it is them, and the other cats understand it isn’t them; though sometimes others may also show up to see what’s going on. The library cats understand “is it time?”, “fud” (I blame The Far Side), and “ready for bed?” and many other things like that. When they hear something like that, they even come from across the house in response. They also don’t come when it isn’t something like that, so they know the difference.
By the by, in many ways, cats are also not nearly how they are portrayed in lots of other ways. If you meet a cat that has a bad attitude it is because they’ve learned that. Cats are social. They care for each other. That help each other when there’s trouble. Cats are loving and friendly with humans when they are treated in a loving and friendly way. Cats also follow, can go on leashed walks, play fetch, growl, and many other things not commonly associate with them, but that are actually quite common. Also, like primates, cats socially groom. I strongly suspect, but cannot prove, that mutual understanding of social grooming is one key reason for cat-human relations being so successful.
However, and only slightly joking here (OR AM I?!), the perennial, eternal feline war on human literacy continues to this day. Cats stay vigilant and quickly sit on paper and books, getting in the way of laptops and tablets to stop humans from getting too many ideas about overthrowing them. Like jealous gods throughout history, cats can only let humans go so far towards becoming gods themselves.
To bring this all around, when I learned that cats are actually trying to learn a human language, that cats meow in a way that resembles what they’ve learned as a human-understandable language, I came to realize a whole new twist to the common accusation against women as witches because, in part, they talk with their familiars, their cats. Cats actually do talk to humans, but meowing is not a native adult cat language; cats meow in order to talk with humans in what they believe to be a human language.
And, furthermore, oddly enough, whilst cats learn human-understandable language, and they can understand their names and some human-spoken language, truly when humans and cats are in communication on a cat level, there’s no need to meow. One might even say that it is the nearly silent, almost, perhaps metaphorically, psychic connection between a cat and their human that is true cat-native language. A purr, a body or face rub, a touch of paw, or a slowly closed eyelids as a “kitty kiss” shall suffice in most cases. Or, a meaningful stare in others …
So, yes, witches do talk to their cat familiars, perhaps imitating what they think is cat language. But, moreover, their cats also talk to them in a kind of learned human language.
Magical talking cats are real. I know. I’ve lived with many.