Is my cat speaking English? (not as stupid of a question as it sounds)
October 24, 2017 3:04 PM   Subscribe

My cat Tumnis is smart. He is an adopted teenage cat and learns tricks like shake, roll over and fetch within a day. Lately he has errily started a behavior that when he wants affection for either my husband or I, he makes a very enunciated meow of our different specific names.

I have always called myself his Mama, and when he wants my attention, he runs toward me and clearly meows "Maaaaaamaaaa" Not exaggerating at ALL. His mouth closes to have an M in the right syllables. When he wants my husband's attention, he will come to him and say, "Maaaaaauuul". My husband's name is Paul. I didn't even notice this until Paul pointed it out, and it's amazing but disconcerting, as I have never had a cat emulate human words like that with a clear intention. These sounds are completely different from his random "meows".

Can cats possibly have intelligence close to that of a primate that does sign language or a talking bird?

This is so weird! Any animal behaviorists care to comment? Thanks!
posted by Arachnophile to Pets & Animals (29 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
I think this isn't what you're looking for, but there's Oh Long Johnson.

There's nothing covering this on the Wikipedia page for cat communication, which I would think would be delighted to mention it if it was a thing.

I can tell you that cats have accents. Some cats in Portland have a distinct Portland Cat accent, for instance. Might be the breeding, though.
posted by aniola at 3:14 PM on October 24, 2017 [2 favorites]

Do you have video?

/she says with pure academic interest, and not at all like an addict who wants another cute cat video

Not an expert. But I want this to be possible.
posted by schadenfrau at 3:16 PM on October 24, 2017 [50 favorites]

One thing I do know is that there have been studies involving quite young infants, ones considered too young to be capable of speech, saying "ma-ma." It's theoried, IIRC, that this is why the diminutives for "mother" tend to be similar across the globe.

That said: when I first heard about that interesting titbit, I went off to YouTube, expecting videos. There are videos of young infants talking on YouTube -- loads of them -- and they range all the way from "Baby says Mama!" and a baby clearly making a mama sound, to "Baby talks in full sentences!" with a baby making regular baby gurgles.

So...given that, my first question is: can you post a video? And, has anyone else objective heard this and agreed? There's a huge problem with bias and hearing what one wants to hear with this sort of thing. It's kind of hard to comment without being able to hear what you're hearing. A cat making different meows to different members of the household is plausible. A talking cat, not so much. A cat owner hearing what they hope to hear within a meow: also all too plausible.
posted by kmennie at 3:20 PM on October 24, 2017 [2 favorites]

I think we can definitely evaluate if this is confirmation bias on your part with a video :)
But I wouldn't be surprised if he noticed that you respond favorably when he makes this noise and Paul responds favorably with a different noise. That's why cats meow at all.
posted by bleep at 3:21 PM on October 24, 2017 [2 favorites]

Cats do tend to make up a unique-to-each-cat language to communicate with their humans, and they will experiment and refine their behaviour according to their humans' responses. It's possible that your Tumnus has noticed certain intonations work more quickly or better than others; if you respond more quickly, or more excitedly, when you think the cat is 'saying' your names, the cat will be more likely to use that intonation each time he wants your attention. I don't think he's 'speaking English' but I do think that perhaps you, your husband, and Tumnus are building a language together.
posted by halation at 3:25 PM on October 24, 2017 [40 favorites]

Are you a pied tamarin?
posted by sebastienbailard at 3:25 PM on October 24, 2017 [5 favorites]

How thrilling!

And I don't think it's outside the range of possibility at all, though it definitely bespeaks (sic) very high intelligence.

I'd be very interested to hear whether your cat is some variety of calico, and whether he has some combination of Siamese ancestry, blue eyes, or crossed eyes.
posted by jamjam at 3:32 PM on October 24, 2017 [1 favorite]

I knew a very smart cat that had a "name" mew - I always put it down to imitation, since I have known many cats whose meow-quality is an obvious response to how their humans talk - loud mews for loud people, etc.
posted by Frowner at 3:38 PM on October 24, 2017 [4 favorites]

Well, I had a late very rambunctious and challenging (!) boy snowshoe who used to hear me say "NOW!" and "RIGHT NOW!" a lot after "Get down" or "Stop" or the like. If he didn't behave "now" or "right now" he was physically extricated from the situation, and often placed into a time-out.

He developed two indignant calls that sounded remarkably like "NOW!" and "RIGHT NOW!" when he wanted something.

His version of "RIGHT NOW!" in particular seemed imitative, and I think that was what he was doing.

Your cat and my boy were able to figure some stuff out. And why not? They understand words like "brush!" and "play!"
posted by jgirl at 3:46 PM on October 24, 2017 [19 favorites]

"It's theoried, IIRC, that this is why the diminutives for "mother" tend to be similar across the globe."

Oh hey, this might have something to do with Roman Jakobson's Why Mama and Papa?, and I am linking it to justify having gone to grad school.
posted by Smearcase at 3:54 PM on October 24, 2017 [2 favorites]

I had a cat who clearly said "Mama." I'd provide a video, and I actually even had one, but she's dead and it's somewhere in my vast archives. But it was as clear as you're describing, and even clipped enough that it wasn't a drawn-out maaaamaaaa, it was "Mama!"

But I don't believe she had any idea what she was "saying." See, she was very food motivated. She loooooved cheese! So much love. So every time I would open the fridge door, she figured there was a chance to get some cheese. I think one time she made a mew sound that I heard as "Ma!" Or maybe it even had two syllables. Of course, I was enchanted and gave her the cheese she wanted. Over time, I started rewarding her every time she came close to "mama" with her meows, and believe me, it didn't take long until she figured out that "mama!" meant "Give me cheese!"

Is it possible your cat's getting some kind of reward - maybe just attention - for his "mamas"?
posted by TochterAusElysium at 4:06 PM on October 24, 2017 [7 favorites]

Well you're not the first to wonder if your cat could be bilingual.
posted by bunderful at 4:22 PM on October 24, 2017 [4 favorites]

I firmly believe that your cat has succeeded in communicating with you and your husband, Paul. Call it English, call it cat language, call it what you want, but you three have all been trained to react to some sort of language or attempt at communication. Your cat can consistently make different but certain sounds for each of you.

My cats have all understood their names. When I said, "Weebles!" or even just "Weebles." Weebles would stop and look at me. He would come running in if I called him from another room. He liked attention and like his food so he would come to his name. He did not come when I called the other cat's names. Does that mean he understood English? I doubt it, but he understood the sound I would make when I wanted his attention.

+1 for a video!
posted by AugustWest at 4:31 PM on October 24, 2017 [1 favorite]

Thanks so much for all of your fascinating posts! I’ve tried to answer all of your comments at once below:

*post a video: I have been trying to get one so hard! It’s difficult to quickly pull out my phone when he starts doing it, by the time I record he stops. But I’m not giving up. I should set up a cat monitoring camera.

*bias - yes, of course! I agree. Even though I didn’t notice until it was pointed out, I understand there is bias here. One thing is that he never meows my name when I’m absent, or Paul’s when he is gone. My mother recently came to visit and started laughing when he jumped on me and did his thing; she said, “Oh my gosh, is he saying Mama?” I said it sure sounds like it, but don’t know for sure.

*I totally agree with the suggestions that he is imitating sounds for which he gets rewarded. But isn’t that what other animals and people do? I’m not saying my cat is a person or as intelligent though. :)

*breed: all black tabby, which means he looks pitch black normally but you can see light brown stripes in direct sunlight, yellow eyes not crossed, small for his age.

*ha ha, not a pied tamarin, but thanks for the link, it was a great article! Yes, animals mimic others, it’s pretty cool.

*He is getting rewarded by cuddles only when he comes to me and “says” Mama, and by Paul with cuddles when he imitates his name. He never ever mixes up our “names”, it’s consistent for each of us.

*I would love to see the video by TochterAusElysium of your cat saying Mama if you can find it!

* Loved the video of the orange cat saying Mama! The thing about Tumnus is that he doesn't say that randomly, he wasn't taught, he "says" different things as if he identifies us individually.

*thanks for the links and input, they are all very interesting and thought provoking!
posted by Arachnophile at 4:38 PM on October 24, 2017

I never thought of is as a cat speaking English. I see it as an attempt to communicate. I think it's not surprising at all that animals that are intelligent and motivated enough, mimic our words and gestures, as do some dogs, parrots and apes. What surprises me are people who think it can't be possible.

I had a cat once who used one word, or close to it, quite emphatically. "No! No! No!" On the way to the vet, of course. I know it was a miaow, but it was a miaow that sounded so much like "no" that honestly, he sounded just like a little kid.

Have also heard cats use meows mostly with people, not with one another.
posted by Crystal Fox at 7:38 PM on October 24, 2017 [1 favorite]

I had a pretty smart Tabby cat who came to us as a stray. He was about 1 or 2 and unfixed. He trilled, mostly, but then learned to meow from our other cat. Especially initially, it sounded like a dead-on imitation of our other cat, Oz, who was quite an incessant talker. Over time, Clem came up with his own meow language and stopped trilling which made me a bit sad. He would come running, tail up, if I trilled at him, though. Another trick was calling Oz in for bedtime. He always was very close to the house, usually in the planter box right outside the door. But sometimes, who knows where he would go? Clem would stand with me when I’d call, looking into the darkness and one night I said, “Clem, go get Oz!” He walked out and a few second later, Oz comes zooming back like someone nipped his butt. Clem came strolling back like it was no thing. We repeated this many times over the years until Oz got too old to hang out outside. Those were good cats.
posted by amanda at 8:01 PM on October 24, 2017 [10 favorites]

Mimicry makes perfect sense here. Cat's smart, hears things, realizes that make things happen, and starts making the same noises.

It's not language, but it's definitely communication. There are lots of examples of pets or other very human-acclimated animals settling in on particular vocal patterns to achieve specific goals; probably everyone knows a family with a dog who has a very specific "I need to go out" vocalization.

It's neat.
posted by uberchet at 8:16 PM on October 24, 2017 [1 favorite]

The whole reason adult cats meow at us is to communicate - in a colony of cats, the adults don't meow at each other. Cats have done all kinds of things to modulate their communication, including not just meowing, but tuning their meows to the same range as human babies to make them harder to ignore. They also often understand a couple hundred words. My cat Rembrandt's first human spoke Spanish as her primary language, and even after four years with me he still responds really well if he hears Spanish, even my minimal "donde esta mi gatito grande?" attempts at it. He now also responds to English, but at first he had a really hard time because the sounds I was making were unfamiliar to him. I would love to hear audio of your kitty talking, but short version - yeah, he could be doing that.

Also Tumnis is a charming name for a cat.
posted by bile and syntax at 8:54 PM on October 24, 2017 [2 favorites]

Our late, great Shadow occasionally mocked the melody of my husband's loving singsong reprimands, though the "n" in "Nooo-oooo!" came out more like an m or an r. He knew "hop up!" and "kisses?" though whether he could have pronounced them will remain a mystery for the ages.

I think the ones with that gift for mimicry are exceptional, but most cats are observers and imitators to some degree. I read somewhere that a housecat has roughly as broad a vocabulary as a high school student (I guess some meows could be the equivalent of "uh" or "like"). Then again, I read somewhere else that they have the rough IQ of a toddler, which would be odd with a high-school-sized vocabulary. Sounds like eloquence on the approximate level of Eric Cartman, which seems fitting to me.

I figure to the degree that a given cat "knows" its name, it can come to know ours, or recognize our words for things, and maybe approximate the sounds. Our Castor (same bad photo linked above, the less-dignified black cat) knows that "Cast-away! Aaaa-wayawayaway!" means "go through the door into the room you're supposed to be in." (He's half Siamese, though, so he has a natural way with noise, and I taught him the choreography long ago.)
posted by armeowda at 9:31 PM on October 24, 2017 [1 favorite]

Can only confirm with anecdata – my childhood cat, a fluffy ginger tabby named Morris, learned to say my name (Anna). He was very good at it too – a pronounced "A-" and then a consonant sound somewhere between m and n for "-mnmnaaaaaa." Only ever did it with me.

My next talkative kitty was Miss Susu, who passed away this summer. She didn't say my name (which is normal because she never heard anyone call me by it, I live alone) but had her specific meow-call for me.

Third talkative kitty is newcomer Tara, who arrived with her set of meows and quickly adopted mrrps that identically mimic sounds that I make (hrrms and hmms she picked up on). IDENTICAL. she totally weirded me out at first. now it's how we talk.

My floofy Maine Coon calls me with his eyes.
posted by fraula at 2:48 AM on October 25, 2017 [6 favorites]

My boyfriend and his mum both insist that their cat Daisy woke up from a sedative (on a car journey to Ireland) and said my boyfriend's name and "give me bacon". The sedative had been administered in bacon. Dad, who was driving, has no recollection of this miracle. Sadly it was the 80s so no video evidence.
posted by tinwhiskers at 4:56 AM on October 25, 2017 [6 favorites]

I had a cat growing up who loved milk and who would make a meow sound that was for sure "milk." I have clear memories of this and my mom corroborates.
posted by Medieval Maven at 8:27 AM on October 25, 2017

Yes, video this. Try bribing with treats from both of you, ie 'say mama' and 'say Paul' and see if that works. Also, yes we want to see all the other tricks too. Stunt cat!
posted by sexyrobot at 9:09 AM on October 25, 2017 [1 favorite]

Our cat definitely has different ways of communicating that she wants our attention. There's a meow that sounds remarkably like "Hello?" with an upward intonation. She usually does this when she's downstairs after coming inside and one or both of us are upstairs and not paying attention to her. There's also "Perennial!" which is like her saying "Hello?" but in a more jaunty fashion.

I'm working from home today, so I might be able to get this on video.
posted by emelenjr at 9:32 AM on October 25, 2017 [5 favorites]

Loving these anecdotes! My cousin took her cat to the vet this summer, and got video of it wailing "I'm good! I'm good!" the whole way. One of my cats used to roam the house looking for me, yelling "Ma! Mama! Maaaa!" until I answered. One of my other cats has distinctive sounds for different events, like when I put his food down, when he's calling me from downstairs, when he's hungry, when he's addressing the dog. He's otherwise pretty quiet, so I know he's trying to communicate.
posted by jhope71 at 11:11 AM on October 25, 2017 [2 favorites]

My cat speaks one word of her version of ASL. She meows a lot for us to play with toys with her. One day, I was tired of the meowing, so while she stared at me intently, I showed her how to do it very quietly, and then even more quietly, and then completely silently, just miming the meow. She now pulls out the mime meow all the time, to ask for playing. She definitely gets it rewarded -- it's so cute that we're much more likely to give in and play then, where we try not to reward meowing out loud with playing.
posted by daisyace at 3:12 PM on October 25, 2017 [3 favorites]

I used to have a cat who would sit outside my closed bedroom door and make sounds that very closely resembled “Ma! Mom! Hellooooo! Hey! Hi Maaaa!” when he wanted in. Family members heard and can confirm how clear this “speech” was. He wasn’t smart in cat terms, but he had a knack for figuring out human stuff like opening doors and cabinets. I doubt he was actually attempting English, but I probably reacted to certain types of meows and he learned from that. He was kind of fascinating. <3
posted by QuickedWeen at 7:45 PM on October 25, 2017 [1 favorite]

Late to the party, but this is within my field of study. There is very, VERY scant (if I'm being generous) scientific evidence that cats can do any sort of vocal learning, which is what we are talking about here. See, for instance, here and here. Sorry to be a wet blanket.
posted by karbonokapi at 4:39 PM on October 27, 2017 [1 favorite]

Oh, I should add: this has nothing to do with "intelligence" per se. Smart cats are no more likely to be able to mimic than smart dogs are to be able to echolocate like a bat. Every species has its own particular strengths.
posted by karbonokapi at 4:41 PM on October 27, 2017

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