I Don't Speak Cat and Cats Don't Speak Human

By Bill Hall

One of the cats came padding into the room the other day and I did what I always do. I called it by name.

It didn't answer. But the experience made me wonder about something:

Do cats understand their own names when you speak to them? I have probably called those cats by name 10,000 times. If there's any chance at all that anything can sink into their bony little heads, it should be something repeated 10,000 times.

After all, contrary to popular misconceptions, cats are teachable. They actually can learn tricks. But unlike dogs, they learn tricks only if they want to. A dog will learn tricks, not just for tidbits, but to please you. A cat will learn tricks only if it pleases the cat -- and there is something in it for the cat.

For instance, most cat keepers have noticed that sounds associated with food -- can openers or dry cat food rattling into a dish -- will bring a cat running. If you feed a cat canned cat food opened on a can opener, you can actually summon a cat by running an empty can opener.

That's one trick you can teach a cat. It's not exactly a trick that's going to get you and the cat a job in the circus but it's a trick nonetheless.

So I was wondering the other day if cats learn to recognize their own names. Probably not. There is too great a divide between our language and theirs. And it works both ways. Each time they enter the room, they meow. But I don't assume they are saying anything specific that can be translated into English, or even into Norwegian.

Are they saying "Bill," or whatever they have named me when they enter a room? And if they think in terms of names at all, which they undoubtedly don't, they wouldn't call me Bill. They didn't tell me when they entered our home what their cat name is. I wouldn't have understood if they had. And they probably don't grasp my people name. They probably have some other name for me.

We gave our cats names for our sake, to tell them apart and to perpetuate the lonely pet owner myth that these are little people, a myth that makes them more fun to have around than to recognize them as the dumb, murderous brutes from the forest that they actually are.

So when I see Alfie entering the room, I say, "Alfie!"

Sometimes he says, "Meow!"

The meow is sometimes a little different on each visit, just as he hears other English words from me. Maybe he is saying a few assorted things in his eight- or nine-word vocabulary. Sometimes he is probably saying, "Hungry." Sometimes he runs rapidly into the house, out of breath, and may be saying, "Dog!"

And if he has a name for me, it is the same as the one he has given my wife -- Food. That's about as far as a cat goes with language -- general concepts. Everything associated with the main reason the cats stick around is called Food. The house, the cat door, the cat dish, the human providers are all named Food because that is the principal grouping used by a creature with an eight- or nine-word vocabulary.

So I have the same name as a cat dish. Just call me Food -- Foo for short.

The cat must have about the same fuzzy perspective on what I'm saying. I think I am saying, "Alfie" when he walks in the door. But to him, it's just a vague human sound with no coherent difference from the other sounds that humans make. It's just the noise our kind makes. To Alfie, whatever I say is just the low, muffled sound of my kind. To a cat, we probably sound pretty similar to a cow.

The dog goes bow wow. The bird goes chirp chirp. The mouse goes squeak squeak. The human and the cow go mooooo. The only differentiation for a cat is when we raise our voices. They can tell when we are agitated and when we are not.

I realize that cats probably do make a few different kinds of meow, signifying their nine words, but it's all long squeaks to me.

So can you expect a cat to tell the difference between one name or another that we give to them and their cat colleagues?

If what makes them come running is any guide, all cats are named Food. The cats and the cat dish and I all have the same name.


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