Cat talk: Start with 'Prrrp'

Posted: Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Cats talk. What's more, they are bilingual, speaking one language among themselves and another to us.

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Researchers have identified at least 100 vocalizations, sounds cats use to communicate. Cats also use body language, either separately or in combination with sound.

Limited though we may be in understanding Catspeak, most of us recognize and respond to one of those combinations. It's the friendly greeting, "Prrrp," which is delivered head-on while making eye contact and holding the tail up high.

When talking among themselves, cats use lots of body language and comparatively little sound.

When addressing us, they talk more. That's because we're such bozos at interpreting feline nuances in posture, facial expression, and tail dynamics. We just don't pay the same attention to body language that we give to speech.

Most cat-to-cat noises are made with the mouth closed, as in purring, or held open throughout the entire sound, as when they hiss. When talking to humans, cats use sounds that start with an open mouth and end with the mouth closing, like "Meow."

It's thought that cats talk to us that way because they soon find that people pay more attention to word-like, vowel sounds than to "animal noises."

Cats who live with humans develop language that members of both species understand. Unlike cat-to-cat language, used and understood by all cats everywhere, the way they talk to us is unique to each cat-human pair. By trial and error, our cats learn to speak in ways we understand. We, in turn, learn to recognize what they say.

My older cat, Clementine, uses a word that means, "I want." It's "Murr-OUP," said emphatically and face-to-face. It means you're supposed to follow her and she will lead you to a deficiency that should be remedied. She will then stare pointedly at an empty water bowl or a neglected litter box.

Clem likes to stay up late watching TV with Monty, the man of the house. Their nightly ritual includes a late-night snack, maybe ice cream, buffalo wings, or crackers and cheese.

One night, Monty went to sleep early. He was awakened by "Murr-OUP!" delivered by an indignant, small friend standing on his chest. Monty's body wakes up before his brain, so he was following Clem from the bedroom before it occurred to him that this was not what most of us in similar circumstances might have done.

Clem led him to the refrigerator. He opened the freezer door and offered ice cream. No sale. He proffered buffalo wings. No response. He opened the other door and brought forth the cheese. Clem chirped and threaded herself around his ankles. Tillamook Medium Cheddar wasn't something she was willing to forego.

Last week, Clem made up a new word to refer to Annie, our younger cat. The two have been inseparable all winter, their respective black and orange bodies curled up together like the yin-yang sign. Now Annie is spending long hours outside.

Clem missed her company. Unable to lead us to what she wanted, Clem invented a word. It has two syllables, and she says it right after "Murr-OUP!" The combination unmistakably means, "I want Annie." Clem was so proud of me when the light bulb came on over my head and I opened the door to call Annie in.

If you'd like to try talking to your cat, a good place to start is with the friendly greeting. Listen to your cat say it. The sound is an easy one for humans to make; it's basically "Prrrp," with a little trill to the letter R.

The word is said by the entering cat when he or she sights a friend. You look the friend straight in the eye and say, "Prrrp." If you cat looks astonished, you've got it right - even if you've had to forego the upright tail.

• Linda Daniel has spent her life in the company of cats, most of whom simply showed up at her door. She's a believer in spaying and neutering to reduce the number of homeless cats.

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