What can cats teach us about vocabulary?

21 April 2011



Wait a minute! Cats only have a one-word vocabulary (meow) and make one other sound (purr). What can they possibly teach us about vocabulary?


You might be surprised.


Some people claim to have the ability to speak ‘cat’ and communicate with their feline friends. I make no claims to speak ‘catonese’. But after living with them for many years, I understand their vocal tone and body language very well.


Today we’ll look at words that describe kitty vocal tones and see how to use them to describe human attitudes and emotions.


‘I’m bored.’

The monotone meow can be translated to mean ‘Boring!’ Cats usually don’t bother saying this version most of the time, preferring to express it through body language (which we’ll talk about next week).

John presented the report in a monotone voice, putting us all to sleep.


‘I want some attention.’

One of our cats sometimes mews pitifully when she wants some cuddles. (My husband is a complete sucker for it, and will often hold her in his arms for an hour or longer while he works at the computer and she sleeps.)


In human terms, it means to cry and beg for something. We see this as a sign of weakness. A related word, the verb ‘mewl’ similarly means to whimper or cry.

Stop your mewling and stand up for yourself!

Francis mewed pitifully for a pay rise.


‘I want some attention – NOW!’

If we don’t respond after our cat’s first few pitiful calls for attention, she will loudly shout a short, sharp, demanding maow!, at which point we dutifully scoop her up for cuddle time.


In human terms, this is what happens when your boss impatiently tries to get your attention. (Except you don’t pick him up for some cuddles!)

The boss sharply demanded, ‘Stop making excuses and just get the job done!’


‘I DON’T want your attention!’

But try to pick up a cat when she doesn’t want it, and you’ll likely hear a low growling ‘mmm’.


When you hear a cat growl, it’s time to put some distance between you. Otherwise, you may end up on the receiving end of some nasty claws.

I knocked and entered my son’s room. He glared at me with angry eyes and growled quietly.


‘You stepped on my tail, you idiot!’

When a cat is injured, you’ll hear a sudden loud, piercing ‘WEE-OW!’  


A person who suddenly screams out with a piercing voice is either frightened or hurt.

Suddenly we heard a loud, piercing cry from across the hall.


‘Life just doesn’t get any better.’

One of the most pleasant words in a cat’s vocabulary isn’t actually a word, but rather a purr – when it sounds like they have a quiet motor humming inside their chest. The cat’s emotion is one of utter content, like she’s saying, ‘I’m relaxed. I’m warm. I’m cozy. All is right with the world.’


Humans, likewise, will purr when they feel contented, except we don’t make that motor-like sound. We might close our eyes, smile and softly say, ‘Mmmm.’

Joseph purred with delight after enjoying the delicious meal.

While having a relaxing massage, Mike purred with pleasure.


Next week we’ll see what vocabulary cats can teach us from their body language.

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