Scent is also an important component of cat communication. In addition, they have a vocabulary of sounds ranging from caterwauls to mewing sounds, from hisses to the «silent meow» which is probably a sound pitched too high for human ears to hear. The familiar «miaow» is used mainly for communicating with humans as we are evidently too thick to understand anything other than kitten-talk. In «Alice Through the Looking Glass», Lewis Carroll wrote «It is a very inconvenient habit of kittens that whatever you say to them, they always purr.
If they would only purr for ‘yes’ and mew for ‘no’, or any rule of that sort, so that one could keep up a conversation! But how can one deal with a person if they always say the same thing? They make a variety of different sounds which, among humans would be called «words», but in our belief that we are naturally superior to «dumb» animals, we don’t call cat-sounds «words». Since the sounds don’t conform to our notion of grammatical structure, it simply appears that cats lack language. To the uninitiated, and probably to Lewis Carroll, the simple «miaow» is an all-purpose word. Most cat-owners, however, are aware that there are a whole variety of miaows that differ in pitch, rhythm, volume, tone and pronunciation. MEE-OW — come and get it!
ME R-R-R-ROW — take cover! There is more to felinese than the simple miaow though. In 1944, Mildred Moelk made a detailed study of cat vocabulary and found sixteen meaningful sounds, which included consonants and vowels. Caterwaul — cat wants sex! Chatter — excitement, frustration e. Chirrup — friendly greeting sound, a cross between a meow and a purr!
Idiosyncratic sounds — a sound which a particular cat uses in a particular context. In his dealings with Scottish Wildcats, Mike Tomkies noted that the wildcats would greet him with a loud spitting «PAAAH» accompanied by a foot-stamp. I have received the same greeting from feral cats. Some cats may use some of these cat-sounds in different ways when communicating with humans and only our familiarity with our own pets tells us that a certain type of growl is a play noise and not warning of imminent attack. Another suggestion for teeth chattering, in outdoor cats at least, is to hypnotise prey. Some owners have claimed that cats can call birds, even flying birds, closer by chattering at them.
Personally, I consider it unlikely that cats are imitating birds to encourage them to approach and the chattering more likely related to the birds being out of easy ambush range. I also find it unlikely that the chattering hypnotizes prey such as squirrels or chipmunks though it might make the animals curious enough to overcome caution. Many prey species don’t have good colour vision and rely on movement for their visual clues and are lulled into a false sense of security. By sitting still, the cat is almost invisible, but it is becoming tense with excitement. Teeth-chattering may be related to the build-up of tension in a cat’s body before it pounces or rushes its prey — you can see the cat tensing its limbs. The chattering seems to be an overspill of excitement.
Another sign of emotional leakage in a stalking cat is the twitching tail. Cat-owners will recognise many of the cat-sounds listed, although we may refer to them in more anthropomorphic terms: greet, grumble, nag, whimper, swear, sing etc. Some cats add their own idiosyncratic words to this general vocabulary such as the sudden exhalation of air used by my own cat, Aphrodite. It all depends on HOW it is said. For Aphrodite, «froof» is the all-purpose «supercalifragilistic» of cat vocabulary. Scrapper used «mrrrp» in the same way.
Other idiosyncratic sounds reported include what David Kennedy calls a «Squabble — a series of short and long meows and grunts made in a complaining tone that occur when a cat is moved or made to do something it would rather not do». Roaring» is more often associated with big cats than small cats, but nevertheless there have been several reports of domestic cats that roar, often to proclaim «I am here». Roaring in pet cats should always be investigated by a vet as it can be a symptom of throat problems. Some caterwauling tomcats suffer partial voice loss after strenuous yowling and end up roaring. Maybe those few perfectly healthy cats that roar their territorial claims were lions in a past life. All those who have studied the language of cat and dog are agreed that the dog has a rather limited vocabulary and uses only consonants, but that the cat also uses vowels and has a large vocabulary. He mentioned the blind musician and cat-lover Marvin P Clark, who wrote the book «Pussy and her Language» in 1895. Vesey-Fitzgerald noted «that no one who has studied cat language since Clark’s day has distinguished so many, or anything like so many, is no sound reason for saying that they do not exist» suggesting to his readers that more recent researchers were not as perceptive of sound as a blind musican! Clark detected b, d, f, l, m, p, r, t, v, w, and y. Carl van Vechten heard m, p, r, s, t, and said that he never heard v and that m was less common than p, r, s and t. Mellen heard ch, f, h, k, l, m, n, p, r, s, t, w, and y. More fanciful and less scientific attempts at categorising cat sounds have produced dictionaries of words. In 1895 Alphonse Leon Grimaldi, FRS, published a paper in New York on the discovery of a cat language. Marvin Clark, the blind author, has published a cat vocabulary of seventeen words which he says repeatedly occur in the talks which cats ‘struggle to carry on with members of their household’. Some of these words such as bl for meat, aelio for food, and ptleebl for mouse, may seem far-fetched, but I feel that mi-ouw for beware, burrieu to express contentment, parriere for open , and mi-youw for ‘I’m here’, are reasonable and recognisable.