From loyal feline friends such as Claudine’s Franchette in Colette’s Claudine series and Hermione’s Crookshanks in Harry Potter to magical cats such as the Cheshire Cat in Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and Behemoth in Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, cats have left their paw prints all over the world of literature.
Writers from Emily Bronte to Mark Twain to T.S. Eliot can count themselves among English-language Literature’s best cat lovers, but that doesn’t mean cats understand English themselves. On the contrary, cats can understand Eliot’s Possum’s Book of Practical Cats about as well as anyone can understand what possessed someone to create horrifyingly CGI-ed versions of Taylor Swift and Idris Elba for the 2019 cat-astrophe that was Cats – which is to say, not at all.
So no, cats can’t understand English, per se, but what about language in general? Clearly cats can recognize their names and certain commands, but what is it about language they really “understand?”
Cats and Language
Both cats and dogs are able to recognize sounds and associate them with themselves, someone else, a command, and so on. You’ll have to repeat a name or command before it can stick, and how many times will vary from pet to pet, but the basic process remains the same.
According to Scientific American, cats are able to recognize human voices. In fact, in one 2013 study, cats displayed a higher rate of coming when they were called than dogs – something that would seem to contradict cats’ reputation for being more cold and aloof than their canine counterparts. In this study, cats displayed recognition of their master’s voice by turning their head and adjusting their ears when a familiar voice, such as their master’s, called them.
However, whether they are actually recognizing the “words” as a set linguistic command or simply associate the pitch and tone of the command with the command’s meaning is an open question. For example, feline behavioral expert Marilyn Krieger said in an interview with Pet Care RX that it’s the softness and gentleness of your tone (or the harshness of a command like “no”) that cats respond to as much as the words itself.
Pets may not understand aggressive “words,” for example, but they can definitely understand an aggressive “tone,” and will be wary of it.
To Care or Not to Care
Of course, that fits in with how humans perceive language as well. Facial and vocal cues are a huge tool of the acting trade, and a big part of what separates a boring production of, say, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof from the likes of Elizabeth Taylor and Paul Newman going at it. A study cited by PetMD picks up on this point. Cats were put in a room with a fan with ribbons and had people either speak to them in a happy or fearful voice while looking from the cat to the fan. Seventy-nine percent of the cats engaged in “social referencing,” looking to the speaker at least in part to help form their opinion of the fan, whether it should be regarded in a positive or negative way.
Studies at the University of Tokyo demonstrated that cats can recognize their owner’s unique voice – but in typical cat fashion can also choose to ignore it. (So if you call your cat and it doesn’t come, don’t think that they aren’t intelligent to know their name or know it’s you – just know they’re being a cat.) On the other hand, just because they recognize your unique voice and the unique sound you make that constitutes their name doesn’t mean they necessarily recognize it as “their name.” While research has shown cats can distinguish names from other words, the concept of “a name,” let alone “their name,” may be beyond them, or they may just understand things differently than humans. Either way, research is ongoing to determine just how much of what you say and how you say it cats understand – and how much they care. As pointed out by an interview in Nature with scientists studying this very topic, cats may well understand their names and commands, but tune signals they don’t think benefit them, and thus simply not care about showing you that they know as much as dogs do.
One reason dogs on average care about showing off their knowledge more than cats is their pre-domestication origins. Dogs are descended from wolves, which are natural social animals with hierarchical structures and teamwork hard-wired into them. By contrast, “cats are a tiny tiger that lives in your house,” so to speak, and thus they don’t have a natural inclination to be “part of the pack” with their owner and family, but simply strike out on their own while occasionally tolerating your presence (before suddenly becoming more affectionate at cuddling or feeding time, of course).
The Cat’s Meow
Strangely enough, cats know that we’re trying to communicate with them and so they change their behavior to try and accommodate us. There is evidence to suggest that cats actually meow more with us than they do normally because they know that we respond better to that than other forms of communication they use. In essence, just as we tend to use high-pitched tones and gentle cutesy talk because we think it makes cats respond better to us, cats do the same by meowing back.
On average, cats can learn about 50 different words or commands (or, as we’ve established, at least connect the pitch and tone of those words with a given action or meaning). However, as mentioned above, cats tend to only learn things that are immediately beneficial to their lives, such as food-related commands or those related to their behavior, like “sit.”
On the other hand, cats don’t do well with and tend not to learn abstract concepts besides maybe their name. That’s why you won’t find them engaged in writing poetry or penning physics papers (well, except for this one).
Your feline friend may not be able to understand you reciting Shakespeare, but through the pitch and tone of your voice, they can understand you as surely as “The cat will mew, and dog will have his day.”