Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Polysyllabic Cats

My cats continue to gab as though "Meow" is a language. Or maybe I'm losing my mind. Either way, it's been highly entertaining.

A few days ago, I heard Sinead make a two-sentence speech, entirely made up of single-syllable meows. Both of them were inflected as questions (I thought at the time), with three "words" in the first sentence and four in the second. Basically, "Mau mau mau? Mau mau mau mau?" For a moment, the answer was right on the tip of my tongue.

Last night, however, I decided that cats must speak a tonal language. This on the evidence of a conversation involving multisyllabic meows with descending and ascending pitches. I think it was Tyrone who said, "Meow! Meow! Meow, meow." The first two meows started with a high-pitched grace note, then plunged to a low pitch before rising toward the middle. The second pair of meows rose, then fell in pitch in a gentle arch -- oddly like a dog howling. Other than a repeat of this entire statement, the rest of the conversation consisted of throat-trills of varying lengths and pitch-levels. So, maybe inflection has nothing to do with sentence structure (e.g. whether or not something is a question). Maybe the pitches are what make different meows mean different things.

A Far Side cartoon once depicted the findings of a mad scientist who invented a device to translate the barking of dogs into human language. It turned out they were just saying, "Hey! Hey!" After a great deal of observation and thought, I've decided that all cats' meows could be translated as "Hello!" And the inflection of the human word pretty much matches that of the meow.

So the plaintive "Meoooooww?" coming from the kitchen, under the cupboard where the Pounce is kept, translates as "Hello-o-o?" as in, "Yoo-hoo! Is anybody out there?" And the brusque "Meow!" of the cat impatiently waiting while you get the Pounce down means, "HEL-lo!" as in, "Dude, what's holding you up?" And then, of course, the harsh yowl of "meYOW!" when you step on his tail means, roughly, "Hel-LO!" as in, "Say hello to my leetle friends!"

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