Neko-go for Beginners

Did you enjoy the videos we posted of two chatty cats? The first two really do look like they’re conversing with each other. And most of the several other related videos are really great as well.

For me as one interested in languages, the neat thing was comparing the sounds that different cats made under the same situations. For example, most cats, when seeing a bird or similar object of prey, utter a kind of stuttering “meh-eh-eh-eh” sound. I think of it as meaning “prey” or, by extension, “food”.

And I’ve noticed that when cats are hungry and asking to be fed, they tend to consistently make a certain kind of sound.

I first noticed this with Mikan. When she was plainly asking for food, she’d ask (with a rising intonation), “Yow-WOW?” When she became old and had lost her upper canines [can felines have canine teeth?!], it sounded more like “Yah-RAHR?”

I am convinced that this “food” question is what a cat is actually saying when — to us — he/she seems to be saying “hello” (which they pronounce — if not as “yah-RAHR or yah-WOW” — as “ha-RO” or “ha-RAO”, like Japanese schoolchildren) — especially because, face it, a cat is MUCH more interested in enlisting the aid of a canopener-capable human than in the niceties of greetings.

While Mikan used “Yow-WOW?” and “Yah-RAHR?” to ask for dinner, Momo has always used “MEH-eh?” But both of the cats seemed to understand both “words”. You should have seen their faces the first time I repeated their words. Their spines stiffened, eyes rounded, and faces took on an expression of “Omigosh, our owner can actually speak comprehensibly! Humans may not be as dumb as we thought!”

Try it yourself: say these words, slowly and distinctly, to your cat and see if you don’t get the same astonished reaction!

In the first video Toby tipped us to, the two cats were talking about something called “ao-KEH”. The first speaker (the cat on the right) seems to be inquiring about the possibility of ao-KEH (whatever that is), and the other cat responds, using the same “word”; and they discuss the subject a bit. Somehow I don’t think ao-KEH is food (perhaps because desire for food seems always accompanied by urgency), but without further clues one can’t make much of a guess.

Momo watched this video several times, and many of the others. She seemed keenly interested in what the cats were saying in neko-go, as if she were following the thread of the conversation and comments.

She also gets absorbed in animal-related shows on TV. Tonight we watched “Garfield 2: A Tale of Two Kitties” together. (Great flick, by the way; good clean fun, interesting story line, fantastic animal handling and animation and computer graphics, plus very enjoyable voice overs by Bill Murray, Bob Hoskins, Tim Curry, others…)

Momo was quite intrigued by the wide variety of animals and birds (throwing in some MEH-ehs when the ducks and geese were on-screen). But I was very interested to note that when Garfield — a portly orange-tiger cat — was on-screen, Momo was riveted. Mikan was a Garfield-looking cat, and she and Momo lived together for almost 11 years.

When I’ve occasionally said to her, “Mikan?”, surprisingly Momo has gotten far more alert and questioning than when I use a cat-language food word. I think Momo is still wondering, sometimes, why Mikan isn’t here, where she has gone… We’ll have to wait until Rainbow Bridge to see her again.

(The suffix “-go” means “language” in Japanese, so the title of this post means “Cat language for beginners”.)


1 Comment

  1. Vori

    Neko-go is something i’ve been studying for a long time.
    I read recently that cats can understand about a vocabulary of 100 human words–not just objects like “food”, “no”, “nice kitty”, etc., but more complex things like “beautiful”. It’s very plain that they comprehend, as they always react in their specific cat way.

    My two cats back in America will use a very specific word for “Open the door for me”–it sounds very much like the word OUT. They say “OW. OWw.” This is exceedingly different from their Hello word (which they use. We are greeted when we enter the room, not necessarily the kitchen. They always have food available, but come to us for hugs), which is more of a “Meh-eh. Meh-er”.

    I have found that, almost universally, saying “C’mERE!” with a sharply rising tone (from a moderate note to a high note, so it sounds like a chirp) will get a reaction from almost any cat, even wild ones. This mimics their word “Mrr-EE!” which is a cheerful sound. Many cats will stop and meow back when I do this.
    I’m absolutely certain that Momo knows what “Mikan” means and wonders why you’re talking about her friend.

    I had a young cat when I lived with two roommates who had definitely bonded herself to me. They reported that she was mostly silent when I was not home, and all the chirping and “Mur. Meh. Meh Meh, Reh?” chatter I noticed when I came home was specifically for me. She wouldn’t talk to my roommates. She, too, is currently at the Rainbow Bridge. 🙂

    Please continue to study this. A great deal of effort is put into understanding dog vocalizations, but while they only have a couple dozen (scientifically speaking, how many have been sorted out to be unique words), cats have over a hundred. Yet I’ve never seen a study on neko-go. This perturbs me to no end. But I’ll continue to work on it.
    Thanks for your article!

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