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Meet Duchess, a talking cat. He thinks.

The “feral” family cat has a lot to say.
This is The Duchess, who may not know she's feral after all.
This is The Duchess, who may not know she's feral after all. [ Courtesy of Roy Peter Clark ]
Published Feb. 14

I have written more than once about our family cat, known variously as Duchess, The Duchess or Duchy. We rescued her from a feral colony almost nine years ago.

We think she lives under our backyard shed, but we see her every day: on the grass, on the patio, on the porch, and in the house for her meals and her warm naps. Although we are not allowed to pick her up, she insists on marathon episodes of scratching and petting. She purrs loud enough to be heard across the room.

Since 1977 we have been graced by some exceptional felines, the most prominent named Voodoo, Abracadabra, Willow, Oz, Duke and now Duchess, a zaftig orange tabby who, since she was fixed years ago, has never shown signs of an illness or injury.

Duchess has become well known in these parts for her distinctive vocal expressions. Some of our cats barely purred or mewed, but Duchess, as far as I can tell, has a vocabulary of about 129 words and phrases.

During her first four years in and out of our house — when we were not allowed to touch her — she stuck to the basics, mostly “Meow!” She made her meaning by raising or lowering the volume. A soft “Meow” was an early morning greeting: “Yes, I am here again, so it’s time for you to fulfill my every whim.” A louder version meant “You haven’t refilled my food dish yet, and look at the junk floating in the water bowl.” If you tried to pick her up, as I did now and then, I would get what amounted to Kitty Smack Talk: “Try that one more time, Buster, and wind up with a case of cat scratch fever.”

As an aspiring language genius, I decided to learn as much as I could about cat language. My goal was to have a full-blown conversation with the Duchess, and my first stop was a Wikipedia entry dedicated to the word “Meow.” Here are some things I learned. Adult cats communicate with other cats by smell, facial expressions and body language. Sometimes they have what humans call hissy fits, but no adult cat has ever said “Meow” to another.

The word is most likely an adult imitation of the mewing of a kitten. When a kitten wants the attention of its mother, it says “Mew.” As cats became domesticated, to get our attention they echoed the sound of their kittens until it evolved to “Meow.”

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I always wondered why American writers and cartoonists used the words “Bow wow!” to indicate the barking of a dog. It turns out that different languages and cultures represent dog sounds differently.

There is much more consistency in the ways cat sounds are rendered. Here’s a short list:

American English: meow

Arabic: muwaa

French: miaou

Indonesian: meong

Chinese: miao (not Mao!)

Turkish: miyav

Korean: yaong

Filipino: ngiyaw

Armed with such new knowledge, I felt like a cat whisperer. I looked for an opportunity to vocalize a conversation with Duchess, and it arrived on a recent cold weather evening when she walked in for her evening meal. She strutted past us as we sat on the couch, my wife and I fiddling with our iPhones.

Duchess returned and sat in front of us, facing our large-screen TV. We were oblivious to what was on the tube. Here is what happened next:

Roy: How was your day, your highness.

Duchess: Meeyowoo [Translation: “As if you really care.”]

Roy: You know I care. I just freshened up your water.

Duchess: Yeeomeyo [Translation: It’s been cold outside and I called for an hour to get in and no one paid attention.]

Roy: You know I love you.

Duchess: I love you, too.

What? What?!? What just happened? Did my cat just speak to me, not in cat talk but in American female English? Was I hallucinating? Did that marsala sauce have hallucinogenic mushrooms?

I turned to Karen, my eyes open in amazement. “Did you just say something to me? Do you have ventriloquist powers? Did you just say ‘I love you, too’?”

She pointed to the television screen. It was the end of a Hallmark movie, the romantic kind where the couple kisses with two minutes to go before the credits roll. As fate would have it, the movie created an incredible coincidence. In perfect sequence, my “You know I love you” was followed in exact timing with a Hallmark lady declaring “I love you, too.”

You may be making fun of me by now, but know this: “There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy, oh reader.”

If you don’t think that cats talk, if you doubt that I have learned to converse with cats, hear the testimony of the millions of cat lovers out there. Are you with me, fans of felines? Or as Duchess would ask: “ahrrumeowthme?”

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