I think I can answer this in one sentence but I welcome the input of others. If you meow at a domestic cat they will hear a sound but they won’t relate to it as a meow from a cat. They will relate to it as a sound from a human being who they possibly regard as a surrogate mother of abnormal size and without fur! They won’t interpret the sound in any meaningful way except its tone and timing will convey a message.
An interesting aspect of this question is that the cat meow has evolved to be a sound made by cats towards their human caretaker based on reward. Domestic cats feel that they have to meow to get our attention (humans are unobservant compared to cats). Cats learn that meowing gets our attention and the cat may make the sound at specific places and under certain circumstances.
It is said that feral cats rarely meow at each other and are very silent compared to feral cats. The domestic cat meow is a vocalisation whereby the cat requests something. It is believed to be particular to the domestic cat and quite specific (however some wild cats make meow-type sounds). There are variations to the domestic cat meow depending on the result required. Humans learn the meaning of these meows.
Meow said by person carries a meaning
You cannot transfer the specific usage of this feline vocalisation to the human when the human talks to their cat. It does not carry the same meaning under these circumstances. Nonetheless it does carry meaning because if the meow sound is made in a gentle and nice way your cat will receive it in the spirit with which it is intended. It will be reassuring to your cat like all reassuring sounds are.
On occasions I have meowed at my cat or I have copied the sound that he is making and directed it back at him. I did it to see his response. He made no response. It was meaningless for him as expected.
Communicating with cats
The question in the title begs another question which is could humans speak the feline language? I don’t believe that cats have a language like humans. They do communicate however. This is quite clear. But I don’t think you could call it a language in the classic meaning of the word.
Compared to humans, domestic cats communicate using:
- vocalisations – cats have quite a range of vocalisations
- body language – dominance and subservience for example
- scents – scent marking, rubbing etc.
- routines – vis à vis their human companion and other cats
Using these forms of communication we do communicate with cats. We do it all the time and it works really well. This is my opinion and once again I welcome the views of others.
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