By “talk like humans” I mean using a proper language but I don’t mean necessarily speaking in one of the many human languages. It’s probably useful to break the answer down into two sections. In the first I would like to discuss whether cats can talk and in the second section I would like to explain why cats can’t talk like humans.
Can cats talk?
To talk means to converse or communicate by spoken words. “Word” mean a single distinct meaningful element of speech or writing. And speech means the expression of or the ability to express thoughts and feelings by articulate sounds.
Cats can make articulate sounds e.g., the ‘request meow’, and they can express their thoughts through their sounds. For example, when a cat meows they are often asking for food. Their human caregiver knows the circumstances under which this request is made. The meow is a distinct meaningful element of a cat’s ‘speech’. And cat communicate through their “words”.
On that brief analysis, it is perhaps plausible to state that cats can ‘talk’ like humans but with a much-reduced vocabulary and in their own language. They seem to meet all the basic elements of what talking means on my breakdown as per dictionary definitions. Domestic cats have learned to ‘talk’ to humans over 10,000 years of domestication.
If you find all of that highly implausible or even rubbish, the alternative assessment is that cats can’t talk like humans because of the following.
Cats can’t talk like humans
Through evolution of over 40 millions of years, cats did not acquire the cognitive ability i.e. the intelligence, to develop a language as humans have. This was pure chance as was the evolution of humans.
And also, over those millions of years the development of the domestic cat’s anatomy did not include the ability to form sounds sufficiently accurately and with sufficient variety to facilitate the development of a human-like language. And these anatomical elements would be their vocal cords, their mouth, and tongue. Cats have all these bits of anatomy but they don’t work in a way which allows them to speak like humans. Or perhaps they can but what is stopping them using these elements of their anatomy to talk like humans is that they lack a full-blown language and they lack that because they’ve never had the intelligence to develop it.
One factor in their failure to develop language is that they are essentially solitary.
The section above is a mainstream and alternative viewpoint but perhaps the more accurate answer is somewhere in the middle because cats do make sounds, they are understood, they do have a small vocabulary, they can formulate different sounds and they communicate with these sounds.
In respect of other forms of communication, cats are almost as good as humans in using their body language. Although domestic cats have a lesser ability to create a variety of facial expression compared to humans. And therefore, it is very difficult to read a cat’s face to find an underlying meaning and emotion behind it. Domestic cats do, however, have the ability to change their facial expression.
The article continues below the links to pages on feline facial expressions.
This article is entirely out of my head not because I’m arrogant or think it’s clever to do it out of my head but because there’s nothing available within the scientific community directly on this topic. No scientist has tried to answer the question in the title judging by a search of Google Scholar which is where pretty well all the scientific papers are published.
Below are some articles on cat sounds.
Please search using the search box at the top of the site. You are bound to find what you are looking for.