If you are a native English speaker, then you presumably believe that all kittens say “mew” and all cats say “meow,” but you would be mistaken. Cats in Korea say “yaong.” In Turkey they say “miyauv,” while in Japan they say “nyan.”
Of course, domesticated cats have their own language in which they communicate with each other and with us, their human caretakers, and this seems to vary little across continents. It is our interpretation of the cat’s meow however that changes from country to country.
While circumnavigating the globe when I was in my early twenties, I started recording the different ways humans interpreted common animal sounds. For example, I would ask fellow travelers, “In your native language, what does a dog say? A pig? A cat?” While common themes emerged, sometimes, the answer would seem to come from left field and send us native English speakers into peels of laughter. French children, for example, are taught, that a pig says “groin, groin” rather than “oink, oink.” I did notice however that depending on the intimacy a culture had with a particular animal, the closer the human interpretation was to the real animal sound.
Being a bonafide cat lover, I was particularly interested in how the basic cat vocalization — “meow” in English — was interpreted cross-culturally. This is what I learned (in no particular order):
As you can see from this list, the cat’s basic “meow” is widely interpreted by different languages, but do share a recognizable sound pattern that probably makes sense to you regardless of your ability to speak these 14 different languages. The spelling/sound differences may be more from the limitations/parameters that each language has rather than a real difference in translating cat sounds. I am sure a trained linguist would have much to say on this subject, but alas, I am merely an cultural anthropologist. If you are a linguist, please add your two cents! Also, if you are a native speaker of a language not listed above, please add to this list. (Any Armenian, Urdu or Hmong speakers out there??)
So, rest assured that if you and your cat move from one country to another, both of you will at least speak one language — that of cat!
Read more: Behavior & Communication, Cats, Feline Muse, Pets, cat chat, cat communication, cat speak, cat talk, cat vocalization, Cherise Udell, feline communication, Feline Muse, talking cat, what does a cat say in other languages?
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