Montaigne it was who said: "We have some intelligence of their senses: so have also the beasts of ours in much the same measure. They flatter us, menace us, need us, and we them. It is manifestly evident that there is among them a full and entire communication, and that they understand each other."
That this applies to cats is certainly true. Did you ever notice how a mother cat talks to her children, and simply by the utterances of her voice induces them to abandon their play and go with her, sometimes with the greatest reluctance, to some place that suited her whim—or her wisdom?
Dupont de Nemours, a naturalist of the eighteenth century, made himself ridiculous in the eyes of his compatriots by seeking to penetrate the mysteries of animal language. "Those who utter sounds," he affirmed, "attach significance to them; their fellows do the same, and those sounds originally inspired by passion and repeated under similar recurrent circumstances, become the abiding expressions of the passions that gave rise to them."
Fortified by this theory he devoted a couple of years to the study of crow language, and made himself ridiculous in the eyes of his adversaries by attempting to translate a nightingale's song.
Chateaubriand was much interested in Dupont de Nemours's researches into the language of cats. "Its claws," says the latter, "and the power of climbing trees which its claws give it, furnish the cat with resources of experience and ideas denied the dog. The cat, also, has the advantage of a language which has the same vowels as pronounced by the dog, and with six consonants in addition, m, n, g, h, v, and f. Consequently the cat has a greater number of words. These two causes, the finer structure of its paws, and the larger scope of oral language, endow the solitary cat with greater cunning and skill as a hunter than the dog."
Abbé Galiani also says: "For centuries cats have been reared, but I do not find they have ever been really studied. I have a male and a female cat. I have cut them off from all communication with cats outside the house, and closely observe their proceedings. During their courtship they never once miowed: the miow, therefore, is not the language of love, but rather the call of the absent. Another positive discovery I have made is that the voice of the male is entirely different from that of the female, as it should be. I am sure there are more than twenty different inflections in the language of cats, and there is really a 'tongue' for they always employ the same sound to express the same thing."
I heartily concur with him, and in addition have often noticed the wide difference between the voice and manner of expression of the gelded cat and the ordinary tom. The former has a thin, high voice with much smaller vocabulary. As a rule, the gelded cat does not "mew" to make known his wants, but employs his voice for conversational purposes. A mother cat "talks" much more than any other, and more when she has small kittens than at other times.
Cat language has been reduced to etymology in several tongues. In Arabia their speech is called naoua; in Chinese, ming; in Greek, larungizein; in Sanscrit, madj, vid, bid; in German, miauen; in French miauler; and in English, mew or "miaouw."
1. Black Magic, winner of first prize, Boston, 1900: Oasis
Perhaps, if Professor Garner had turned his attention to cat language instead of monkeys we would know more about it. But a French professor, Alphonse Léon Grimaldi, of Paris, claims that cats can talk as readily as human beings, and that he has learned their language so as to be able to converse with them to some extent. Grimaldi goes even further: he not only says that he knows such a language, but he states definitely that there are about six hundred words in it, that it is more like modern Chinese than anything else, and to prove this contention, gives a small vocabulary.
Most of us would prefer to accept St. George Mivart's conclusions, that the difference between all animals and human beings is that while they have some means of communication, or language, we only have the gift of speech. Among the eighteen distinct active powers which he attributes to the cat, he quotes: "16th, powers of pleasurable or painful excitement on the occurrence of sense-perceptions with imaginations, emotions;" and "17th, a power of expressing feelings by sounds or gestures which may affect other individuals,—emotional language."
Again he says: "The cat has a language of sounds and gestures to express its feelings and emotions. So have we. But we have further—which neither the cat, nor the bird, nor the beast has—a language and gestures to express our thoughts." The sum of his conclusions seems to be that while the cat has a most highly developed nervous system, and much of what is known as "animal intelligence," it is not a human intelligence—not consciousness, but "con-sentience."
Elsewhere St. George Mivart doubts if a cat distinguishes odors as such. Perhaps a cat starts for the kitchen the instant he smells meat because of the mental association of the scent with the gratification of hunger; but why, pray tell, do some cats evince such delight in delicate perfumes? Our own Pomp the First, for instance, had a most demonstrative fondness for violets, and liked the scent of all flowers. One winter I used to bring home a bunch of Parma or Russian violets every day or two, and put them in a small glass bowl of water. It soon became necessary to put them on the highest shelf in the room, and even then Pompey would find them. Often have I placed them on the piano, and a few minutes later seen him enter the room, lift his nose, give a few sniffs, and then go straight to the piano, bury his nose in the violets, and hold it there in perfect ecstacy. And usually, wherever they were placed, the bunch was found the next morning on the floor, where Pompey had carried the violets, and holding them between his paws for a time, had surfeited himself with their delicious fragrance.
Still, I am not prepared to say that Pompey had any word for violets, or for anything else that ministered to his delight. It was enough for him to be happy; and he had better ways of expressing it.
Cats do have the power of making people understand what they want done, but so far as my knowledge of them goes, some of the most intelligent ones "talk" the least. Thomas Erastus, whose intelligence sometimes amounts to a knowledge that seems almost uncanny, seldom utters a sound.
There is—or was—a black cat belonging to the city jail of a Californian town, named "Inspector Byrnes," because of his remarkable assistance to the police force. When, one night, a prisoner in the jail had stuffed the cracks to his cell with straw, and turned on the gas in an attempt to commit suicide, "Inspector Byrnes" hurried off and notified the night keeper that something was wrong, and induced him to go to the cell in time to save the prisoner's life. He once notified the police when a fire broke out on the premises, and at another time made such a fuss that they followed him—to discover a woman trying to hang herself. Again, some of the prisoners plotted to escape, and the cat crawled through the hole they had filed and called the warden's attention to it. In fact, there was no doubt that "Inspector Byrnes" considered himself assistant warden at the jail, and he did not waste much time in talk either.
The Pretty Lady had ways of her own to make us know when things were wrong in the household, although she used to utter a great many sounds, either of pleasure or perturbation, which we came to understand. I remember one morning, when my sister was ill upstairs, that I had breakfasted and sat down to read my morning's mail, when the Pretty Lady came, uttering sounds that denoted dissatisfaction with matters somewhere. I was busy, and at first paid no attention to her; but she grew more persistent, so that I finally laid down my letters and asked: "What is it, Puss? Haven't you had breakfast enough?" I went out to the kitchen, and she followed, all the time protesting articulately. She would not touch the meat I offered, but evidently wanted something entirely different. Just then my sister came down and said:—
"I wish you would go up and see H. She is suffering terribly, and I don't know what to do for her."
At that the Pretty Lady led the way into the hall and up the stairs, pausing at every third step to make sure I was following, and leading me straight to my sister. Then she settled herself calmly on the foot-board and closed her eyes, as though the whole affair was no concern of hers. Afterward, my sister said that when the pain became almost unendurable, so that she tossed about and groaned, the Pretty Lady came close to her face and talked to her, just as she did to her kittens when they were in distress, showing plainly that she sympathized with and would help her. When she found it impossible to do this, she hurried down to me. And then having got me actually up to my sister's bedside, she threw off her own burden of anxiety and settled into her usual calm content.
"My Goliath is at the helm now," she expressed by her attitude, "and the world is sure to go right a little longer while I take a nap."