Many of humanity’s greatest achievements would have been impossible without one of our greatest inventions – the power of words. Ideas, stories, information… we can transfer it all to other humans, just by encoding it into words.

Yet we don’t need all that many. It takes very few to get most messages across, as many a foreign traveller has discovered when attempting to converse with the locals. We can express a lot of our meaning through gesture, tone and context.

And maybe we don’t need words at all, if we already understand each other. Many times, the cat has managed to convey some surprisingly complicated desires to me – and she can only say one thing.

“Miaow” is a highly expressive sound, however. It can express need, anger, boredom, even curiosity. Some miaows are commands to attend (come hither, humans!) while others can be shouts of pain or fear. There is the impatient “miaow! miaow!” given when a human is too slow with the cat food. Oddly, the cat has a questioning miaow when she wants to know what’s going on that shares the rising inflection used in human questions. I have no idea whether this is a learned behaviour or merely coincidence.

One might be tempted to put all this down as a mad cat person reading meaning into something that isn’t there. Cats miaow. It’s what they do, like dogs bark and ducks quack. Except… cats don’t usually miaow. Not to each other, anyway. The miaow is purely for our benefit – cats only miaow at humans.

(That’s not strictly true – mother cats will miaow to their kittens, particularly in the first few weeks when those kittens are still blind. But in some ways, that’s worse – it means cats think of us as children, unable to function by ourselves. Maybe they’re right.)

It seems you can go a long way with just one word.


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