This blog was originally posted on Kate Cary's blog. I take no credit.
A Study of Catspeak, and what Leonardo da Vinci has to do with it
Many moons ago, when surfing the blog, I discovered the concept of a Clan named “RuneClan” that wore markings on their flanks to denote their ranking and Clan history. Someone had commented with the claim that the cats had no system of reading and writing, and therefore this concept would never make it into the books. This made me think – was that statement true? Certainly in real life, but considering that the Clans have such a complicated language, as well as the use of the Stick as a tally (which can be seen as a form of reading), made me realise that the Clans could have a writing system if they ever had the need. Not only this, but what about the system of tail signals seen in Battles of the Clans? It seems far too complex for a real-life cat, and is certainly different to the way real cats use their tails to portray emotion. But if a writing system is possible, a richly structured language is needed. In this article, I will be exploring the way the Clans use language, the real-world possibilities of catspeak and how a feline language could coexist with Twoleg English, in-universe or out.
The name system of the Clans clearly shows how much more complex Warriors language is than the communication system of real cats. Not only do cats in Warriors name each other – which is an extraordinarily rare phenomenon in any real animal – but these monikers consist of separate sections relating to both the cat’s characteristics and their rank. As far as scientists know, the only animals that could possibly be capable of this are cetaceans. Dolphins have individual names and a vocabulary of 200 words. Orca use grammar and syntax and have dialects. Whale songs even rhyme, in a sense. However, the Clans surpass this by far with their vast, human-like vocabularies and complex naming system. However, the real question is not “can the warrior cats speak a feline language?” but “do the warrior cats speak English?”
I always used to be confused when Warriors readers said that the books were about “talking cats”. I always thought that the language of the characters was simply cat language, translated into English. I understood that the catspeak was far too complex to be simple, real-life feline mews and purrs, but I assumed that it was some variant of real cat communication changed to be far more subtle and intricate. However, a key piece of information about catspeak comes from Brambleberry’s quote on page 53 of Crookedstar’s Promise:
“Perhaps I should change my name. I could be called Swallowherb. See? Because that’s what I do. I make cats swallow herbs.”
This may seem of little importance, but something very rare has occurred in Warriors. A cat has made a pun. Puns in English will lose their meaning when translated into another language, and vice versa. One example of this is Leonardo da Vinci’s painting Lady with an Ermine. It is a portrait of a girl named Cecilia Gallerani. It has been speculated that this is because the Greek for ermine is galay, a pun on her name. This would be far more obvious to the modern English-speaking world if she was either named Cecilia Ermine, or the English word for ermine was galay. This demonstrates that puns will only work if there is one word with two meanings. Brambleberry has just proved to us that a pun that works in English will work just as well in catspeak – a play on the verb “swallow”, to pass food down the throat, and the noun “swallow”, a small songbird. As far as I know, the only real language this pun works in is English. Therefore, the cats must be speaking English.
If this is true, then one might ask how Twolegs communicate in the novels. If the cats speak English, then what do the Twolegs do? Do they just walk around meowing at each other? Of course not. Although the cats must be speaking English, they’re still described as “purring” and “yowling”, and Twolegs have been explicitly shown to speak English in the mangas. This must mean that both Twoleg and cat speak English, but the languages have evolved until neither can recognise the other, because of their different vocal chords.
Could this exist in real life? Possibly. Definitely not yet, as feline language is far too simple, but evolution happens. It happened to the whales and dolphins, it’ll happen to the cats and eventually it’ll happen to us. In several million years’ time, cats may be able to tell each other wild stories, comfort each other, cry, laugh and sing. Warriors could be truly real.