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In my world I have a couple species of sentient animals, mainly cats, who among other things are capable of communication with human beings.

While I am perfectly happy to resort to explanations involving magic to justify their increased intelligence, and them using it an a human-like way - these species already have some sort of relationship with magic even without involving their speech ability - I would like to incorporate "real life" distinctive aspects of these animals' anatomy in the way they sound when speaking a human language, or even in their ability to understand it.

What would the phonetic features of a human language spoken by a sentient cat be?

Also, how would their ability to process human languages spoken by humans change?

Edit: It has been pointed out to me that the question was very broad. I am also interested in the same question applied to birds of prey and possibly other animal species as well, but I edited to focus on the species that is most relevant to me.

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  • $\begingroup$ Narrowing makes this far better as we can focus on a comparison of human vs feline anatomy and what each is similarly capable of. Odds are you'll have to hand wave this one though. $\endgroup$ – James Aug 7 '15 at 18:15
  • $\begingroup$ Related question on Linguistics Stack Exchange: What human speech sounds could the canine vocal tract produce? $\endgroup$ – Damian Yerrick Aug 8 '15 at 3:47
  • $\begingroup$ You could always go with the District 9 approach, just let each species speak their own language and learn how to understand the other. Other than that, its going to be hard to fill in the gaps between human and feline speech capabilities. $\endgroup$ – DaaaahWhoosh Aug 10 '15 at 23:55
  • $\begingroup$ Some birds can make any sound, not just phonems with own voice but reproduce anyone's voice too, like a speaker. So the bird question is not interesting. $\endgroup$ – JDługosz Aug 11 '15 at 2:23
  • $\begingroup$ @DaaaahWhoosh in the initial part of the story where this race is involved, one of its members interacts directly with a human being that lives "in the real world", and therefore would not be able to understand the cats' language without an extra dose of handwavium. $\endgroup$ – Michele C Aug 24 '15 at 10:39
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There are a lot of interesting aspects of human and feline vocalizations to consider here, and while I'll admit I'm not expert, I'm going to attempt to tackle some of them here.

First of all, from this video about humorous cat noises, you can see that there are many noises cats can make. A lot of them sound completely stupid, but I imagine they'll be a lot less laughter-inducing coming out of larger feline species with longer vocal cords. The main problem you run into is that many human languages are made up of dozens of phonemes, or individual sounds; while cats can produce many of them, they most certainly struggle with others.

Something that I learned while researching this (from this article and others) is that the meow of an adult cat is almost exclusively used to communicate with humans, and not other cats. It may be a variant of the sounds kittens make to call their mothers; cats use meows for a similar purpose, to call to their owners. With this fact in mind, it is conceivable that cats may be able to produce other noises that they have not yet learned to use. Right now, a simple meow does the trick, but with practice and the desire to convey more complex ideas, cats can probably manage to stretch their abilities to cover more phonemes.

Another consideration you should make is that human languages aren't built for cats; thus, there will be a lot of words that are hard for cats to pronounce. Humans get that with their own languages; for instance, I occasionally amuse myself trying to pronounce French words correctly, but I know I would be nearly unintelligible to a native French speaker. But while issues learning a language can usually be solved with practice or by learning when you're young, there will always be some words cats just can't speak. For these words, and probably most of the language, they'll have to speak more slowly, and really be sure to enunciate as clearly as possible.

If you want to know how a specific human language is going to sound being spoken by a cat, first find a list of that language's phonemes(they're not just the letters, for instance here is a list of English phonemes). These are your building blocks, as every word in the language will be made up of them. Next, try and match each phoneme to a cat noise. If some noises cover multiple phonemes, that's fine; it may make the cat harder to understand, but it'll probably be unavoidable. And finally, test out some words, and see what the cat has to do to speak them. Some sounds are going to be hard to put together; for instance, it may be difficult for a cat to switch from a purr to a meow. Transitions like that are going to slow your cat's speech down, but in other places the words may flow just as easily as for a human.

In the end, it's going to sound strange, kinda funny, and nearly unintelligible. But pets always seem to have a way to get their meanings across; I'm sure sentient ones will be even better at it.

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I would observe cats as research. I think lots of hisses would be incorporated into the language, particularly in anger, cursing, rage, etc... Tone is also a large aspect of language. The Khajiit race in Elder Scrolls series comes to mind as well.

The big thing to take into account is BODY LANGUAGE. Body language often communicates more than actual words. If the cat race has the tail this would be a unique aspect. Wagging the tip of it when anger, hair standing up on their spine, dilated pupils, pawing motions, rubbing/nuzzling against one another for affection.

The body language piece is key.

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Read up on the IPA standard notation, and the descriptions of the different types of sounds which is how they are produced anatomically. If the voice box is changed without outward visible signs, what about teeth, tounge, lips, and the manner of nasilelization?

What sounds can be made depend on the anatomy and the possible motions.

Can a cat make a kissy-lips pucker? No? Well, no /w/ and no "closed" vowels like /o/.

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