Not all cats are great conversationalists; others don’t know when to stop. Most cats will utter an assortment of sounds to let you know if they are happy, angry, in pain, want or don't want something. The question is what do they mean? Feeding time is generally the most vocal and that request is obvious.
Why are some cats more vocal than others? Kittens are the most vocal; they use an assortment of sounds to communicate their needs to mom. She, in turn, responds to them vocally. They purr to each other almost immediately after the kittens’ birth. Kittens are blind and deaf for the first few weeks, but they recognize the feel and later the sound of mother’s comforting purr, both of which help them find her and their milk supply.
By adulthood most feline communication is via body language and scent. Cats are solo hunters and don’t need, or want, to indicate where the prey is. In adults vocalizing is usually limited to mother/kitten communications, on encountering an enemy or attracting the opposite gender. In these situations a combination of sound, body language and scent makes a powerful statement.
The most common sound heard emitting from kitty is the purr. Contrary to popular belief it does not always indicate the cat is happy and content although that is one meaning. Purring appears to be a form of all-embracing kitty mantra. Cats in great pain, anger or distress will also purr. The reason is not fully understood but it is thought to sooth and comfort and may be an aid to self-healing.
When trying to get information across to their human family members cats come up against a language barrier. It probably rarely occurs to cats that people have a poor understanding of kitty’s combined vocal, scent and body language. If another cat, who presumably understands ‘cat’, doesn’t respond appropriately they simply get louder and louder to put the point across. When kitty is asking a person for something the subtler signs are generally missed. Consequently the meowing becomes more and more insistent until the request is complied with or kitty gives up. The smart kitty increasingly learns to focus on sound to communicate with its humans.
This works both ways. Cats don’t instinctively understand people commands. They can learn what certain tones attached to specific words mean and can recognize a limited vocabulary. Teaching kitty requires repeating words and short phrases associated with the action you want understood; kitty will soon pick it up. Command words such as “No!”, “Down” or “Good kitty” with the appropriate inflection are usually quickly understood as negative and positive. To tell kitty, “Please do not sit on top of the bookcase you may knock something down.” will be totally ignored. That is unless the final “Down” is given the appropriate negative intonation that kitty associates with being somewhere it shouldn’t. Humans cannot flatten their ears against their heads as a cat does to indicate anger or stick their tail straight up in the air to show they are happy, content and safe to approach. The task therefore falls on the human companion to learn to understand and be understood by kitty.
Regardless of whether it knows what you are saying, talk to your cat as a matter of routine. It is tone and not words that matter here. It appears to be soothing to all involved and makes kitty feel relaxed and comfortable. A shy, frightened cat can be coaxed out to join the rest of the family when it hears calm gentle sounds directed at it. Be considerate about volume. Loud voices and shouting are frightening to a cat. In cat language it is challenged to a duel. How confusing is that? The creature that feeds and loves it has suddenly turned into a huge looming adversary that they really don’t want to mess with. If you have to scold kitty use cat-comprehensible sounds for “Don’t do that”. Make words short and sharp like a cat’s spitting sound or low and rumbling similar to a growl. Learn to hiss like a cat; that will quickly get the message across!