As some of you may know, our two cats are Somalis. Somalis aren’t as vocal as, say, Siamese, but they do have a distinctive range of chirrups and trills that are rather unusual. Even among Somalis, Bianca’s vocalisations are — shall we say — unique. I thought I’d talk a bit about some of the bizarre noises that come out of her from time to time.
As the name suggests, this happens when she starts a meow but then gets ambushed by a yawn mid-meow. I wish I could convey how odd it sounds. The start is a conventional meow, but then she sounds like a teenaged boy whose voice is breaking, as it veers wildly from squeaky to something slightly deeper than her normal pitch. If you’re not looking at her when it happens, it always makes you turn to look. If you’re lucky, you catch the look of utter ‘WTF?’ on her face as she closes her mouth. I think it takes her by surprise as much as the rest of us.
If I’m working at home, Bianca will often come and join me on my desk at around 4pm. By then, deep feline ennui has evidently set in. There are no wood pigeons in the pine tree outside my window to mock-stalk and it is several centuries1 until dinner. Even her favourite pastime of flicking the pad of mini-Post-It notes2 off my desk with a dismissive flick of her paw seems to have lost its entertainment value.
She gazes out of the window and emits what I have come to call her ‘Whifflesigh’. She inhales deeply and starts to exhale in a sigh. However, rather than one long exhalation, she chops the start of it into a series of short, staccato, in/out breaths. If you imagine squeezing a dog’s squeaky toy that has lost its squeaker, that’s the kind of effect you get. It’s very quiet, but because she’s sitting right in front of me on the desk (blocking my view of the screen, usually), I catch every nuance of the Whifflesigh.
It sounds like the kind of sound that might be made by a character in a Jane Austen novel, sitting with her embroidery by a window, but fervently hoping to see a handsome and well-built gentleman striding across the gravel, possibly — one can hope! — having first taken an impromptu dip in the lake fully-clothed, and thus cutting a dashingly moist figure. But alas, the gravel is devoid of moist gentlemen, hence the Wifflesigh.
This one is impossible to render phonetically, is very variable in its pronunciation, but always features multiple syllables and a variety of pitches. Furthermore, like the Spanish Inquisition, no-one expects the yarARGHleBaHrGGGLE!! Picture the scene: it’s late afternoon one weekend and you are sitting quietly on the sofa reading a book. You see no sign of cats, and everything is peaceful. Then, when you are least expecting it, an unearthly, drawn-out banshee cry of yarARGHleBaHrGGGLE!! rises from behind the sofa or the curtain. When your heart rate and blood pressure have returned to medically acceptable levels, Bianca (for it is she) strolls nonchalantly into view and gives you an innocent “What?” look. It’s an exercise in unsubstantiated anthropomorphism to try to assign meaning to these sounds, but I’m pretty sure that the yarARGHleBaHrGGGLE!! is just Bianca’s way of saying “What Ho, chaps, here I am!”.