This scene has fascinated me ever since I was a kid. I mean, if you think about it, Meowth didn’t really learn “Humanspeak,” at least not the way we normally think about learning a language. He was already perfectly capable of
understanding it (even if there were a couple words here and there he wasn’t
familiar with, like “seashell” or “rocket”). And that seems to be a common thing across all Pokemon–just
look at how baby Pokemon can start taking orders from their trainers from the moment they hatch.
So his problem wasn’t learning what the human words meant. It was learning how to pronounce them. And judging by the seasons changing outside the window during his learning-to-talk montage, it took him at least a year to say his first words. But once he does–once he makes it through that tongue twister for the first time–it’s like a switch is flipped and he instantly becomes fluent. In those last couple gifs you can already see him casually throwing around “huh” and “hey,” and by the next scene he’s stringing together sentences.
What does all this mean? Is
pronunciation the only barrier keeping Pokemon from talking? Could any Pokemon do what Meowth did as long as they were as
ridiculously stubbornhardworking as he was? Or are most Pokemon physically incapable of saying anything but their names? If so, what makes Meowth unique?
…We’ll probably never know, but it’s fun to think about.
@scientificpokedex, ya got anything on this??
I sure do!
As you can imagine, ability to mimic human speech is really made up of two parts: physically being capable of making sounds, and mentally being able to both produce and interpret language.
For the first part, the physical aspect of speech, you need to understand that the human species spent a very long time evolving and developing parts that make communication easier. We have long throats, small mouths, deeper voice boxes, strong and rounded tongues, extremely good control of our breaths. All of these affect what sounds an animal can make: and our vocal systems are extremely complex compared to most of the animal kingdom.
Therefore, to be able to make sounds similar to human speech, an animal needs to have the right parts. Parrots, for example, are famously good at copying human speech, mostly because they too have strong, flexible, and rounded tongues like humans: meaning they can produce a lot of the same sounds.
Still, even looking at our closest relatives (apes), we can see why a lot of animals can’t imitate human speech. Many animals have a horizontal snout, whereas humans are set up very vertically. Even this severely limits an animal’s potential for mimicking human speech. So it’s very interesting, perhaps, that Meowth doesn’t seem to have much of a snout and is also bipedal, so it likely has a vertical setup as well: this is probably a big factor in why it can speak so fluently.
On that note, check out this video of an orangutan attempting human speech:
Since speech is controlled by breath, too, an animal’s lungs capabilities also limits how well it can imitate speech. Most creatures don’t have as much control over their breaths as humans. For example, a human could take a long breath immediately followed by a short breath to form a sentence with different syllables. Other animals simply don’t have that kind of lung control for variability.
Still, it should be noted that some animals are clever enough to get around the physical barriers. One elephant, for example, was shown to mimic human speech (Korean) by putting its trunk inside its mouth, and using its trunk as a makeshift tongue to make the noises. So even if an animal doesn’t have all the right parts, they might be clever enough to get around.
Still, simply the physical aspect proves that not all pokémon are capable of human speech. You can imagine Beautifly, an insect with no lips or vocal chords or even a jaw, just a proboscis instead of a tongue. Beautifly would have no hope of ever imitating human speech, because it just isn’t capable of making the right sounds. (How it says its own name is probably more of a whistle? If I had to guess).
Okay, now for the mental aspect: The part of the brain that interprets speech is different from the part of the brain that produces speech. This diagram is for a human, but many studies have shown similar setups in other animals. For example, dogs which understand commands like “sit” or “stay” have strong speech interpretation areas in their brains. Most pokémon, too, seem to share this strength: like mentioned above, Meowth seemed capable of understanding human speech all along, but not able to mimic it yet.
If an animal simply wants to be able to mimic human speech, it really only needs the “speech production” part of the brain (Broca’s area) – not even the interpretation (Wernicke’s area). However if it wants to be able to effectively communicate, especially like Meowth, it needs very strong in both.
So the fact that Meowth is able to both understand and produce language means both parts of its brain are very strong. And that isn’t true for all animals in our world, either. Cows, for example, don’t have the right pathways in their brain to be able to learn how to make any sound other than “moo”. Zebra finches, on the other hand, only learn how to make sounds when they are young: Once they grow older, they are literally incapable of learning any new sounds and are stuck with the same bird calls for the rest of their lives.
So again, this would be a reason for not all pokémon can learn human speech. Their brains just haven’t evolved for that. Miltank may just be out of luck.
Bringing this all together…
For a pokémon to be able to mimic human speech, it needs to have a vocal system capable of making the same sounds as a human, and it needs to have a strong Brocca’s area of the brain for producing speech. Language interpretation is a different part of the brain than language production: just because a pokémon can understand human language exceptionally well does not mean it would be able to mimic it.
So, no, pronunciation is not the only barrier keeping pokémon from talking. I’m sure that there are other species out there besides Meowth that could do it, but hopefully now you have a better idea of why Meowth is so special! Physically, it must be different from cats in our world and have a flexible tongue, a vertically-oriented vocal system, deeper vocal chords, good control over it’s breath. More importantly, perhaps, a large part of Meowth’s brain is devoted to both interpreting, learning, and producing speech.
So…why is only Team Rocket’s Meowth capable of speech, and not all Meowths we see? I’d chalk that up to necessity. An animal in the wild who has never heard or seen a human obviously has no need to imitate human speech. Not all orangutans or elephants in zoos attempt to mimic humans either: the few examples I mentioned are all very unique instances. It seems that only the creatures most social with humans, and encounter them the most, are the ones who try to speak.
So our Meowth? He just spent so much time around humans – and so little time around other pokémon – that picking up human speech seemed a necessity. Like the elephant in the video, he wanted to bond with humans so he taught himself how to speak.
Meowth, that’s right!
ah yes two of the topics dearest to my heart – language and pokémon