A talking elephant may sound like something out of a Rudyard Kipling novel but scientists have shown for the first time that elephants are capable of imitating spoken words – albeit by “whistling” in the Korean language.
Within weeks of a study showing that a white beluga whale was capable of uttering a few words in English , scientists have discovered that an Asian elephant called Koshik has the comparatively extensive vocabulary of five Korean words.
Koshik, who was born in captivity and lives in the Everland Zoo in the city of Yongin, has developed a method of imitating human speech patterns by inserting the tip of his trunk into his mouth while vocalising to reach the relatively high pitches of the human voice, rather like a man whistling with fingers in his mouth.
Scientists have analysed the sound spectrum of Koshik’s noises and have found that they match well against the human speech patterns for the same words. A panel of native Korean speakers said they could understand what Koshik was saying.
Angela Stoeger of the University of Vienna, who was part of the team that analysed Koshik’s voice recordings, said she was astonished when she realised that the 22-year-old elephant could speak Korean words such as “annyong”, meaning “hello”, and “choah”, meaning “good”.
“I was fascinated and thought that this is now really the evidence that elephants are indeed vocal learners. I really wanted to scientifically prove it so that no doubt would be left,” Dr Stoeger said.
Koshik had to overcome some fundamental limitations of his anatomy to reach the relatively high pitches of human speech given that elephant sounds are normally low-frequency grumbles, according to the study published in the journal Current Biology.
By inserting the tip of his trunk into his right cheek he was able to modulate the sounds in his mouth and so extend his vocabulary to include “anja”, meaning “sit down”, “aniya”, meaning “ no”, and “nuo” meaning “lie down”.
“Human speech basically has two important aspects: pitch and timbre. Intriguingly, the elephant Koshik is capable of matching both pitch and timbre patterns,” Dr Stoeger said.
“He accurately imitates human formants [sound spectra] as well as the voice pitch of his trainers. This is remarkable considering the huge size, the long vocal tract and other anatomical differences between an elephant and a human,” Dr Stoeger said.
Like other animals that are capable of imitating human speech, such as parrots and mynah birds, there is no evidence that Koshik could actually understand what he was saying, only that he was using the sounds for basic communication with his human trainers.
Koshik was born in 1990 and spent the first few years of his life with two adult female elephants but between 1995 and 2002 he lived on his own and it was during this time that he probably learnt to imitate the noises made by his trainers, Dr Stoeger said.
There have been anecdotal reports of elephants imitating human speech or noises. A male Asian elephant kept in a zoo in Kazakhastan was reported to speak a few words of Russian and Kazakh, and wild African elephants have been found to imitate the grumbling engines of nearby Landrovers.
“In addition there have been reports about two Asian elephants that imitated the idiosyncratic whistling sounds of a female elephant that they were housed with,” Dr Stoeger said.
“We do not know whether all elephants in Koshik’s situation would have started to imitate human speech, but even these case studies show that elephants in principle seem to have the ability to imitate vocalizations,” she said.
This video shows Koshik, "an elephant that speaks Korean," interacting with his trainer. Following vocal interaction with the trainer is documented: Koshik: "choah" (good) Trainer: "choah choah annyong" (good good hello) Koshik: "choah" (good) Trainer: "choah choah annyong" (good good hello) Koshik: "choah" (good) Trainer: "choah choah" (good good) Koshik: "choah" (good) Trainer: "annyong" (hello) Koshik: "choah" (good) Trainer: "annyong" (hello)
Video Credit: Stoeger et al., Current BiologyReuse content