Koshik makes 5-word trunk call

By Steve Connor

An elephant can imitate spoken words, much as parrots have learned to do. Photo / Getty Images
An elephant can imitate spoken words, much as parrots have learned to do. Photo / Getty Images

A talking elephant may sound like something out of a Rudyard Kipling novel but scientists have now shown elephants are capable of imitating spoken words - albeit by whistling in Korean.

Within weeks of a study showing a white beluga whale was capable of uttering a few words in English, scientists have discovered 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 Yongin, imitates 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 Koshik's noises and have found they match 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 the 22-year-old elephant could speak Korean words such as annyong, meaning hello, and choah, meaning good.

"I was fascinated and thought 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 Current Biology.

By inserting the tip of his trunk into his right cheek he was able to modulate the sounds in his mouth and 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, Koshik is capable of matching both pitch and timbre patterns, Dr Stoeger said. But as with other animals capable of imitating human speech, such as parrots and mynah birds, there is no evidence that Koshik understands what he is saying. Independent

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