Asian Elephant Speaks Korean Say Scientists

Posted on November 3, 2012

Koshik Elephant

An Asian elephant named Koshik has learned to imitate human speech. The elephant speaks Korean words by inserting his trunk in his mouth. The researchers believe Koshik is trying to communicate with his trainers, but they don't believe he means what he is saying. The researchers say Koshik's speech mimicry exactly copies the pitch and other characteristics of his human trainers' voices. They also say his speech during mimicry is clearly different from the usual calls of elephants.

Researchers say Koshik's vocabularly consists of these five words: "annyong" ("hello"), "anja" ("sit down"), "aniya" ("no"), "nuo" ("lie down"), and "choah" ("good"). A research paper about Koshik's ability was published here in Current Biology.

Angela Stoeger of the University of Vienna said in a release, "Human speech basically has two important aspects, pitch and timbre. Intriguingly, the elephant Koshik is capable of matching both pitch and timbre patterns: he accurately imitates human formants 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."

Koshik was the only elephant living at the Everland Zoo in South Korea for about five years and this may have led to his mimicry of human speech. Koshik may have been trying to increase his bond with humans, his only social contact during this time period. The researchers say there have been some earlier reports of vocal mimicry in both African and Asian elephants. They say African elephants have been known to imitate the sound of truck engines. They also say a male Asian elephant living in a zoo in Kazakhstan was said to produce utterances in both Russian and Kazakh, but this elephant was never scientifically investigated.

The AP video has audio of Koshik speaking Korean. An audio file was also released here. Take a look:

Photo: Current Biology, Stoeger et al.

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