Koshik the elephant learns to say hello

Last updated 05:00 02/11/2012

Koshik the elephant can say five words which are easily understandable to those who speak Korean, researchers say.

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An Asian elephant bonded so closely with its Korean keepers it learnt to speak words from their language, researchers say.

There are stories abound about the bond humans and animals can form, but a research paper published today proposes that bond can lead to something highly unusual – the language of one species being passed on to another.

Koshik was the only elephant at Everland Zoo in South Korea for about five years, during which it had no contact with any other species but humans.

By putting its trunk in its mouth the elephant can say five words which are easily understandable to those who speak Korean, University of Vienna elephant communication expert Angela Stoeger and her colleagues said in their report An Asian Elephant Imitates Human Speech, which has been published in the journal Current Biology.

"We suggest that Koshik started to adapt his vocalisations to his human companions to strengthen social affiliation, something that is also seen in other vocal-learning species - and in very special cases, also across species," Stoeger said.

Koshik can say the Korean equivalent to hello, sit down, no, lie down and good.

It was hoped the elephant’s language skills would provide important insights into the biology and evolution of complex vocal learning, the researchers said.

"Human speech basically has two important aspects, pitch and timbre," Stoeger said.

"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."

It is particularly unusual because elephants have a trunk instead of lips and while some elephants can produce very low-pitched sounds, Koshik's speech exactly copies the pitch and other characteristics of his human trainers' voices, Stoeger said.

“A structural analysis of Koshik's speech showed not just clear similarities to human voices, but also clear differences from the usual calls of elephants.”

The researchers asked Korean speakers to write down what they understood after listening to recordings of Koshik speaking.

"We found a high agreement concerning the overall meaning, and even the Korean spelling of Koshik's imitations," Stoeger said, but it was not thought that the elephant actually knew the meaning of its words.

African elephants have been known to imitate the sound of truck engines and there were suggestions an Asian elephant in a Kazakhstan zoo could speak Russian and Kazakh, but there’s little evidence to substantiate that, the researchers said.

Birds were known to mimic the human voice and there were a couple of cases where non human mammals had also done the same.

They included a Hoover seal which could utter simple phrases in English after being raised by a fisherman in the northeast United States and an adult male beluga who could imitate his name ‘‘Logosi’’.

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