Talking elephant learns to say five words in Korean

Jordan Chittley
Daily Buzz

Koshik uses a never-before-seen technique to speak words in a higher pitch

An elephant in South Korea has learned to say five words in Korean. For those counting, that's five more words than I can say in Korean.

Using behaviour researchers haven't seen before, Koshik puts the tip of his trunk into this mouth to produce a higher pitch humans can hear. The trunk acted similar to our lips. Elephants usually produce much deeper sounds. Sometimes so low, that it's outside our frequency range.

Dr. Angela Stoeger, from the University of Vienna in Austria, came across YouTube videos of the pachyderm speaking at the Everland Zoo in South Korea and made contact with the zoo to record him for a study.

Stoeger played recordings of Koshik's voice for native Korean speakers and asked them to when down what they believed was being said.

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"We found a high agreement of the overall meaning," said Stoeger to BBC. "Human speech has two important aspects, one is pitch (how high or low a sound is) and one is timbre (the musical quality of a voice), and Koshik is matching both of these aspects."

Stoeger and her colleagues found Koshik was saying annyeong (hello), anja (sit down), aniya (no), nuwo (lie down) and choah (good).

The study is published in the journal Current Biology.

"If you consider the huge size of the elephant and the long vocal tract and other anatomic difference - for example he has a trunk instead of lips...and a huge larynx - and he is really matching the voice pitch of trainers, this is really remarkable," said Stoeger to BBC.

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Researches don't believe he understands the words though. Between the ages of five and 12, he was the only elephant at the zoo and his only social contact was with humans.

"Where there's a will, there's a way. Koshik's drive to share vocalizations with his human companions was so strong that he invented a whole new way of making sounds to achieve it," said Stoeger to LiveScience. "We suggest that Koshik started to adapt his vocalizations 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."

Asian and African elephants have also been known to mimic sounds like parrots, mynah birds, sea lions and a beluga whale. African elephants have been known to imitate the sound of a truck engine and a male Asian elephant in Kazakhstan was said to utter sounds resembling Russian and Kazakh.

With files from LiveScience

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