Further proof of the intelligence of elephants: scientists from the University of Vienna have found that Koshik, an Asian elephant, can not only imitate human speech, but speak a few words of Korean.
More precisely, Koshik can say five Korean words: “annyong” (“hello”), “anja” (“sit down”), “aniya” (“no”), “nuo” (“lie down”), and “choah” (“good”) as Angela Stoeger, Daniel Mietchen, Tecumseh Fitch and their colleagues report in Current Biology. You can hear a clip of Koshik talking via Eureka Alerts.
As a juvenile elephant — a period when elephants are developing and forming bonds — it seems that Koshik was trying to connect with those around him. During the first give years of Koshik’s life at the Everland Zoo in South Korea, humans were his only social contacts.
To confirm that Koshik was indeed speaking some words of Korean, Stoeger and the other scientists employed a number of methods, such as instructing native Korean speakers to write down what they heard while listening to recordings of Koshik speaking. “We found a high agreement concerning the overall meaning, and even the Korean spelling of Koshik’s imitations,” says Stoeger.
The clarity of the elephant’s utterance of Korean words is all the more remarkable when you consider that he is not, of course, using lips and the other anatomical apparatus that we humans use to speak, but a trunk. †Koshik produces the sounds by placing his trunk in his mouth.
As Stoeger emphasizes, Koshik does not just produce sounds recalling the Korean words, but is able to imitate the two main aspects of human speech, pitch and timber.†With his large larynx, Koshik can produce low-pitched sounds. Stoeger has found his imitating to be quite exactly that of his human trainers and to be clearly different from the sort of sounds elephants usually make.
However, Stoeger does not think that Koshik actually means what he is saying. As she tells the New York Times, while Koshik understands to “sit” when his keepers say that word (“anja”), when the elephant says “anja,” he does not seem to expect them to sit down. That is, he does not seem to be connecting his receptive understanding of human words with his own expressive utterance of them. It is also not certain if Koshik might be able to learn to say more words.
Vocation imitation across species is indeed rare. As Stoeger and her colleagues write, mockingbirds and other birds have been known to imitate other species; parrots and mynahs can mimic human speech; a white whale sought to talk in human speech.†Science Daily also cites earlier reports of Asian and African elephants engaging in vocal mimicry. In addition, African elephans have been “known to imitate the sound of truck engines, and a male Asian elephant living in a zoo in Kazakhstan was said to produce utterances in both Russian and Kazakh, but that case was never scientifically investigated.”
As Stoeger and her colleagues conclude, †the “social circumstances under which Koshiks speech imitations developed suggest that one function of vocal learning might be to cement social bonds and, in unusual cases, social bonds across species.” Does it not seem only right that we humans ought to do our best to lend a closer ear and learn what other species are saying?
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