Sunday 19 January 2020

Elephant 'can speak in Korean'

Koshik's lives at the Everland Zoo in South Korea (Current Biology/PA)
Koshik's lives at the Everland Zoo in South Korea (Current Biology/PA)

Scientists have discovered an elephant that can speak Korean.

But Koshik, who talks by putting his trunk in his mouth, has a vocabulary of just five words.

He was recorded at a zoo in South Korea imitating human speech for words that translate into English as "hello", "sit down", "no", "lie down" and "good". But it is not believed he means what he says.

Researchers reported in the journal Current Biology that Koshik's language skills could provide important insights into the biology and evolution of vocal learning.

Elephant communication expert Angela Stoeger, of the University of Vienna, Austria, said: "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."

Researchers played recordings of Koshik's noises to native Korean speakers to confirm their findings. "We found a high agreement concerning the overall meaning, and even the Korean spelling of Koshik's imitations," Ms Stoeger said.

It is not clear why Koshik adopted his unusual vocal behaviour, but scientists suggest that it could go back to his early days. He was the only elephant living at the Everland Zoo in South Korea for about five years during an important period for bonding and development.

Humans were his only social contacts, so he could have adapted his vocals in a bid to strengthen social ties.

There have been earlier reports of vocal mimicry in both African and Asian elephants, according to the scientists. African elephants 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.

PA Media

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