An Asian elephant male named Koshik can imitate human speech, speaking words in Korean that others who know the language can understand.
The elephant's vocabulary at present consists of five words: annyong (hello), anja (sit down), aniya (no), nuo (lie down), and choah (good).
"Some of the words were commands that Koshik learned to perform, such as 'lie down' and 'sit down,' or were given as feedback, and we have every reason to believe he understands the meaning of these words," said Tecumseh Fitch, a professor of cognitive biology at the University of Vienna, who co-authored a study on the elephant in Current Biology.
"It's just that when he utters them, he doesn't seem to intend them as commands -- or at least when he says ‘lie down,' he doesn't seem to get upset if you don't lie down!" Fitch added.
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He and his colleagues used a few different ways to confirm that Koshik was imitating Korean. The researchers first asked native Korean speakers to write down what they heard when listening to playbacks of the elephant's sounds. The listeners basically all had no trouble understanding what the elephant was saying.
The researchers also used computer analysis to study the structure of Koshik's sounds. The sounds turned out to perfectly match his human trainers' voices. From a structural analysis standpoint, they also were very distinct from the usual calls of elephants.
Given that elephants have a trunk instead of lips, it's no small feat that Koshik can speak Korean.
"He vocalizes with his trunk in his mouth, obviously modulating his vocal tract to match the characteristics of human speech," co-author Angela Stoeger-Horwath of the University of Vienna, told Discovery News.
She explained that human speech essentially has two important aspects: pitch and timbre. Koshik can match both.
"He accurately imitates human formants as well as the voice of his trainers," she said. "This is remarkable considering the huge size, the long vocal tract, and other anatomical differences between an elephant and a human."
Both African and Asian elephants appear to be expert vocal mimics. African elephants have been heard copying the sound of truck engines. Koshik might also not even be the first elephant to copy humans. There were anecdotal reports of an Asian elephant living in a zoo in Kazakhstan that produced utterances in both Russian and Kazakh.
Still, it's clear that not all elephants sound like humans.
"So what is special about Koshik?" Stoeger-Horwath asked, adding that Koshik is also now making a unique snapping sound. "As a juvenile, Koshik was the only elephant at the Everland Zoo for about five years. During this time he was trained to physically obey several commands and was exposed to human speech intensively by his trainers, veterinarians, guides and tourists."
"The decisive factor for speech imitation in Koshik may thus be that humans were the only social contact available during an important period for elephant bonding and development," she continued. "During this time, humans were his only social contacts."
Animals often learn by copying each other, but so far, the one female elephant that has accompanied Koshik since 2002 has not produced a single human word.
As for intentionally teaching elephants to speak, the researchers indicate that would pose problems, since elephants should ideally be kept in a social environment with other elephants.
They also remind that speech is not language.
Stoeger-Horwath said, "He mainly seems to be using these vocalizations as a way of bonding with people, rather than for true communication and for their meaning."