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When Elephants Translate
November 6, 2012 - By: - In: In the News / Awards - Comments Off on When Elephants Translate

Koshik speaks Korean by blowing into his mouth with his trunk.

Koshik, a 22-year-old Asian elephant at Everland Park in Yongin, South Korea, can speak Korean. With a vocabulary limited to five words, it would be a stretch to claim fluency, but Koshik’s self-taught skill is quite astounding. Raised only by humans for five years as a juvenile, Koshik apparently had an elephant ear for the language spoken by his Korean trainers. He is self-taught, although once trainers recognized his talent, they encouraged the behavior.

Koshik speaks Korean by putting his trunk in his mouth and blowing, “a wholly novel method of vocal production,” reports Angela Stoeger, a researcher at the University of Vienna who studied the elephant’s speech patterns.

“Human speech basically has two important aspects, pitch and timbre,” Stoeger says. “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.”

Elephants have trunks instead of lips. While their large larynx can produce very low-pitched sounds, Koshik’s squeaky voiced (for an elephant) mimicry exactly copies the pitch and other characteristics of his human trainers’ voices. A structural analysis of Koshik’s speech was distinct from the sounds of other elephants and clearly similar to the speech patterns of humans.

Elephants socialized among elephants have their own complex communication system that is pitched so deeply that it is generally inaudible to human ears. The trumpeting so familiar to human listeners from Tarzan movies is just the tip of a subsonic iceberg of elephants which is adapted to enable long distance communication over the vast expanses of the African savanna. More details in this earlier post.>

Koshik’s five-word vocabulary consists of “annyong” (“hello”), “anja” (“sit down”), “aniya” (“no”), “nuo” (“lie down”), and “choah” (“good”), concepts that Koshik appears to understand. But when he uses those words on humans, it appears to be more a demonstration of understanding rather than part of a conversation. He does not appear to get upset when his trainers do not lie down at his command, for instance.

Samuel Johnson once said of a dog walking on two legs, “It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.” The same goes for Koshik’s squeaky elephant-voiced imitation of Korean.

That Koshik should go to such trunk-like lengths to speak the language of humans is remarkable evidence of the bonds between sentient creatures and what seems to be a desire to speak across the species barrier. I have observed and participated in this many times in the wild and it never fails to move me. Domestically speaking, talking dogs leave me uninspired, perhaps due to my former career as a newspaper boy and UPS delivery driver.  So, I will leave it to pet lovers to share those tales in their comments below.

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