NOC (pronounced No-see), the beluga whale that was recently reported to have imitated human speech, has some stiff competition. An Asian elephant named Koshik can produce several recognizable Korean words, researchers report today in Current Biology — the same journal that described NOC’s dalliances with speech.
Whereas the whale’s utterances resembled a freestyle kazoo jam more than actual language, Koshik seems to be imitating genuine Korean words. When 16 native speakers listened to recordings of the captive elephant, many could make out the same words his trainer’s recognized: “annyong” (hello), “anja” (sit down), “aniya” (no), “nuo” (lie down), and “choah” (good). More than half of the volunteers recognized Koshik’s “annyong” greeting, while most confused “choah” for similar sounding words such as “boah” (look) and “moa” (collect).
On the basis of these findings, Angela Stoeger and W. Tecumseh Fitch, of the University of Vienna, and their team think that Koshik is better at matching vowels than consonants because he can accurately imitate the frequencies required to create different vowels. To do this, Koshik shortens and changes the shape of the long elephant vocal tract — which typically creates low-pitch sounds — by placing his trunk inside his mouth.
Stoeger’s team are not sure why Koshik started imitating human speech, which his trainers first noticed in 2004 around the time the elephant reached sexual maturity at the age of 14. Koshik lived without other elephants between 1995 and 2002, while being regularly exposed to spoken Korean. Deprived of kin during a period in which elephants forge relationships, Koshik may have begun imitating humans instead, Stoeger’s team speculate. “The social circumstances under which Koshik’s speech imitations developed suggest that one function of vocal learning might be to cement social bonds and, in unusual cases, social bonds across species,” they write.
Video courtesy of Stoeger et al., Current Biology