Talking Elephant

Talking elephant is something that we usually leave to other elephants. They make a series of low rumbles whilst in a group. Their full range of vocal statements is quite broad, ranging from contented rumbles through squeals to trumpets. Clearly other elephants know what all this means, but we are left guessing.

Some humans are good linguists while many of us are what are best described as failures and resort to the goodwill of those speaking other languages to learn ours. I thought that this was a trait of many English speakers, but is apparently more widely spread.

 In the Everland Zoo in South Korea, Koshik, an Asian Elephant, is on his own own and can rumble or chirp with no response from his keepers who are his only friends. At twenty years old he has been feeling the need for the occasional chat and so has had to compromise and learn a few words of Korean.

In addition to learning the Korean words for Hello, No and Good, he can also tell his keepers to Sit Down or Lie Down. Stoeger et al have studied Koshik’s linguistic abilities by listening, of course, but also by recording the spectral pattern of what he says (1). They show a good match between Koshik’s utterances and a human saying the same thing.

The sound frequency lies clearly between the low frequency rumbles and the high frequency chirp. It isn’t the usual frequency for talking elephant; so it seem that we have a talking elephant who not only talks elephant, but who has learnt a few words of Korean.

It turns out that this is quite a feat for a talking elephant; as they don’t use that frequency range beloved of humans, so how does he do it? He sticks his trunk into his mouth to modify the sound coming from his vocal chords. Clearly this will limit his conversation, as it is difficult to carry out a long conversation with your mouth full of trunk.

It is probably as much of cry for help as anything else, though, as twenty or so years on your own with no one to talk to must be hard.

  1. Stoeger et al., Current Biol., (2012),

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