New research from the Department of Cognitive Biology, University of Vienna, reveals that a 22-year-old male Asian elephant (Elephas maximus) born and raised in captivity, spending intensive amounts of time exposed to human speech from trainers, veterinarians, guides, and tourists, seems to have been imitating Korean speech sounds for eight years.
Having linguistic abilities distinguishes human beings from other animals and well-known linguists such as Victoria Fromkin and Robert Rodman (1993) say that to possess a language means:
- To speak and be understood by others who know that language.
- To have the ability to produce sounds that signify certain meanings.
- To understand or interpret sounds produced by others.
Although animals cannot be taught human language, past evidence shows that they can be made to understand sign language and symbols and to respond to sound stimulus.
Animals Understand and Communicate
For instance, in the 1930s two scientists tried to raise a chimpanzee together with their infant son. The chimpanzee was reported to understand about a hundred words but was unable to produce sounds. In the 1960’s a chimpanzee called Washoe was taught American sign language. Washoe not only learned signs for more than a hundred words, she began to form sentences and demonstrated an understanding of a much larger number of signs than she actually used.
However, this research finds that the elephant, named Koshik, matches certain frequencies of Korean speech sounds so precisely that Korean native speakers can easily understand and transcribe the animal’s productions.
Elephant Consciously Manipulates Vocal System
As the physical construction of an elephant’s vocal system is not similar to that in humans, in order to create and produce recognizable speech sounds the researchers state that Koshik seems to deliberately place his trunk inside his mouth and manipulate its position and movement in order to adjust the shape of his vocal tract.
To check Koshik’s trainers’ claims that his speech sound repertoire comprises six Korean words, the researchers analysed the transcriptions of 16 Korean native speakers who had listened to and interpreted 47 recordings of Koshik’s speech imitations. Their analysis mostly confirmed that Koshik’s ‘spoken words’ corresponded to the following five Korean words: ‘‘annyong’’ (hello), ‘‘anja’’ (sit down), ‘‘aniya’’ (no), ‘‘nuo’’ (lie down), and ‘‘choah’’ (good ).
Animal Communication: Scientifically Significant Results?
The researchers’ transcripts also revealed, however, that although 67% of Koshik’s vowel imitations could be transcribed accurately, only 21% transcription accuracy was possible for his production of consonants. His weakness of consonant control was evident in his spoken attempts of words such as “choah” (good) which was transcribed almost 40% of the time as the Korean word ‘‘boah’’ (look) and over 20% as ‘‘moa’’ (collect) words not used in Koshik’s presence.
His imitation of consonant fidelity lead to the transcriptions providing exact spelling matches in Korean for only one word – ‘‘annyong,’’ (hello) for which 56% agreement was reached. Two other imitations, ‘‘aniya’’ and ‘‘nuo’’ received fairly high agreements amongst the transcribers of 44% and 31%.
From these results the researchers claim that overall “Koshik’s precise imitation of the acoustic characteristics of his trainers is remarkable, given that the long vocal tract of an elephant would naturally produce much lower formant frequencies.”