The Loh Down On Science

Big Talker

This pachyderm is no Dumbo.

This is Sandra Tsing Loh with the Loh Down on Science.

At the Everland Zoo in South Korea there’s an elephant named Koshik who speaks Korean. At least enough to say “hello,” “no,” “sit down,” “lie down,” and “good.”

When Angela Stoeger from the University of Vienna first heard Koshik, she realized he was matching human vocal patterns in pitch and timbre. Very unelephantlike!

To study the chatty ele, researchers recorded his words and played them independently for several native Korean speakers. Each listener wrote down what they heard, and most understood what Koshik was saying.

But since elephants don’t have lips, how was he doing it? Well, when Koshik speaks, he puts his trunk in his mouth. That changes the shape of his vocal tract, making it more conducive to humanlike speech.

Koshik probably found his voice during a crucial developmental period between age five and twelve, when his only buddies at the zoo were humans.

In short, this is the elephant in the room no one’s ignoring.

The Loh Down on Science is produced by LDOS Media Lab, with 89.3 KPCC Pasadena, California. And made possible by the generous support of the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation.

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