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Talking elephant: To fight loneliness, pachyderm speaks five words (+video)

Talking elephant? Yes, an Asian elephant in a South Korean zoo has a five-word Korean vocabulary, says a team of scientists. The elephant talks through his trunk.

Elephant has five word vocabulary
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An elephant in a South Korean zoo is using his trunk to pick up not only food, but also human vocabulary.

An international team of scientists confirmed Friday what the Everland Zoo has been saying for years: Their 5.5-ton tusker Koshik has an unusual and possibly unprecedented talent.

The 22-year-old Asian elephant can reproduce five Korean words by tucking his trunk inside his mouth to modulate sound, the scientists said in a joint paper published online in Current Biology. They said he may have started imitating human speech because he was lonely.

Koshik can reproduce "annyeong" (hello), "anja" (sit down), "aniya" (no), "nuwo" (lie down) and "joa" (good), the paper says.

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One of the researchers said there is no conclusive evidence that Koshik understands the sounds he makes, although the elephant does respond to words like "anja" and "nuwo."

Everland Zoo officials in the city of Yongin said Koshik also can imitate "ajik" (not yet), but the researchers haven't confirmed the accomplishment.

Koshik is particularly good with vowels, with a rate of similarity of 67 percent, the researchers said. For consonants he scores only 21 percent.

Researchers said the clearest scientific evidence that Koshik is deliberately imitating human speech is that the sound frequency of his words matches that of his trainers.

Vocal imitation of other species has been found in mockingbirds, parrots and mynahs. But the paper says Koshik's case represents "a wholly novel method of vocal production" because he uses his trunk to reproduce human speech.

In 1983, zoo officials in Kazakhstan reportedly claimed that a teenage elephant named Batyr could reproduce Russian to utter 20 phrases, including "Batyr is good." But there was no scientific study on the claim.

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