Real Animals That Really Talk: Elephants

Kosik the Talking Elephant

Batyr the Talking Elephant
Batyr the Talking Elephant

Parrots, Chimps, and Elephants?

We all know that parrots and certain other birds can learn to talk. And most of us are aware that the Great Apes, i.e., chimpanzees, gorillas and orangutans, can be taught to communicate in American sign language. But have you ever heard of a talking elephant?

I recently discovered an extraordinary story of an Asian elephant called Batyr. Born in 1969, Batyr was a lifelong resident of the Karaganda Zoo in Kazakhstan. According to Wikipedia, Batyr was separated from his mother early on, and was the sole elephant in the Karaganda zoo. He never saw or interacted with other elephants. His only companions were his caretakers at the zoo. Elephants are very social animals, so it is only natural that Batyr identified with and imitated his human associates.

No one set about to teach Batyr to talk. By all acounts, he taught himself. In fact, his unique ability was first discovered by a night watchman at the zoo. The startled man reported he had heard the elephant talking to himself. (the Daily Telegraph Newspaper, April 9,1980) Batyr is said to have had a vocabulary of about 20 words and phrases in the Russian and Kazakh languages. He talked to his attendants or to himself, but his speech was frequently witnessed by amazed zoo visitors. Translated into English, his vocabulary included his name (Batyr), "water," "good," "bad," "go," "the fool," "yes," "give," "grandma," and "penis". Phrases included, "I'm Batyr," "Good Batyr," "Bad Batyr," "Batyr is hungry," "One, two, three," and "F*** you".

Not surprisingly, Batyr's astounding purported linguistic abilities caught the attention of the scientific community. The Soviet scientist A. N. Pogrebnoj-Aleksandroff studied Batyr and made audiovisual recordings of him speaking. Dr. Pogrebnoj-Aleksandroff described how Batyr produced human speech by pressing the tip of his trunk against the bottom of his jaw (simulating lips) and also using his tongue. Batyr was the subject of various scientific articles and zoological conferences in the 1980s and '90's. These were primarily, if not exclusively, in Russia and former Soviet states.

Sadly, Batyr suffered an untimely death in 1993 when his caretakers gave him an accidental overdose of medication. It seems a shame that Batyr was and is so little known and little appreciated in the United States. I suppose it can be attributed to a combination of language, cultural, and political barriers. There is also much skepticism and ongoing controversy in the scientific community where issues of animal language and animal intelligence are concerned. It is hard to fathom why so many scientists, as well as nonscientists, are threatened by evidence of animal intelligence on a level comparable to a human pre-schooler. Is anyone afraid that pre-schoolers will take over the world?

Batyr was only about 24 years old when he died--a young adult who had so much promise. I can just imagine the delightful fellow frolicking happily in elephant heaven, blowing water out his trunk, and uttering the occasional gleeful "I'm Batyr, good Batyr, one, two, three, f*** you!"

Kosik is Alive and Talking!

Kosik is an Asian elephant at the Everland theme park and zoo in Seoul, South Korea. Like his predecessor, Batyr, he reportedly taught himelf to speak (Korean) by imitating his caretakers. He uses the same trunk-in-mouth method to produce human-like speech. And hIs ability to speak was discovered in the same way. Zoo workers outside his enclosure heard him talking to himself, initially thinking a person was in the enclosure.  (See Science Magazine, 6 Oct. 2006 at sciencemag.org, and Wikipedia article, "Kosik".)

Kosik's vocabulary is said to include about eight words and phrases. Among these are "Yes," "No," "foot," "good," "Sit,"and "Lie down". At the time of the videotaped newscast (Youtube video above) in 2006, a zoo spokesperson indicated plans were in the works for scientists to study Kosik's vocalizations to determine if he understood the word meanings or was simply mimicking. Is this not a ridiculous issue? It is obvious he is repeating verbal commands used by his keepers. Dogs understand the same commands. They demonstrate their understanding by obeying the commands, as do elephants. It would be far more interesting and useful to have a speech and language therapist work with Kosik to see how much his vocabulary and expressive speech could be expanded through training. For that matter, why not experiment with training other elephants, both Asian and African, to speak?

I think most people these days have heard of elephants that paint.  It is a wide-spread and well-known phenomenon.  I suppose it is easier to teach an elephant to paint than to talk. But that does not explain the near-silence in the Western media on the subject of talking elephants. Where are the television documentaries and news segments?  If the elephant does not speak our language, does it not count?

Asian elephant gets art lesson.
Asian elephant gets art lesson.

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Comments 20 comments

Peter Dickinson profile image

Peter Dickinson 6 years ago from South East Asia

Brilliant! Thank you. No I had never heard of Batyr. A really interesting hub.


TrudyVan profile image

TrudyVan 6 years ago from South Africa

Fantastic hub my friend. We humans under estimate the abilities of our animals and our birds. With love anything is possible. Penny my african grey started speaking very early and it was due to the fact that she was with me 24/7. Just like a child if you are constantly speaking to her she will talk early. Love your hubs so very much. Thank you for sharing it with us.


Peter Dickinson profile image

Peter Dickinson 6 years ago from South East Asia

I must admit to being slightly sceptical about the sounds Kosik is making. I never heard any elephant produce anything similar. My military colleague is now in the States somewhere but I know someone who will know where to find him. I will investigate.


Rballertrey 6 years ago

Hmm... a talking elephant. I've heard of painting elephants, but never one that spoke. I wonder if the offspring of a talking elephant would be able to learn to speak as well...


Aya Katz profile image

Aya Katz 6 years ago from The Ozarks

IScribble, thanks so much for bringing this to my attention. I had not heard of talking elephants before! Bow and I watched the Korean video with great interest!


brightforyou profile image

brightforyou 6 years ago from Florida

Absolutely amazing! I had no idea Elephants had this ability ~ fascinating..thanks so much for sharing this information.


Sage Williams profile image

Sage Williams 6 years ago

Very interesting hub. Elephants are one of my favorite animals. There are truly emotional animals, capable of more than we realize. I have never heard of Batyr and was saddened to hear of her unfortunate death.

Thanks so much for such an interesting hub.

Sage


someonewhoknows profile image

someonewhoknows 6 years ago from south and west of canada,north of ohio

I've read a book "Stalking the wild pendulm" about the evolution of consciousness.It's very enlightening.It talks about how consciousness exists in everything,including minerals.

List highest to lowest

1. Human

2. all other animals

3. plants

4. minerals

The book says that minerals have an awareness of pressure.

plants can feel pain and sense thoughts.

Animals of course can see,hear,taste,smell as well as and in many cases much better than Humans can.At least many of them have a greater range of sight ,sound as well as taste and smell.Some animals can't see very well.The reason may probably be that it makes it easier for other animals of prey to be able to kill them for food.

The consciousness that exists in humans were in all likelyhood once on the lower levels of consciousness.


Peter Dickinson profile image

Peter Dickinson 6 years ago from South East Asia

The 'parrot' like imitations you said I should look at are a possible but who knows? It is the explanation to go with for now...but what does it prove? The elephant still knows what it is saying.

I have watched elephants paint with skill and dexterity and most paint better than I could. Initially they take brush direction commands from tiny pushes from the trainer (unseen commands). As they are doing the same painting(s) two or three times a week they quickly learn what is expected of them Elephants are definitely not stupid.


i scribble profile image

i scribble 6 years ago Author

Peter,

Thanks for your input. I value your opinion. The talking videos look legit to me. I definitely agree with you that elephants (like many other animals) can learn to understand much human speech, and so a talking elephant is not just "parroting". And neither are parrots, much of the time! I think it's time to retire the expression "parroting" to mean mimicking, don't you?


SEO IT! profile image

SEO IT! 6 years ago from Tucson, AZ

The intelligence and potential of "lower" animals is downright HUMBLING! I had no idea they were capable of speech, but nature surprises me every day. Elephants are my favorite of the non-domesticated animals. I'm also struck by their capacity for familial love and loyalty. Some of them are more capable of it than some humans...


prekcarolyn profile image

prekcarolyn 6 years ago from Georgia

This is incredible! Who knew that an Elephant could learn a human language? Perhaps this is evidence that the elephants desire a relationship with their handlers. I was curious to know if there were other elephants in the habitat, or just the one in both of these cases. From what I understand of elephants, they are pretty social creatures within their herds, so it would make sense that their desire for socialization would exist in captivity as well.


i scribble profile image

i scribble 6 years ago Author

Carolyn,

Thanks for stopping by. I don't think the second elephant, Kosik, is alone. So any skepticism that remains for me is mostly related to Kosik, even though he's the one in the video. Of course I don't speak Korean, but to my unskilled eyes & ears, the video seems legit. My skepticism stems from the fact that Kosik's story closely resembles that of Batyr, except that he is not a lone elephant. And I can't understand why it's not been covered more in the western media. Still, mostly I'm a believer, and I would be greatly disappointed to learn it was a hoax. I think many animals could talk on a preschool level if their vocal chords allowed it.


angela_michelle profile image

angela_michelle 6 years ago from United States

This is very fascinating. I am making a link from a hub I am writing to this one, because I feel it is very interesting. My hub will be about the nature nurture aspect of language acquisition.


Nell Rose profile image

Nell Rose 6 years ago from England

Hi, that was amazing! I have never heard of this, I did know that they painted sometimes! I remember a great story a few years ago on TV, when a load of 'experts', I prefer the word pretentious! ha ha went to a gallery and stood for about half an hour going on about the style of the painting and the paint strokes blah blah and when they found out it was an elephant that did it, there faces were so red you could have used them for a light bulb! great hub cheers nell


saitam profile image

saitam 3 years ago from Lisbon

Never heard of such elephant. Interesting how some animals can learn things that we would never expect.


i scribble profile image

i scribble 3 years ago Author

Hi saitam,

Thanks for reading and commenting. I recently learned that Kosik's human speech has been confirmed by an international team of scientists, as reported in the Christian Science Monitor, Nov. 2, 2012. I'm so excited to get this confirmation. Elephants are so smart; I love, love, love them!


d.william profile image

d.william 3 years ago from Somewhere in the south

Interesting and riveting hub. Elephants and whales are supposed to be the brightest (and probably more so than some humans) L.O.L.


KT Banks profile image

KT Banks 3 years ago from Texas

Wow, that is absolutely fascinating. I have never heard of it either. Thank you so much for sharing this information. I've always had a special place in my heart for elephants, but I would never have guessed this.

Voted Up and more!


i scribble profile image

i scribble 3 years ago Author

KT,

Thanks for your genuine interest and enthusiastic response. Makes the work of writing a quality hub worthwhile.

d. william,

A belated thank you for reading and commenting. I appreciate your interest and support.

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