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Shermin de Silva, who studies communication among elephants in Sri Lanka, recently sent me a link to a Wikipedia article about Batyr, the talking Kazakh elephant, which begins:

Batyr was an Asian Elephant known for his ability to precisely reproduce human speech. Born on July 23, 1969, he lived his entire life in the Karaganda Zoo in Karaganda, Kazakhstan. He died in 1993 having never seen or heard another elephant. Batyr was the offspring of once-wild Indian Elephants (a subspecies of the Asian Elephant). Batyr's mother "Palm" and father "Dubas" had been presented to Kazakhstan's Almaty Zoo by Indian prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru.

The wikipedia article also quotes from a story attributed to Richard Beeston in The Telegraph April 9, 1980:

Batyr, a 10 year old indian elephant at the Karaganda Zoo in soviet kazakhstan, can say phrases like 'Batyr is good' and verbs like 'drink' and 'give', a Moscow newspaper reported yesterday. Its said that a recording of its voice was heard recently on the Kazakh state radio. & he just pushes his trunk into his mouth and starts talking' said the deputy director of the zoo, Mr Boris Kosinsky, he told a correspondent from the young communist league newspaper that it all began 3 years ago when a startled night watchman reported that he had heard the elephant talking to itself.

Batyr's words and phrases were apparently not all so polite, including things like «Иди (на) хуй», "go on the penis", a Russian idiom of abuse. As always, it's hard to separate fact from fiction in such cases, and my confidence in the story is not increased by the fact that A. N. Pogrebnoj-Aleksandroff, who appears to have been Batyr's main ammanuensis, wrote a book about it whose English title is given as Reincarnation. Either from this book or from his other book, The most truthful history or who are talking? An Elephant?!, the Wikipedia article quotes this (unidiomatically translated) passage:

Batyr, on the level of natural blares, said the words (including a human slang) by manipulating a trunk. Having put the trunk in a mouth, pressing a tip of the trunk by the bottom of jaw and manipulating of tongue, said words. Besides, being in a corner of the cage (quite often at the nights) with the hanging down and weakened his trunk the elephant said words very silently — that sound is comparable with a sound of ultrasonic devices against mosquitoes or as peep of the mosquitoes, which human hearing well hears to approximately 40-year-old age. During pronouncing of words, only the tip of the trunk of the elephant has been clamped inside and Batyr made insignificant movements by a finger-shaped shoot on the trunk tip.

This passage seems to indicate that at least some of Batyr's vocalizations ("comparable with a sound of ultrasonic devices against mosquitoes or as peep of the mosquitoes") might have required a bit of sympathetic interpretation.

Still, the general idea is a plausible one. Shermin had previously sent along a link to a more recent Reuters story about a Korean-speaking zoo elephant. She writes:

They both use the same technique of sticking their trunks in their mouths, if this is to be believed. They must have been bored to the point of incredible creativity?

Indeed. Among the many evolutionary forces that might have led to the development of human speech, the role of boredom is perhaps insufficiently appreciated.

Along similar lines, we can hope that Thomas Pynchon's long-standing interest in Central Asia will produce a role for Batyr in some future novel.


  1. Ray Girvan said,

    October 11, 2008 @ 12:40 pm

    The whole thing reeks of auditory pareidolia, like talking cats (such as this one – uncaptioned / captioned).

  2. Joe said,

    October 11, 2008 @ 2:08 pm

    > including things like «Иди (на) хуй», "go on the penis", a Russian idiom of abuse

    Is it just me, or are literal translations of foreign swears often strangely amusing?

  3. language hat said,

    October 12, 2008 @ 10:29 am

    It's not just you. Anatoly Vorobey picked up this story in his excellent Russian-language blog and commented:

    Хороший перевод! Вот еще несколько в том же духе:
    [A fine translation! Here are some more in the same spirit:]

    – "Go away in a vagina-like manner"
    – "Oh, the whore"
    – "Here's a penis for you".

    I (LH) should add that Иди на хуй (Idí ná khuy — the na is stressed, khuy 'prick, cock' is not) is probably the most common Russian insult/curse, functionally equivalent to English "Fuck you!"

  4. language hat said,

    October 12, 2008 @ 10:30 am

    (Sorry, forgot to ital the na.)

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