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Look who's talking

By Tony Deyal

Beluga whales are known as "sea canaries" because of their high-pitched squeaks, squeals, clucks and whistles. Now one has proven that they can also speak. A few years ago a Japanese "whale whisperer" Tsukasa Murayama claimed that he taught a beluga whale named "Nack" to "talk'' by using sounds to identify three different objects. Now, a story in Britain's Independent newspaper headlined "Look Who's Talking'' reported that another beluga named "NOC" may have been trying to mimic his human companions and reach out to them. One of the first indications that "NOC" was able to sound like a human was when a diver swimming alongside the whale in its pen came to the surface and asked his colleagues "Who told me to get out?" Obviously NOC liked his privacy.

Although NOC died about five years ago, researcher Dr Sam Ridgway analysed the archived sound recordings made when NOC was alive and compared them to the sounds made by the human voice. Dr Ridgway concluded, "Our observations suggest that the whale had to modify its vocal mechanics in order to make the speech-like sounds. Such obvious effort suggests motivation for contact." However, after four years NOC gave up trying to communicate with humans in their own language perhaps because they didn't click or maybe he had read Moby Dick.

Then they found an elephant that spoke Korean like a Seoul brother. A few weeks after the NOC story broke, a study published in the journal Current Biology revealed that an Asian elephant named Koshik has the comparatively extensive vocabulary of five Korean words. There have been anecdotal reports of elephants imitating human speech or noises — for instance, a male Asian elephant kept in a zoo in Kazakhastan was reported to speak a few words of Russian and Kazakh, and wild African elephants have been found to imitate the grumbling engines of nearby Land rovers. The reason they chose a British SUV might have been because of the accent or they might have found the idea of elephants saying "Jeep, jeep" ridiculous. However, Angela Stoeger of the University of Vienna, who was part of the team that analysed Koshik's voice recordings, said she was astonished when she realised that the 22-year-old elephant could speak Korean words such as "annyong", meaning "hello", and "choah", meaning "good". By inserting the tip of his trunk into his right cheek he was able to modulate the sounds in his mouth and so extend his vocabulary to include "anja", meaning "sit down", "aniya", meaning " no", and "nuo" meaning "lie down". Of course, even if Koshik could say "Hyundai" and had an Accent, there was no way he could fit in it.

Britain's Independent newspaper which also ran the elephant story stated, "Like other animals that are capable of imitating human speech, such as parrots and mynah birds, there is no evidence that Koshik could actually understand what he was saying."

That is, of course, where we differ. If jokes are to be believed, parrots not only talk but can embarrass the heck out of you. For instance, a man walked into a pet store wanting to buy a talking bird. He saw a parrot and said to the bird, "Hey Stupid, can you speak?'' The bird replied, "Yes Dummy but can you fly?'' A postal carrier was working on a new beat. He came to a garden gate marked "BEWARE OF THE PARROT!" He looked down the garden and, sure enough, there was a parrot sitting on its perch. He gave a little chuckle to himself at the sign and the parrot there on its perch. The mailman then opened the gate and walked into the garden. He got as far as the parrot's perch, when suddenly, it calls out: "REX, ATTACK!''

We know that dogs like Rex not only bark and bite, they can talk. You might find this incredible but a man had a dog that talked in its sleep. The dog lay on the rug next to the couch and mumbled "I've just written a best seller.'' Later, it said, "I've just returned from the moon.'' This was impressive but, as one of the man's buddies pointed out, the dog was not speaking the truth. "That's true," the man told his friend, "but when you have a talking dog, you've got to make allowances. I find that it's best to let sleeping dogs lie."

The recent US presidential election taught us that rednecks are deep into religion and President Obama was attacked for compromising the Judeo-Christian values that made the US such a great and exceptional nation. Two other things that make the US exceptional are that it is the only country where bears are both religious and can speak. In fact, unlike Koship the elephant, they know what they're saying. A country preacher from deep in redneck territory decided to skip services one Sunday and head to the hills to do some bear hunting. As he rounded the corner on a perilous twist in the trail, he and a bear collided. Before he knew it, his rifle went one way and he went the other, landing on a rock and breaking a leg. A ferocious bear was charging at him from a distance, and he couldn't move. "Oh, Lord,'' the preacher prayed, "I'm so sorry for skipping services today. Please forgive me and grant me just one wish. Please Lord, make a Christian out of that bear coming at me!'' That very instant, the bear skidded to a halt, fell to its knees, clasped its paws together and began to pray aloud right at the preacher's feet. "Dear Lord, bless this food I am about to receive...''

• Tony Deyal was last seen asking, "What's smarter than a talking Mynah bird? A spelling bee."

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