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Volume 0327
Edgar Rice Burroughs

By David Arthur Adams


Tarzan of the Apes

Tarzan learned how to speak ape language from apes. The language of the Mangani.

I speak only the language of my tribe – the great apes who were Kerchak’s; and a little of the languages of Tantor, the elephant, and Numa, the lion , and of the other folks of the jungle I understand. With a human being I have never spoken, except once with Jane Porter, by signs. This is the first time I have spoken with another of my kind through written words. (234-235 Gutenberg)

The language of the great apes is a combination of monosyllabic gutturals, amplified by gestures and signs. It may not be literally translated into human speech… (ST 72 Gutenberg)

The language was more or less understood by all jungle animals, especially apes, baboons, including the orangutans of Sumatra. (TFL 73 Ballantine).

He could speak the language of the baboon – it was identical to that of the great apes. (ST Gutenberg)

The language of Manu, the monkey, was similar.
Their language being similar to that of the great apes Meriem could converse with them though the poverty of their vocabulary rendered these exchanges anything but feasts of reason. For familiar objects they had names, as well as for those conditions which induced pain or pleasure, joy, sorrow, or rage. These root words were so similar to those in use among the great anthropoids as to suggest that the language of the Manus was the mother tongue. Dreams, aspirations, hopes, the past, the sordid exchange. Dreams, aspirations, hopes, the past, the future held no place in the conversation of Manu, the monkey. All was of the present – particularly of filling his belly and catching lice.  (ST Gutenberg)
Tarzan taught himself how to read English.
Thus, at eighteen, we find him, an English lordling, who could speak no English, and yet who could read and write his native language. (82 Gutenberg)

Paul D’Arnot taught Tarzan how to speak French.

Teach me to speak the language of men.

And so D’Arnot commenced at once, pointing out familiar objects and repeating their names in French, for he thought that it would be easier to teach this man his own language, since he understood it himself best of all.

It meant nothing to Tarzan, of course, for he could not tell one language from another, so when he pointed to the word man which he had printed upon a piece of bark he learned from D’Arnot that it was pronounced HOMME, and in the same way he was taught to pronounce ape, SINGE and tree, ARBRE.

He was a most eager student, and in tow more days had mastered so much French that he could speak little sentences such as, “That is a tree,” “this is grass,” “I am hungry,” and the like, but D’Arnot found that it was difficult to teach him the French construction upon a foundation of English.

The Frenchman wrote little lessons for him in English and had Tarzan repeat them in French, but as a literal translation was usually very poor French Tarzan was often confused.

D’Arnot realized that he had made a mistake, but it seemed too late to go back and do it all over again and force Tarzan to unlearn all that he had learned, especially as they were rapidly approaching a point where they would be able to converse.

Tarzan learned how to speak English.

“You are quite right, Monsieur Clayton,” he said, in French. “You will pardon me if I do not speak to you in English. I am just learning it, and while I understand it fairly well I speak it very poorly.” (294 Gutenberg)

Tarzan learned how to speak Arabic.

During these two days Tarzan had spent practically all his time with Kadour ben Saden and his daughter. He was keenly interested in this race of stern and dignified warriors, and embraced the opportunity which their friendship offered to learn what he could of their lives and customs. He even commenced to acquire the rudiments of their language under the pleasant tutorage of the brown-eyed girl. (90-Gutenberg)
Tarzan learned how to speak the language of the Waziri.
Except for color he was one of them. His ornaments and weapons were the same as theirs – he spoke their language – he laughed and joked with them, and leaped and shouted in the brief wild dance that preceded their departure from the village, to all intent and purpose a savage among savage. (165-166 Gutenberg)
Tarzan did not at first know the language of the OPARIANS
“. . .  several of them exchanged grunting, monosyllabic conversation in a language unfamiliar to the ape-man . . .” (209 Gutenberg)

“I do not understand your language,” said Tarzan. “Possibly we may speak together in another tongue?” But she could not understand him, though he tried French, English, Arab, Waziri, and, as a last resort, the mongrel tongue of the West Coast.  (213 Gutenberg)


Tarzan spoke the native dialect of the West Coast.

In the language of the West Coast, Tarzan spoke to the prostrate man beneath him.

“Who are you?” he asked.

“Mugambi, chief of the Wagambi,” replied the black.

In the books in between, Tarzan learned several native dialects, and presumably Swahili, the great lingua franca of the East African coast.


Tarzan knew how to speak German.

“He had heard him speak but once – when he had cautioned him to silence – and then in excellent German and the well-modulated tones of culture. (27 G&D)

Tarzan learned to speak the pithecanthropus language of Pal-ul-don.

“In reply to the soft and far from unpleasant modulations of the other’s voice, Tarzan spoke in various tribal dialects of the interior as well as in the language of the great apes, but it was evident that the man understood none of these. (9 G&D)

“. . . it was evident that they possessed not only a spoken, but a written language. The former he was slowly mastering and at this new evidence of unlooked-for civilization in creatures possessing so many of the physical attributes of beasts. Tarzan’s queerest was still further piqued and his desire quickly to master their tongue strengthened, with the result that he fell to with even greater assiduity to the task he had set himself. Already he knew the names of his companions and the common names of the fauna and flora with which they had most often come in contact.

Ta-den, he of the hairless, white skin, having assumed the role of tutor, prosecuted his task with a singleness of purpose that was reflected in his pupil’s rapid mastery of Ta-den’s mother tongue. Om-at, the hairy black, also seemed to feel that there rested upon his broad shoulders a portion of the burden of responsibility for Tarzan’s education, with the result that either one or the other of them was almost constantly coaching the ape-man during his waking hours. The result was only what might have been expected – a rapid assimilation of the teachings to the end that before any of them realized it, communication by word of mouth  became an accomplished fact.”  (20-21 G&D)

It should be noted that Tarzan did not learn the language of the mad Xujaians in Tarzan the Terrible, which only increased the distance between the main characters and his mad race.


Tarzan learned the sign language of the Alalus.

“. . . Tarzan spoke to them, first in one native dialect and then another, but they seemed not to understand, for they made no reply, and then, as a last resort, he addressed them in the primitive language of the great apes, the language of Manu the monkey, the first language that Tarzan had learned when, as a babe, he suckled at the hairy breast of Kala, the she-ape, and listened to the gutturals of the savage members of the tribe of Kerchak; but again his auditors made no response – at least no audible response, though they moved their hands and shoulders and bodies, and jerked their heads in what the ape-man soon recognized as a species of sign language, nor did they utter any vocal sounds that might indicate that they were communicating with one another through the medium of a spoke language. (38 G&D)
Tarzan learned the language of the Minunians (the Ant Men).
“Having already mastered several languages and numerous dialects the ape-man never found it difficult to add to his linguistic attainments, and so it was only a matter of comparatively short time before he found it possible to understand his hosts and to make himself understood by them.” (89 G&D)

Tarzan spoke the Bagalla dialect.

“I am half convinced that the Mugalla whom we questioned a week ago lied to us, when he said that they had come to his village. . .” (TT 77 Canaveral)
The Mugalla were African natives of the Bagalla tribe of Ugalla.


Tarzan is familiar with latin.

“A thousand years after the fall of Rome he had been captured by a band of Caesar’s legionnaires, and now he knew why the language was so vaguely familiar, for Tarzan, in his effort to fit himself for a place in the civilized world into which necessity sometimes commanded him, had studied many things and among them Latin, but the reading of Caesar’s Commentaries and scanning Virgil do not give one a command of the language and so Tarzan could neither speak nor understand the spoken words, though the smattering that he had of the language was sufficient to make it sound familiar when he heard others speaking it.” (44-45 Bal)
Tarzan spoke the Bagego dialect. (Through which Latin was translated to him, yet after the prison episode in chapter 13, Tarzan seems to understand Latin quite well, or else interpreters are implied by the context of the events.)
“The officer addressed Tarzan in the language of the city, but the ape-man shook his head, indicating that he did not understand; then the other turned to the slave with a few words and the latter spoke to Tarzan in the Bagego dialect, asking him if he understood it.

“Yes,” replied the ape-man, and through the interpreter the officer questioned Tarzan.” (61 Bal)


The apes (Sagoths) of Pellucidar speak the ape language.

“For years Tarzan had considered the language of the great apes as the primitive root language of created things. The great apes, the lesser apes, the gorillas, the baboons and the monkeys utilized this with various degrees of refinement and many of its words were understood by jungle animals of other species and by many of the birds; but, perhaps, after the fashion that our domestic animals have learned many of the words in our vocabulary, with this difference that the language of the great apes has doubtless persisted unchanged for countless ages.

That these gorilla men of the inner world used even one word of this language suggested one or two possibilities – either they held an origin in common with the creatures of the outer crust, or else that the laws of evolution and progress were so constant that this was the only form of primitive language that could have been possible to any creatures emerging from the lower orders toward the estate of man.” (44 Bal).

Tarzan learned the language of the Gilaks, white-skinned race of men in Pellucidar.
“. . .  so limited is the primitive vocabulary of the Sagoths and so meager Thoar’s knowledge of this language that they found communication difficult and Tarzan determined to master Thoar’s tongue.

Considerable experience in learning new dialects and languages rendered the task far from difficult and as the ape-man never for a moment relinquished a purpose he intended to achieve, nor ever abandoned a task that he set himself until it had been successfully concluded, he made rapid progress which was greatly facilitated by the interest which Thoar took in instructing him. (72 Bal).

The Mahars, the dominant, reptilian race of Pellucidar communicate among themselves. However, since David Innes conquered them within his area of Pellucidar, Tarzan never met one.
“Among themselves they communicate by means of what Perry says must be a sixth sense which is cognizant of a fourth dimension.

I never did quite grasp him, though he endeavored to explain it to me upon numerous occasions. I suggested telepathy, but he said no, that it was not telepathy since they could only communicate when in each others’ presence, nor could they talk with the Sagoths or the other inhabitants of Pellucidar by the same method they used to converse with one another.

“What they do,” said Perry, “is to project their thoughts into the fourth dimension, when they become appreciable to the sixth sense of their listener. Do I make myself quite clear?”

“You do not, Perry,” I replied. (At the Earth’s Core 63 Ace)

Lady Barbara and Jezebel learn each other’s languages (English and Midian, respectively) however Tarzan is barely in the novel enough to do more than his usual rescues. There is also a comic confusion of American and English language episode in chapter 18. In a way, this novel is about language and communication, as the plot hinges upon the deceptions possible in the translation of spoken language by interpreters.


Tarzan was familiar with the Arabic dialects of the shiftas: Kafichos and Gallas (TCG 17 Ballantine)  This adventure takes place in Abyssinia (TCG 27 Ballantine)

Sir Richard Burton reports in his First Footsteps in East Africa (1856) that “The half-castes in Eastern Africa are represented principally by the Abyssinians, Gallas, (Hamites), Somal Sawahili, and Kafirs.” 70.

Tarzan learned the language of Athne from Valthor.

“For days that stretched to weeks the two men struck deeper and deeper into the heart of a stupendous mountain system. Always mentally alert and eager to learn, Tarzan took advantage of the opportunity provided by time and propinquity to learn the language of his companion, and he proved such an apt pupil that they were soon able to make themselves understood to one another.” (TCG 28 Ballantine).
This language was held in common by the enemy cities of Athne and Cathne (TCG 43 Ballantine).


Tarzan spoke the Bansuto dialect.

“Rungula heard a voice speaking, speaking his own language. “Look at me!” it commanded. (TLM 75 Ballantine).
Tarzan was not generally talkative:
“For Tarzan there are times for silence and times for speech. The depths of the night, when hunting beasts are abroad, is no time to go gabbling through the jungle; nor did he ever care much for speech with strangers unless he could watch their eyes and the changing expressions upon their faces, which often told him more than their words were intended to convey.” (TLM 78 Ballantine)

Tarzan spoke the language of the Utengas, a native dialect.

“How is it that you speak the language of the Utengas?” demanded Orando. The man shook his head. “I do not know.” (TLM 14 Ballantine). (Tarzan was suffering from one of his many head injuries.)

Tarzan spoke with the Bukena in their native dialect.  (TQ 26 Ballantine). This dialect was the same one the Kavuru used.

“Who are you?” he demanded, in the same dialect that the Bukena used.
“I am Tarzan of the Apes,” replied the ape-man. “And you?”
“I am Udeni, the Kavuru.”  (TQ 49 Ballantine)

Tarzan understood the African drum language.

“The drums had carried their message to Tarzan.”  (TFC 45 Ballantine).
Tarzan spoke the dialect of the Buiroos.  (TFC 49 Ballantine) and again in (TC 166 Ballantine).

The citizens of Ashair spoke in Swahili.

“. . .  Atan Thome and Lal Taask were escorted into the building and into the presence of an official, who listened to the report of their captors and then spoke to them in Swahili.” (TFC 72 Ballantine).
Swahili of course was a tongue familiar to Tarzan.
“Neither knew the temper or intentions of the other; and both were on guard as they sought to find a medium of communication more satisfactory than an improvised sign language. At last the warrior hit upon a tongue that both could speak and understand, a language he and his people had learned from the negroes they had captured and forced into slavery – Swahili. (TFC Ballantine).

It may seem odd that this is the first time that Burroughs mentions Swahili, but this novel was drastically revised (and dismembered) by Chandler Whipple, Argosy Editor, who was certainly no ERB.

Swahili was the medium of intercourse throughout east central Africa, a Bantu tongue modified by Arabic.

The African explorer who was also a great linguist was of course, Sir Richard Burton, who mastered some twenty-nine languages and dialects. Edward Rice in his biography of Burton says that he had some difficulty in learning Swahili because it did not fit the linguistic patterns he was accustomed to. “Finally, he could state, after much discussion and analysis, that ‘the dialect is easily learned . . . it is a lazy language which well suits the depressing climate.’” (Rice 282)


Tarzan’s great facility with languages made it possible for him to understand the Zuli dialect upon hearing it for the first time despite its broken treatment given by Lord.

“He was interested less in what the man said than in the language in which he said it. The fellow appeared definitely Anglo-Saxon, yet he spoke a bastard tongue the base of which was Galla but so intermixed with other  tongues that it would have been unintelligible to one less versed in African dialect and European languages than Tarzan. IN his brief speech, that could be translated into six English words, he had used as many tongues. (TM 34 Ballantine).
Tarzan spoke a Gallic dialect to the Zuli,, which they understood. (TM 36 Ballantine). This novel abounds in the mixture of languages. (A favorite premise of mine is that Burroughs’ novels always became more complex, as would be expected of a well-practiced novelist. Instead of a falling off of interest and skill in the later Tarzan novels, we must find a greater complexity. Perhaps this complexity is baroque and filled with tongue-in-cheek humor, but it is always there.)

Tarzan also understood the strange tongue of the Kaji.

“The four men marching with Tarzan sought to engage him in conversation. One was a Swede, one a Pole, one a German, and one an Englishman. All spoke the strange tongue of the Kaji – a mixture of many tongues. Tarzan could understand them, but he had difficulty in making them understand him unless he spoke in t  he native tongue of the one he chanced to be talking to or spoke in French, which he had learned from d’Arnot before he acquired a knowledge of English. The Swede alone understood no French, but he spoke broken English, a language the German understood but not the Pole. Thus a general conversation was rendered difficult. He found it easier to talk to the Englishman, whose French was sketchy, in their common language.” (TM 62 Ballantine).

This is certainly a Burghs’ tour de force commentary on language misunderstandings, and a very cleaver statement indeed filled with a fine sense of humor. By my assessment of the paragraph, Tarzan may have spoken some Polish, unless the Pole understood German, which of course Tarzan could speak according to Tarzan the Untamed. The whole thing reads like the beginning of a joke, “There was a Swede, a Pole, a German, and an Englishman. . . .”

Tarzan was able to converse with the Bantango cannibals. (TM 116 Ballantine).


Tarzan knew how to speak Dutch.

“When they saw that he had regained consciousness, one of the men spoke to him in Dutch. Tarzan understood him, but he shook his head as though he did not.” (TEFL 80 Ballantine).

The Alemtejos spoke a mixture of Portuguese and Bantu, which Tarzan could understand. (TM 54 Ballantine).


Tarzan learned how to speak the ancient Mayan tongue.

“Patrician sat down beside Tarzan and Its Ha. ‘How goes the class in Mayan?’ she asked. ‘Its Ha says that I am doing splendidly,’ replied Tarzan.” (TIC 89 Ballantine).

“What a field this would be for the anthropologist and the archaeologist. If you could establish friendly relations with them, we might be able to solve the riddles of the hieroglyphs on their stelae and temples in Central America and South America.” (TC 90 Ballantine).

The Mayan inscriptions are being read today – after the work of Tatiana Proskouriakoff has demonstrated that the texts concern the deeds of rulers and nobles – after the theory of Yuri Knorozov (1952) suggested taht the Maya system was not unlike Egyptian hieroglyphics and cuneiform in that it was a mixed system composed of full word signs combined with signs representing the sounds of syllables – and after the Dumbarton Oaks group formed the last key --  the axiom that the writing reflected spoken language and thus had word order that could be used to determine the function of glyphs, even when we could not read them.

As usual, Burroughs was correct. The riddles of the Mayan hieroglyphs were solved by treating them as the spoken language Tarzan learned from Itzi Cha.


Tarzan knew the dialect of the Babango cannibals.

“That night the Babangoes feasted, and Tarzan learned from snatches of their conversation that they were planning to commence the preparation of him and the two Americans the following night . . .” (TC 140 Ballantine).

This list is far from being exhaustive given the fact that I may have overlooked key passages in my hurried review of the Tarzan texts. Also, it should be noted that since Tarzan was a most skilled linguist and mimic, he more than likely knew many more languages (and could accurately capture the sound of them) than Burroughs had time to mention in his stories of adventure.

Tarzan’s spoken languages mentioned in the Tarzan series are as follows:

1. Mangani – ape language
2. French
3. English
4. Arabic – also dialects of the shiftas, Kafichos and Gallas
5. German
6. Latin
7. Dutch
8. Portuguese
9. ancient Mayan

Native Dialects

1. Waziri
2. the mongrel tongue of the West Coast
3. Swahili
4. pithecanthropus language of Pal-ul-don
5. sign language of the Alalus
6. Minunian (Ant Men)
7. Bagalla dialect
8. Bagego dialect
9. Gilak (Pellucidar)
10. language of Athne
11. Bansuto dialect
12. Utenga dialect
13. Bukena dialect - also used by the Kavuru
14. African drum language
15. Buiroo dialect
16. Zuli dialect
17. Kaji dialect
18. Bantango dialect
19. Bantu
20 Babango dialect

This amazing list clearly demonstrates that Tarzan was indeed in the same league as the famous linguist, Sir Richard Burton -- they both spoke 29 languages or dialects -- however it is likely that Tarzan spoke many more. Since he was so widely traveled, Tarzan undoubtedly knew many of the Bantu languages: the family of African dialects with about 150 closely related Bantu dialects and approximately 200 "semi-Bantu" languages. Included in the Bantu language family are Bechuana, Congo (or Congolese), Duala, Ganda, Herero, Kaffir, Kilmanjaro, Luganda, Ruanda, Sesuto, Sotho, Subiya, and Zulu. It must be presumed that Tarzan could either converse in all of these tongues or would have quickly mastered them as he did with most languages he had a desire to learn.

David Arthur Adams
July 11, 1996

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