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Volume 7353

The Multi-lingual Ape-man
by Alan Hanson

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The Multi-lingual Ape-man
by Alan Hanson

A “Tarzan” — Webster defines it as “a strong agile person of heroic proportions and bearing.” To be sure, the original character created by Edgar Rice Burroughs brings to mind the ultimate in physical abilities. Through repeated scenes of the ape-man running through trees, wrestling with great apes, and plunging his knife into the sides of enraged lions, Burroughs reinforced Tarzan’s image as a magnificent physical creature. The idea, though, that Tarzan was all brawn and no brain, an image perpetuated by the Weissmuller movies, runs counter to the nature of Burroughs’ creation. Although he didn’t emphasize it as much as he did the physical side of Tarzan, Burroughs clearly portrayed his ape-man as being capable of great intellectual feats as well. As evidence of that, consider how Tarzan taught himself to read English in Tarzan of the Apes.

Throughout the Tarzan stories, one recurring reminder of the ape-man’s intellect is his ability to quickly master a number of different languages. There seemed to be no limit to the number of tongues that Tarzan was capable of learning. In Tarzan the Terrible, when the need to communicate with the natives of Pal-ul-don was so crucial in his search for Jane, Tarzan was not worried. “Having already mastered several languages and a multitude of dialects,” Burroughs noted, “the ape-man felt that he could readily assimilate another even though this appeared one entirely unrelated to any with which he was familiar.

Was the ability to learn many languages just an intellectual proclivity, or was there another reason (outside of plot necessities) why Tarzan was a super linguist? Burroughs addressed that question, but before answering it, a survey of the many languages Tarzan learned is in order.

The first language Tarzan heard was the English his parents spoke during his first year of life. However, Tarzan would not learn to speak that language until 20 years later. The first language he spoke, the one he learned growing up, was that of the great apes. In a note to Paul D’Arnot in Tarzan of the Apes, the ape-man, then 20 years old, explained, “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.” It’s a stretch to classify Tarzan’s communications with elephants, lions, and other jungle animals as languages, since on the verbal level there was only one-way communication. Certainly Tarzan could make his wishes known to these creatures by using words, but he understood them in return only because of a highly refined intuitive sense that allowed him to interpret their feral sounds and body movements.

Great Ape Language
There is no doubt, however, that the great apes communicated through a real language, although it was quite simple compared to human tongues. Twice in the Tarzan stories, Burroughs briefly described this primitive language. First, in Tarzan, Lord of the Jungle:

Of course, in the meager language of the apes, their conversation did not sound at all like a conversation between men, but was rather a mixture of growls and grunts and gestures, which, however, served every purpose that could have been served by the most formal and correct of civilized speech since it carried its messages clearly to the minds of both the Mangani and the Tarmangani.”

In the following passage from Tarzan at the Earth’s Core, Burroughs again described the language of the great apes, this time in a little more detail.

The language of the great apes is not like our language. It sounds to man like growling and barking and grunting punctuated at times by shrill screams, and it is practically untranslatable to any tongue known to man … It is a means of communicating thought and there its similarities to the languages of men ceases.

Of course, Tarzan’s introduction to the languages of men came before he ever saw one of his fellow men. He was 10 years old when he first began teaching himself to read English by using the books he found in his father’s cabin. Burroughs revealed that, at the age of 18, Tarzan could read English fluently, although, having never heard the language, he could not speak a word of it.

European Languages
It wasn’t until he was 20 years old that Tarzan first met Europeans, but once he did, within about seven months he had learned to speak two European languages. First came French. After Tarzan saved Paul D’Arnot from the stake in Mbonga’s village, the French lieutenant began teaching his savior to speak French. “He was a most eager student,” reported Burroughs, “and in two 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.” Despite that complication, Tarzan learned French very quickly. After just a week of coaching by D’Arnot, the two men could talk “quite easily.” Although not much is said in the Tarzan stories of Lord Greystoke’s continuing French lessons, he obviously went on to master the language, for in Tarzan and the Jewels of Opar, a Belgian military officer noted the “easy, fluent French” with which the ape-man spoke.

By the end of Tarzan of the Apes, though, Tarzan was also speaking English. He must have picked up the language in Paris, probably from D’Arnot again, during his short stay there before leaving for America to search for Jane. The language of his parents was still new to him when he rescued Jane from a forest fire in Wisconsin. There Tarzan explained to William Clayton, “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.”

As to be expected when learning to speak a second language, Tarzan found that his French interfered with his English pronunciation. In The Return of Tarzan, Hazel Strong thought it peculiar when she met him that “an Englishman should speak English with such a marked French accent.” Also, during his work in Algeria for the French government, Tarzan had to be careful which language he spoke. Burroughs explained:

Tarzan possessed a sufficient command of English to enable him to pass among Arabs and Frenchmen as an American, and that was all that was required of it. When he met an Englishman he spoke French in order that he might not betray himself, but occasionally talked in English to foreigners who understood that tongue, but could not note the slight imperfections of accent and pronunciation that were his.

Years later Burroughs made an interesting statement about the way in which Tarzan learned to speak English. In Tarzan and the Champion, written 26 years after Tarzan of the Apes, the ape-man pointed to a dead elephant and asked “One-Punch Mullargan, “You kill?” Burroughs then explained that, in this case, an angered Tarzan was “reverting to the monosyllabic grunts which were reminiscent of his introduction to English many years before.” 

(Was this an effort by Burroughs to give some legitimacy to the simplistic “Me Tarzan — You Jane” dialogue that had been popularized in the three Weissmuller Tarzan movies released prior to the 1938 writing of Tarzan and the Champion? If so, the only time the real Tarzan could have said “Me Tarzan — You Jane” would have been in a tree in Wisconsin, not one in Africa. His English would have improved well beyond that stage by the time he was reunited with Jane in Africa a year later in The Return of Tarzan.)

Burroughs revealed in later stories that Tarzan had learned to speak two other European languages. In Tarzan the Untamed, he showed an excellent knowledge of German. In the story a German officer noted how Tarzan spoke “in excellent German and the well-modulated tones of culture.” Twice more the “excellent” modifier was used in describing Tarzan’s German, and when he spoke the same language in Tarzan and “The Foreign Legion”, Burroughs labeled it “impeccable.” The author never explained when and why Tarzan learned to speak German.

It’s interesting that, although Burroughs gave Tarzan the ability to speak German, he could not resist making Tarzan a party to the hate for all things German that swept the United States during World War I. In Tarzan the Untamed, Burroughs noted that a conversation between Bertha Kircher and Tarzan was “carried on in German, a tongue which he detested as much as he did the people who spoke it.”

The other European language that Tarzan spoke was Dutch, but again, how he learned to speak it and for what purpose was never revealed. We only know that in addressing a member of the Dutch resistance in Tarzan and “The Foreign Legion”, Tarzan said, “I speak several languages, including Dutch.” Perhaps Tarzan spoke other European languages, but Burroughs only confirmed his knowledge of French, English, German, and Dutch.

African Languages
When Tarzan returned to Africa in The Return of Tarzan, he began learning the languages of his native continent. The first was Arabic, a Semitic language that the spread of Islam centuries before had made the prevailing speech of most of Northern Africa. While in the service of the French government in Algeria, Tarzan spent a couple of days with the Arab tribe of Kadour ben Saden. The sheik’s daughter introduced the Englishmen to Arabic. “He commenced to acquire the rudiments of their language under the pleasant tutorage of the brown-eyed girl,” wrote Burroughs. The lessons in Arabic continued with the help of Abdul, a young Arab boy who served as Tarzan’s companion for several weeks. Knowledge of Arabic was useful to Tarzan, who in later years often had to deal with desert intruders in his East African country. There are scenes in which Tarzan speaks Arabic in The Son of Tarzan; Tarzan, Lord of the Jungle, and Tarzan and the City of Gold.

Although Tarzan spent most of the rest of his life in Central Africa, he knew none of the languages of its people when, at the age of 21, he returned to his old stomping grounds in The Return of Tarzan. Taking his proclivity for learning languages, it seems odd that the naturally observant and inquisitive young Tarzan did not pick up at least some of the speech of Mbonga’s tribe. He was known to have spent much time as a youth observing the tribe, but, for some unknown reason, their language remained an entire mystery to him. When Tarzan abducted the native child Tibo in Jungle Tales of Tarzan, there was a communication problem.

It was quite certain to Tarzan that Go-bu-balu’s (Tibo) speech was not talk at all. It sounded quite as senseless as the chattering of the silly birds. It would be best, thought the ape-man, quickly to get him among the tribe of Kerchak where he would hear the Mangani talking among themselves. Thus, he would soon learn an intelligible form of speech.

This is the only time when faced with a language barrier that Tarzan forced another to learn his language rather than the other way around.

The first native black African language that Tarzan learned was that of the Waziri. “For weeks Tarzan lived with his savage friends,” in The Return of Tarzan. “Quickly he learned their simple speech.” Waziri is no doubt a tongue in the Bantu family of languages, which are spoken generally south of a line from present-day Cameroon to Kenya. Over the years covered by the Tarzan stories, the ape-man would become familiar with many Bantu languages and dialects. By the time of his first trip to Opar, he had picked up at least one more of these dialects, which Burroughs referred to as “the mongrel tongue of the West Coast.” We know that this speech is different from Waziri from the following statement describing Tarzan’s first attempt to communicate with La. “She could not understand him, though he tried French, English, Arab, Waziri, and, as a final resort the mongrel tongue of the West Coast.” It was this same language of the West Coast that Tarzan communicated with Mugambi in The Beasts of Tarzan.

By the end of The Son of Tarzan, Lord Greystoke had settled on an estate in East Africa. As he claimed hegemony over a large surrounding area, which he called “Tarzan’s country,” it became necessary for the ape-man to become familiar with the languages and dialects of the native tribes in his vast domain. The following passage from Tarzan the Untamed shows that the ape-man had learned much. “Familiar with the tribal idiosyncrasies of a great number of African tribes over a considerable proportion of the Dark Continent, the Tarmangani at last felt reasonable assured that he knew from what part of Africa this slave had come, and the dialect of his people.

Some of the specific Bantu tribal languages and dialects that Tarzan spoke were Begego in Tarzan and the Lost Empire, Utenga in Tarzan and the Leopard Men, Kaficho in Tarzan and the City of Gold, Bukena in Tarzan’s Quest, and Gallic in Tarzan the Magnificent. In addition, in Tarzan and the Forbidden City, Tarzan and the Champion, and Tarzan and “The Foreign Legion”, the ape-man spoke Swahili, which is a Bantu language used for trade over much of East Africa and extending into what was then the Congo.

Lost City Languages
Of course, in Tarzan’s Africa, the well-traveled ape-man could not get by without learning the languages of some of the lost races to be found there. The first one Tarzan learned was the tongue of Pal-ul-don, where he went in search of his missing wife. His tutors were Ta-den and Om-at, the two friends he made early in Tarzan the Terrible.

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.”

Tarzan must have perfected pronunciation of this language, because when he entered the city of A-lur claiming to be the son of their god, his speech was good enough to dupe the entire population.

Other “lost” African languages that Tarzan learned were those of the ant men in the city of Trohandalmakus and of the people of the Valley of Onthar in Tarzan in the City of Gold. Also, while in Pellucidar, Tarzan learned the universal language of that land. Interestingly enough, the ape-man never did learn the language of Opar. When La first questioned Tarzan in The Return of Tarzan, he responded, “I do not understand your language.” They soon discovered, however, that they could converse in the language of the great apes, and so Tarzan evidently never felt the need to learn Oparian.

Dead Languages
In other adventures, Tarzan learned o speak two of what are today known as “dead languages.” When Tarzan first heard his captors speak in Tarzan and the Lost Empire, it was in a language he did not understand but which had a familiar sound. Then after noticing the Roman dress of his captors, Tarzan recalled some past studies he had undertaken.

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 Vergil do not give one a command of the language and words, though the smattering that he had of the language was sufficient to make it sound familiar when he heard others speak it.

Later Tarzan spent three weeks in the home of Maximus Praeclarus in Castra Sanguinarius, and during that time his host’s mother, Festivitas, taught him to speak Latin. Thereafter, Tarzan had plenty of opportunities to practice his new language, for Festivitas never tired of hearing her guest tell stories of the world outside her valley and of modern civilization.

The other “dead language” that Tarzan learned to speak was Maya. It happened in The Quest of Tarzan, when the ape-man found himself marooned with others on an island inhabited by descendants of Mayan immigrants. After Tarzan saved the Mayan girl Itzl Cha from the sacrificial altar of her people and brought her to the Europeans’ camp, the ape-man, according to Burroughs, “devoted much of his time to learning the Maya tongue from her.”

Tarzan’s Mastery of Languages
The time has come, then, to call the roll of all the languages that Tarzan of the Apes is known to have learned to speak in the Tarzan books. They are, roughly in the order that he learned them, Great Ape, French, English, Arabic, Waziri, German, Dutch, Swahili, Pal-ul-don, Ant Men, Latin, Pellucidar, Onthar, and Maya. That’s 14 distinct languages, and to that must be added an undetermined number of Bantu languages and a “multitude” of native dialects.

No doubt Tarzan had some natural intellectual talent for learning languages. However, according to Burroughs, there were a couple of other factors that enhanced the ape-man’s remarkable ability to assimilate language after language. First, one aspect of Tarzan’s character —  persistence — made the learning of languages easier for him compared to those with lesser determination. For example, when he was in Pellucidar, the ape-man became determined to learn the speech of that world. Burroughs explained, “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 had set himself until it had been successfully concluded, he made rapid progress.

The other factor that might have made languages easy for Tarzan to learn comes from an unusual theory that Burroughs explained in the following passage from Tarzan At the Earth’s Core.

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 the 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.

If the language of the great apes is indeed the “primitive root language of created things,” then Tarzan’s first language gave him the groundwork on which he could build an understanding of any other language he came across. Thus Tarzan easily learned languages that seemingly have nothing in common because all languages have something in common with the tongue of the great apes.

Whatever its source, Tarzan’s ability to quickly learn so many languages was an example of the great intellectual power he possessed. The fact that Burroughs gave Tarzan this ability was an example of his belief that the ideal man must be strong in both body and mind.

The End

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From Our ERB Online Bibliography
A Collector's Hypertexted and Annotated Storehouse of Encyclopedic Resources
Tarzan of the Apes
Tarzan the Terrible
Tarzan, Lord of the Jungle
Tarzan at the Earth’s Core
Tarzan and the Jewels of Opar
The Return of Tarzan
Tarzan and the Champion
Tarzan the Untamed
Tarzan and “The Foreign Legion”
The Son of Tarzan
Tarzan and the City of Gold
Jungle Tales of Tarzan
The Beasts of Tarzan
Tarzan and the Lost Empire
Tarzan and the Leopard Men
Tarzan’s Quest
Tarzan the Magnificent
Tarzan and the Forbidden City
Tarzan and the Ant Men
The Quest of Tarzan


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