Thursday, May 06, 2021

Me Tarzan, You Jane

Recently I've watched several Tarzan movies, including two of the classic Johnny Weissmuller films. It's always annoyed me that this version of Tarzan is so inarticulate, speaking in broken English although he seems to understand the nuances of standard English as spoken by Jane. The 1984 production GREYSTOKE: THE LEGEND OF TARZAN, LORD OF THE APES portrays him as eventually learning to speak grammatically, although he remains reserved and laconic. In Edgar Rice Burroughs' novels, Tarzan not only learns French and English in the first volume (TARZAN OF THE APES) but also becomes fluent in multiple other languages over the course of the series. Moreover, while still living with his ape tribe, he teaches himself to read English from children's picture books found in his dead parents' abandoned cabin. Which of these representations of Tarzan's language acquisition is more realistic, though?

Real-life "feral children"—those who've grown up with limited or no normal human contact—seldom acquire fully developed language skills in later life. (From my cursory skim of Wikipedia entries on the topic, possibly some do, but that's uncertain.) The majority consensus among linguistic scientists maintains that human children have a critical period for learning to speak normally. The innate "language instinct" needs material to work with during that window. Everyone knows the story of Helen Keller's childhood and how she learned language from her "miracle worker" teacher. Keller, however, didn't become blind and deaf until the age of nineteen months, so she had been exposed to the spoken word and had probably started learning to talk. Therefore, she didn't totally miss the "window" of the critical period. In recalling the moment when she realized the meaning of the sign for "water," she wrote that she experienced "a misty consciousness as of something forgotten — a thrill of returning thought; and somehow the mystery of language was revealed to me." The concept of language, then, wasn't completely new to her but came as a "returning thought" of "something forgotten."

With these principles applied to Tarzan's development, does he have the required exposure to a template for language during the critical period of infancy and childhood? In Edgar Rice Burroughs' original novel, Tarzan is orphaned when too young to start talking to any meaningful extent. Since he's about a year old when his parents die, however, he would have heard conversations between them and begun to recognize some words, maybe even say one or two. So, like Helen Keller, he's exposed to language during the early imprinting stage. After his adoption by his ape mother, he grows up learning the speech of the great apes—the Mangani. It seems likely that the Mangani aren't any known variety of ape (certainly not gorillas, as in the Disney animated movie, because gorillas are explicitly mentioned as different from Tarzan's tribe) but rather, as Philip Jose Farmer suggests, an almost extinct "missing link" species. As portrayed in TARZAN OF THE APES and its sequels, they have a language, but a rudimentary one. It seems to consist entirely of concrete rather than abstract words, have a simple grammatical structure, and focus on present needs. The limitations of Mangani speech, however, wouldn't necessarily prevent Tarzan from learning fluent English as an adult. He might be compared to the children of pidgin speakers (people with no language in common who invent a simplified mode of communication, a "pidgin" dialect). In many known cases, those children have used their parents' speech as the basis for a fully developed "creole" language. Tarzan's achievement of teaching himself to read with no prior knowledge of what books are might strain the reader's disbelief, but as we can tell from how easily he picks up new languages in later life, the author portrays him as a natural linguistic genius.

In the Weissmuller movies, Tarzan's ape friends are played by chimpanzees, which wouldn't have a true language. Therefore, it actually makes sense that this version of Tarzan might learn to comprehend standard English without ever gaining the ability to speak it fluently. He missed the critical window. In GREYSTOKE, he communicates with the apes by sounds and gestures, but there's nothing to indicate that they're speaking a language in the human sense. So it seems improbable that he'd master English as thoroughly as he does in this movie, especially since he looks well under a year old when his ape mother adopts him. Personally, though, I prefer an articulate Tarzan even if suspension of disbelief has to be stretched to accommodate him.

Robert Heinlein's STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND, of course, reverses Tarzan's situation. The biologically human "Martian," Valentine Michael Smith, grows up among creatures MORE intelligent than Earth-humans, with a more complex and nuanced language. Mike, like Tarzan, has to learn to become fully human, but from the opposite direction.

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt

No comments:

Post a Comment