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Headscratchers: Tarzan


  • When Tarzan was old enough to explore the jungle on his own, he found his parents' house and discovered books there, including some reading primers. Through long hours of study, he was able to decipher the words, teaching himself the English language. When he later encountered white folks, he was able to communicate with them. Except… he spoke with them verbally, something he would NOT have been able to teach himself from books. Sure, maybe it's possible for him to teach himself to read and write English words that way, but having never heard the words he'd have no idea how to pronounce them, or understand someone else saying them! Pronunciation cannot be conveyed through the written word if you haven't already heard those sounds and associated them with the letters that represent them!
    • In the book, he cannot speak English when he first meets white men; he is taught to speak by a Frenchman during his first sea voyage. The Frenchman's English is poor, and so he uses Tarzan's written English as a basis for instruction, but teaches him French vocabulary. Thus, he learns that ape is pronounced "singe," man is pronounced "homme" and water is pronounced "eau".
    • In fact, the problem with Tarzan's early communication with the Porter party goes precisely the opposite direction: it's clearly established that he can't speak English, having no idea of the connection between the written words and the sounds, so he has to communicate through notes — which he signs with his name, despite that if he has no idea of the connection between the written words and the sounds he should have no idea how to spell it.
    • Worse. You can't decipher an alphabet (learning to read and write) without having at least some rudimentary knowledge of the language and cultural context. This is true even for ideogrammatic systems, which the Latin alphabet isn'tnote . The way it's described in the books is that Tarzan named the symbols so creating words... which miraculously meant the same things in ape speak than in English. This only works if the apes spoke an English based Cypher Language to begin with and Tarzan got astronomically lucky (or could do statistical analysis on the letters and words at that age without reference points / cultural context in the middle of the jungle).
      • Could he not have learned by rote? Matching nouns to pictures, then simple verbs and sentences also based on pictures, then gradually recognizing those words in non-illustrated text that applied to the jungle, then filling in the blanks based on his own experiences to expand his vocabulary to concepts he is familiar with, then applying the words he knows to other descriptions of concepts he isn't familiar with, then working backwards from the descriptions to learn the spelling of new concepts, etc., etc.? He wouldn't understand spelling, but he'd recognize whole words or phrases that weren't idiomatic, after a fashion.
      • That's not how it's described in the book. But as a thought experiment: Slightly more likely but not much more. He would still miss cultural context, and picture books tend to be extremely culture dependent. Some easy examples: How would he recognize what a house looks like in England with only in jungle experiences? How would he recognize the nuclear family as that's not really a unit in Gorilla society? Can apes count? Also he only knows animal language which is extremely unlikely to have anything in common with human languages and even those can be extremely diverse (for an English speaker Japanese or Hungarian or anything not Indo-European is completely alien and weird in logic, figuring out their grammar from books not in a language you know... good luck). Well except if ape speak is cypher English and somehow those apes are Civilized Animals with a society eerily similar to England's. (Also you can actually give this a try: here is the Other Wiki's list of undeciphered writing systems. Choose one. Google scans, photographs of relics using it (the more th better). And you're set... you might have less to work with but have access to much more background information and resources than Tarzan had which evens it out. Good luck.)
  • This troper remembers readin' a Tarzan book where he encounters two tribes headed by ugly-looking brothers, both of whom have strange star charts in their rooms. Tarzan postulates that they may be aliens. Then this is forgotten and never brought up again. You'd think the discovery of alien life would be a pretty significant thing.
    • Maybe not so for gorillas.
      • If Tarzan can recognize star charts and speculate on the possibility of alien life, then he surely knows the value of such information. Despite his origins, he is fairly well-educated.

Disney version

  • Also from the Disney version, just before the death of Kerchak, the dying character says Tarzan was right about the other humans, and that Tarzan should protect the family of gorillas. But, Tarzan ended up leading the humans right to the gorillas, which is what Kerchak was so worried about. Tarzan didn't mean to, of course, but he indirectly put his gorilla family in danger. How is that being "right?"
    • Kerchak doesn't tell Tarzan that he was right, he only requests forgiveness for not accepting him as his son and as a member of the family.
  • In the Disney version, how can Tarzan be clean shaven? They never show him cutting his hair or anything. This is especially questionable since nearly every other human male in the movie has facial hair.
    • Nubile Savage
    • It's not just the facial hair, either. Except for his head (and presumably in one other place we can't see), he doesn't have hair anywhere.
    • Well, in the books, it's mentioned he shaves his facial hair with a knife to distinguish himself from the Mangani, after having discovered his human origins. Yeah, I know they are different universes, but perhaps he shaves the same way…
    • He found the cabin. Did his father have a beard?note 
      • His father had a pretty bitchin' mustache, but his chin was clean-shaven.
    • Chalk it up to Lazy Artist. Animating Tarzan's movements with body hair would likely add a lot of work (and thus, cost) considering his very involved movements. This could also be why he has no facial hair, though that could be chalked up to The Coconut Effect (as Tarzan is almost always seen clean shaven).
    • Even if his father had facial hair, there's no guarantee that Tarzan would be able to grow it too. As for body hair, well, anatomical accuracy has never been very high on Disney's list. Very few of their character who should have body hair do (Gaston only has if for a short gag during his song and then it's never seen again).
    • I always assumed that he was unable to grow facial hair (which, although improbable, is not impossible, even given his British background and his father's sweet mustache), and that his body hair is too faint to see.
    • Worth noting that when Clayton is trying to tell him to lead them to the gorillas at first, Tarzan takes an interest in Clayton's little pencil thin moustache, tugging on it curiously. He also pinched the Professor's moustache earlier before Clayton tried to shoot him.
  • What I never understood is Tarzan's loincloth. Theoretically, a boy raised by apes would see no need for modesty. Unless he was made fun of because humans are roughly four times as "big" as gorillas.
    • Because no one wants to see a nude cartoon boy running around? That's why Disney's The Jungle Book had Mowgli run around in what amounts to red underwear.
    • Not sure if this makes any sense, but creatures tend to grow when aroused, so I can see that being an issue.
    • In a fight, apes go for the groin and his should be an easier target than that of any ape.
    • In the novel, Tarzan learns from the books in his parents' cabin that he is not an ape, but a man. As far as he can tell, the main distinctions between an ape and a man are that men wear clothes, and they also shave. So he takes some clothes off a native hunter, then discards most of them.
      • Except that it's implied that his interaction with Jane was his first encounter with anyone of his species.
      • He has examples from the picture books in his father's cabin.
      • There's no picture books in the Disney Movie, and he doesn't know about the cabin until after he meets Jane in the movie.
    • I wonder where exactly he GOT the loincloth in the first place.
      • In the books, the first humans Tarzan ever saw were Gomangani — black men, hunters from the local village. When he reasoned he was human and not an ape, he started killing the hunters and wearing their clothes and jewelry. That's where he got his loincloths. The villagers thought at first that a particularly nasty ghost was responsible.
      • At least in the Disney movie, when Kala first found him, he has a diaper on. Maybe they thought he had to have a piece of cloth around him for some reason based on that? Don't ask where they got the loincloth, though.
      • He was found in a diaper. Maybe he was never changed out of that diaper. Ever.
      • The shipwreck washed up on the beach right? Maybe there was some cloth on the vessel- or that's just a really, REALLY dirty piece of a sail.
    • Wearing clothes is not just about modesty, or about heat. It's also practical protection for a male's exposed genitals. He's more intelligent than apes—he makes himself a spear, after all. It's possible he fashioned a loincloth.
    • It was mentioned in the novels that Tarzan used it as a kind of belt. Indeed, if he spends much time travelling by vine but sometimes uses crude tools, a belt would help a lot.
  • Terk is Tarzan's best friend, and it no doubt shows, but she certainly doesn't have much of a spine whenever they get in trouble and Kerchak appears.
    • That's her personality. Nothin' outta place there.
      • Kerchak is a 300lb wild male silverback and leader of the troop. Nothing wrong with being scared of him, or respectful. It's not like with humans.
  • Dear God, did Disney want us not to know what Terk's gender was?!?! Seriously?!
    • I came on the page and the first thing I saw was 'female ape Terk', and you should have seen the epic double take.
    • Did everyone miss the fact that her mom calls her "young lady" and Tantor calls her "missy"?
    • I sure did.
    • Well, that's a good question. Why didn't Disney want us to know what Terk's gender was. Seriously, I thought Terk was a guy when I first saw it as a child!
      • Terk's name is short for Terkoz and he was male in the book. And a vicious bully, whom Tarzan came close to killing. Terk in the film is based on Burroughs' brief reference to one of Tarzan's "little cousins".
  • How did Tarzan know how to say "Tarzan" in English, when introducing himself to Jane? Unless gorillas can say "Tarzan" in English, too, his real name wouldn't have sounded like that.
    • Perhaps "Tarzan" is the closest thing to a word his name is.
      • In the book I'm pretty sure it says the apes (which are more of a mishmash of gorillas, chimps, and extinct hominids) can speak, and "Tarzan" is his name in their language.
      • Specifically, it means "white skin". Mangani is the word for ape, but also for human: Tarmangani are white men, Gomangani are black men. Tarzan knows he is a Tarmangani years before he ever sees one, because the other apes have seen them and tell him about them.
    • Tarzan's voice isn't quite the same as the apes; presumably "Tarzan" was a different, possibly unrelated vocalization of his identity he came up with along with his name in the Gorilla language. For what reason, who knows? Maybe he just wanted to explore how and why he was different from his family that way.
    • Tarzan is taught to learn English by Jane and her father yet speaks with an American accent. Having been taught by two British people, shouldn't he pronounce words the same way as them?
      • Maybe an American accent is closest to the accent an ape speaking English as a foreign language would have…
      • Except that if you speak Spanish, Japanese, or any other language, when they teach you English you would try to imitate the accent of the person teaching you. You could have your own accent thrown in, but British English and American English right out say words differently since vowel are not pronounce the same, he would had said the word coffee as "coh-feh" instead of "co-fy" in American English.
      • What's interesting about this is that when he's deliberately mimicking Jane and Clayton, he actually does put on an English accent, but when speaking as himself he does not.
      • Which would be believable if it wasn't for the fact that Tarzan said his name in English BEFORE Jane and her father taught him how to speak.
      • He didn't say his name "in English". He just said his name—the noises that conveyed his identity. Would've been a different story if he'd said "Tarzan", and followed it up with "which means 'White Skin' in the language of the apes", like some bar-hopping popped-collar douchebag pompously telling you that "Keith means 'forest' in Gaelic."
      • But the gorillas don't make sounds that resemble English, or any other language, in any other way. How would he pronounce "Tarzan" if all the others only hoot and grunt when outside the Translation Convention?
      • They have a full language in the books.
  • OK, there are no piranhas in Africa. Then how comes elephants know about piranhas (or South America)?
    • They're elephants, they remember it from a past life :D
    • Rule of Funny, I guess... It also explains why they think Tarzan is a piranah.
    • Also, Tantor shouldn't know what Peanuts are, as Peanut Plants only naturally grow in South America. Maybe by that time Peanut Plants would be grown and Peanuts would be produced in Africa, but Tantor still shouldn't know about them as he is too far away from Humans to see or eat them...
  • I read somewhere that gorillas have offspring every few years or so. Why doesn't Tarzan have any "brothers" by the time he's an adult? Or was that just not in the book, so they ignored it?
    • Maybe he did - those small gorillas he plays with? Or maybe he did but they were too eaten by Sabor?
      • Remember that human children grow at a much slower rate and need more care than baby apes. As long as Tarzan was small and helpless, Kala wouldn´t want to have another baby... as for why she doesn´t have any babies after Tarzan reaches adulthood... maybe she and Kerchak don´t get along so well after she adopted Tarzan? Either way, the young gorillas in the group would be children of Kerchak as silverbacks usually are the only males to mate in a gorilla group...
    • Given how heartbroken Kala was after the death of her baby and the constant stress and care requirements of raising a human (who mature much slower than gorillas) it's entirely possible she just doesn't want to have more children.
    • She also went from being Kerchak's partner and preferred mate—even sharing a nest and cuddling almost exclusively—to him disowning her adopted son. It's very possible that they're no longer on good enough terms to be mates but she also doesn't want to look for a mate elsewhere because she still has feelings for the silverback; alternately her eccentricity might mean that none of the males, including Kerchak, are really interested in mating with her a all. It doesn't seem to be bothering Kala any, so it's probably not very important.
  • I'm pretty confused about this key instance of Poor Communication Kills: If Tarzan learned to speak English, and could convey thoughts accurately, why did he only say "Kerchak" when they asked why he couldn't take them to the gorillas? And more importantly, why didn't they ask who Kerchak was, or what it meant? Seriously, couldn't most of the issues after that have been avoided, if he'd just added "doesn't trust you" to his statement?
    • Perhaps he was embarrassed; have you ever had to tell a friend that your parents "don't trust them"? It's awkward as hell.
    • He may not have had the vocabulary to put a thought as complex as trust into words. There wasn't exactly a slide for "trust" that they could have shown him.
  • What happened to the rest of the mutinous crew?
    • If I remember correctly, the last we see of them, they're being chased through the jungle by an army of angry monkeys. Remember what Professor Porter said: "People get lost in the jungle every day!"
  • Was Terk into Tarzan?
    • No, she's a lesbian just like Rosie. She never even showed attraction to male gorillas. It's pretty obvious they were just good friends.
    • If you pay attention to the dialogue, Terk calls Kala "Aunt Kala" or "Auntie K." That makes her and Tarzan adopted cousins. She's also a good bit older than him, since she's old enough to walk and talk while he's still an infant and gorillas mature faster than humans. She also thinks he's unattractive, like the rest of the pack.
    • I always assumed that Kerchak, as the alpha silverback of the gorilla group, was the father of most of the infants, including Terk. This would make her and Tarzan adopted half-siblings.
    • Or quite possibly she thought he was ugly. They ARE two different species after all. It's like a parent adopting a chimpanzee and you growing up with it. Doesn't mean you're interested in boinking it. Because it's a chimpanzee.
  • If Tarzan learned to speak English from British people, then why does he speak English with an American accent?
    • Tarzan grew up speaking the ape language. By that standard, he's doing an amazing job trying to copy the English accent. "American" just happens to be where the limits of his vocal flexibility end. It's not that far off, relatively speaking.
  • How did anybody know that Sabor is actually female?
    • Sabor's gender is never brought up in the movie. Sabor was a female lion in the books so they just played off that.
  • On the topic of Sabor, did anyone else question why she killed Tarzan's human parents? If we chalk it up to predatory instinct, then why were they relatively untouched after she did the deed? We see their bodies and a few bloody paw prints, but there isn't much to suggest she ate any part of them.
    • Probably the same reason Mufasa's body wasn't shown to be a smear of blood and entrails after he got trampled to death by a herd of wildebeest: you're not going to see explicit gore in a Disney cartoon. If you really need an in-universe explanation, then consider that Tarzan's parents were half-concealed underneath a tarp of some kind and only shown from the waist down; maybe Sabor just ate part of the upper body, then dragged the rest into some kind of cover to hide it, as cats are wont to do. Then, mostly sated, she prowled off somewhere for a little while, only to return and find a gorilla invading her larder and about to make off with the baby Sabor was saving for later...

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