E.R. Burroughs’ Use of Linguistic Elements

deadline for submissions: 
October 12, 2016
full name / name of organization: 
Laura Tilton
contact email: 

Laura Tilton

Dr. Crystal Sands

ENG-550- Grad Studies of English Language


E.R. Burroughs’ Use of Linguistic Elements

     In Tarzan of the Apes, Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote, “Do not harm the things which are Tarzan’s. Tarzan watches.” (66) Why did E.R. Burroughs write it like that? Instead, he could have simply stated, ‘don’t break my things because I’ll be watching.’ Especially since it was Tarzan writing the note. This is one of E.R. Burroughs incredible examples of his style, and use of linguistic elements in his written works Tarzan of the Apes, The Return of Tarzan, and The Beasts of Tarzan. E.R. Burroughs unique use of syntax sucks the reader into the bold and commanding character and world of Tarzan. These pieces of literature under analysis have a great cogent and cohesive use of linguistic elements in each of the books, just like the example above. Morphology and phonology are also present in each book. As Tarzan communicates with the Apes through the use of phonology and learns to communicate and create words with people through the use of morphology, we see the combination of these literary elements that created these masterpieces. By the author combining these elements, the readers can see an insightful look at the world of animals and the world of men, with Tarzan trapped in the middle as we dive into the analysis of these literary works of art. Edgar Rice Burroughs developed an exciting and popular story, which became a modern-day legend because of his use of linguistic elements, such as syntax, morphology, and phonology. These elements Edgar Rice Burroughs uses created the epic contrast and timeless story of a man caught between two different worlds, where without the use of these linguistic elements, no compelling story and no contract in the two worlds would exist.

     The first linguistic element to analyze or notice in these three masterpiece classics is Edgar Rice Burroughs use of morphology. According to Anne Curzan and Michael Adams, they stated in How English Works A Linguistic Introduction, morphology is “the study of how words form.” (12) Creating new words and forming them into a story is not always an easy task. However, E.R. Burroughs has a perfect example of how he used morphology in Tarzan of the Apes through an important ritual commonly used in the ape tribe called the Dum-Dum. “The Dum-Dum marked important events in the life of the tribe.” (Burroughs, 37) While the apes circle together, they bang the earth like drums fighting violently causing a gathering of the entire tribe, while other animals run in fear of the dreaded Dum-Dum. If other humans saw this, it would not appear like a ceremony, more like a violent fight to the death causing fear. For Tarzan however, this was part of his normal life and was an event he often participated in showing a contrast between Tarzan and the rest of the human race. This is important to note because that word separates a natural human experience like a ceremony, into a wild violent event animals participate in. As a reader, when that word is mentioned, the readers become aware there is something dangerous happening with the apes.

     E.R. Burroughs said, “Tarzan, Lord Greystoke, is, doubtless, the only human being who ever joined in the fierce, mad, intoxicating revel of the Dum-Dum.” (37) Now, imagine that word Dum-Dum is changed into the ceremony and read the sentence again. Civilized people take part in ceremonies daily. There are many different ceremonies, but only Tarzan joins the animals in the Dum-Dum. That word makes a huge difference in separation between the two worlds.

     Another word created for this story is at the heart of this tale. According to Alva Johnston who wrote How to Become a Great Writer, when talking about E.R. Burroughs, she stated, “he created a new race of apes, bigger than gorillas, and placed them an in unknown part of Africa.” (58) Not only did E.R. Burroughs use morphology to create words like Dum-Dum, but he actually created a whole race of apes called Mangani. This word enhances the story by showing it's not ordinary apes that raise Tarzan, it’s a fiercer type of apes, more dangerous than anyone had ever imagined before, creating a contrast between the civilized world and the animal world through linguistic elements. This gives excitement and opens a new world to the readers. This was a very clever use of morphology used by Edgar Rice Burroughs.

     Another linguistic element Edgar Rice Burroughs uses in his writings is the use of syntax. According to Anne Curzan and Michael Adams in How English Works A Linguistic Introduction, the syntax is “the structure of phrases, clauses, and sentences.” (12) This is extremely common in E.R. Burroughs writings. In the books, Tarzan talks very differently to the apes and animals then he does to humans. For example, after a fierce battle where Tarzan killed someone defending his mother Kala, he addresses the rest of the apes where E.R. Burroughs writes in Tarzan of the Apes, “I am Tarzan. I am a great killer. Let all respect Tarzan of the Apes and Kala, his mother. There be none among you as mighty as Tarzan. Let his enemies beware.” (40) As you can see this is a unique way to structure sentences. Instead of saying, let all respect me and my mother, he specifically structures his sentences constantly reminding his audience his name as if to drill that name into their memory. Notice how the sentences are also as short as possible because he is talking to the animals who do not have the same vocabulary or thinking humans do. This is how E.R. Burroughs uses syntax as Tarzan talks to the animals all throughout the books.

     When Tarzan talks to Jane who has questions at the end of Tarzan of the Apes, he tells her, “It is a long story, but it was I who wrote what I could not speak-and now D’Arnot has made matters worse by teaching me to speak French instead of English.” (Burroughs, 139) This syntax or sentence structure as you can see is very different. He refers to himself as “I” instead of repeating his name, and he is using longer sentences to say what he needs to because he is talking to Jane rather than the animals.

     In The Return of Tarzan, Tarzan is forced back to a life of animals and meets a tribe of people who are very savage and also speak the same language of the animals. This character Tarzan interacts with is named La. Tarzan starts the conversation by saying, “I am Tarzan of the Apes.” (Burroughs, 245) Notice the sentence structure as a reminder of his setting in the wild, talking to primitive beings or creatures. Her response to him is greeted in the same sentence structure saying, “I am La. High priestess of the Temple of the Sun.” (Burroughs, 246) As you can see, because of the primitive background the structure of sentences is very important to this story because it reminds the readers that La is not of the same education or background of other humans like Jane. The way E.R. Burroughs structured this conversation reminds the reader who Tarzan is dealing with, without having to specifically point out the difference in cultures pushing the story forward through linguistic elements.

     Later, when talking to Jane, the author switches his use of syntax again to show Tarzan is among civilized and educated people saying, “How can I convince you that I am no spirit? I did not drown-I will tell you all about it after a while-and here I am very much the same wild man you first knew, Jane Porter.” (Burroughs, 269) As you can see, while addressing Jane, the sentence structure is more formal giving the reader a different perspective as to who Tarzan is talking to, which helps the story by using language and syntax to help push the world building and setting the contrast between the two worlds around Tarzan. During this scene, they are still deep in the jungle, yet because of the way Tarzan is talking, the reader knows Tarzan is talking to someone civilized, rather than an animal or wild tribe in the jungle. This helps tell the story to keep that unique contrast of worlds, all with the use of E.R. Burroughs use of the linguistic element of syntax. Without the difference in syntax structure, the story would have no contrast of worlds providing the reader with little excitement and interest in the exotic world of Tarzan. If everyone talked the same and was structured the same way, there would be no contrast, character development, or exciting language as Tarzan learns to blend with society.

     Phonology is also an important linguistic element E.R. Burroughs uses in his adventurous stories. According to Anne Curzan and Michael Adams in How English Works A Linguistic Introduction, phonology is “the study of sound systems and sound change, usually within a particular language.” (12) The language of the apes is made of different sounds. For example, when he talks in the ape language while another heard him, E.R. Burroughs wrote, “the ape-man jabbered to him in a commanding and peremptory tone something which Clayton knew to be orders, though he could not understand them.” (75) The sounds he was making made no sense to the English man hearing Tarzan speak. Another example of the sounds in words would be “Ka-Goda” or the ape word for surrender. This is in all the books, but most prevalent in The Beasts of Tarzan, when Tarzan wrestles the ape leader for his life.

     Since phonology can be broken down into phonetics and there is more than one kind, it becomes easier to see how words like Ka-Goda are used in his stories. Saying those words aloud are foreign to our English language, yet the vowels in that word have a strong presence and imply a strong meaning. The very name Tarzan is strong with a heavy use of consonant letters. If you notice, in the world, language, and story of Tarzan, it is full of small words with big sounds in the jungle. Words like sabor, bara, and tantor, are different animals in Tarzan’s world written by E.R. Burroughs. They show the author's unique style, and pose a strong sound and presence in the books, despite they are small words, reminding the readers of the setting, and different world Tarzan is in. E.R. Burroughs could have called the animals a tiger, deer, and elephant, but instead, he chose new words with unique sounds that fit into the world he created, peaking the reader’s interest while creating a division and contrast in the world of Tarzan, which keeps the story exciting and the reader’s devotion to the books.

     Keith Casto discussed the importance of sucking a reader into a story quickly, and the importance of making the book sound exciting. One way this is done is with the use of phonology. (2) He used E.R. Burroughs as an example because of his abilities to create exciting sounds with the use of his words. As previously mentioned in the Dum-Dum, the use of that word also creates a sound in your mind or as you say it, and has a different effect. E.R. Burroughs says dum, which sounds like a drum, yet instead, he says Dum-Dum to intensify the word like the beat to a song. It’s a bold word E.R. Burroughs uses and provides the reader with a dynamic that enhances the event taking place in the story through the phonology linguistic element.

     In the books, E.R. Burroughs talks about how Tarzan had a unique sound or cry each time he did a kill, which carried through the jungle. Tarzan’s friend knew of this cry. “D’Arnot remembered Clayton’s description of the awful roar with which Tarzan had announced his kills, and he half smiled in spite of the horror which filled him to think that the uncanny sound could have issued from a human throat-from the lips of his friend.” (Burroughs, 131) Even this cry from Tarzan, which the author gave no specific sound to, only an idea of a sound that causes fear into the hearts of others, is present in all of the books. The author leaves the sound to the reader’s imagination, enhancing the story and giving a wild, beast-like insight into the mind of Tarzan. This cry separates him from civilized humans, reminding the audience of wild soul this character possesses and the different world he comes from. Without this sound or constant exiting cry of victory, the readers would not have the reminder of his difference in culture making the story more dull and unappealing. This linguistic element shows the contrast deeply between the culture of Tarzan, and Jane’s. This is important because the heart of the story is Tarzan finding his way to society from a savage world of wild beasts that normal humans could not understand. This element drives the story, and adds to the exciting adventures that take place in the books.

     Not only are these linguistic elements vital to the Tarzan novels by showing the contrast of worlds, but these elements also are important for the time era these novels were written. In 1912, Tarzan of the Apes was introduced in the world. This is a time of division and contrast in societies between the upper class and lower classes. This is important to note because Tarzan is a Lord of England. He was born of the upper-class breeding. He has a wealthy inheritance, and part of a class in society people dreamed to be part of. At the same time, Tarzan grew up literally naked in a jungle with wild animals. He was raised with less than anyone from society’s lower classes. This shows a contrast in not only the two worlds Tarzan is exposed to but within his own character as he develops through the novels being trapped between the two worlds. On the one hand, he is a Lord, a respectable member of society with a mansion. On the other, he is wild at heart living and eating like a wild animal in the trees. These two social positions create a new language or element to the readers. The readers see these contrasts and how Tarzan bridges the gap between his world and societies. This makes E.R. Burroughs authorial language choices in his words, sounds, and sentence structure a vital part of society at that time to relate to providing a stronger connection between the readers of 1912 and the author.

     As you can see, there is a relationship between the linguistic choices E.R. Burroughs used and the members of society. Life was different in 1912, yet in our modern times, we still understand the contrast in the levels of societies and language of the author. Tarzan struggled with the decision to take up his Lord title or give it away to his cousin. In the end of Tarzan of the Apes, he chose to walk away from the title. This contrast is a shocking hook to the reader because coming from nothing and given everything. Yet, Tarzan walked away. Edgar Rice Burroughs recognized this relationship linguistically and emotionally as evidence through his continual use of language in the contrast Tarzan is going through, which is explained through the linguistic elements.

     “Once again he was the jungle beast reveling in bloody conflict with his kind. Once again he was Tarzan, the son of Kala the she-ape.” (Burroughs, 284) Throughout the Tarzan books, E.R. Burroughs often introduced Tarzan following a title. This syntax use is used to remind us right away, Tarzan is in the wild. Back and forth E.R. Burroughs uses morphology, syntax, and phonology repeated in his written works to help explain his story. Like a delicious cake recipe, special ingredients are needed to achieve pristine results, and the linguistic elements are the ingredients to a pristine novel. Tarzan of the Apes, The Return of Tarzan, and The Beasts of Tarzan are no different. Each book is created with linguistic ingredients to create a thrilling novel of excitement, understanding, and adventurous worlds that contrast to our own world. Thanks to the use of morphology, syntax, and phonology, E.R. Burroughs showed his unique style, and created an epic, timeless story with a strong contrast of worlds, which without these linguistic elements would not exist.


Works Cited


Burroughs, Edgar, R. Tarzan of the Apes. N.Y. 1912. Print.

Burroughs, Edgar, R. The Beasts of Tarzan. N.Y. 1914. Print.

Burroughs, Edgar, R. The Return of Tarzan. N.Y. 1913. Print.

Casto, Keith. Favorite First Lines: Still Swinging After All These Years. First Line 15.4 (2013): 61-63. Humanities International Complete. Web. 3 Sept. 2016.

Curzan, Anne, and Adams, Michael. How English Works A Linguistic Introduction. 3rd ed., Pearson, 2012. Print.

Johnston, Alva. How To Become A Great Writer. Saturday Evening Post 212.5 (1939): 5. MasterFILE Premier. Web. 3 Sept. 2016.