Tarzan Talk Explained

Newbie: In those old films you watch, Tarzan says, “Ungawa” a lot. He looks like he uses it all the time. How come?

Experienced Writer: That’s because he’s speaking Hollywood Jungle Language. So Ungawa can mean different things even though it’s the same word.

Newbie: Sounds very confusing. I still don’t understand. 

Experienced Writer: Because in Hollywood, you don’t have much time as a writer to invent a language with different words for different things. This isn’t like Game of Thrones. What you’re left with is called high context language.

Newbie: What’s that?

Experienced Writer: It means everyone involved is from the same neighborhood and knows what you mean from the surroundings, with no need to spell everything out. It goes like this, Tarzan meets a native chief in the jungle, holds up his hand and says, “Ungawa.” The chief holds up his hand and answers, “Ungawa” and both smile. It obviously means “friend.” If he then goes home to his treehouse, gets hold of the rope on the ground and says to his elephant “Ungawa” it means “Elevate me,” so the elephant obliges him, pulls the rope and gets him up to his treehouse. Then if Tarzan sits down at the table there all worn out, he may look at his chimp, and say, “Ungawa,” which would mean, “Hey monkey, get me a banana.” And the chimp would oblige.

Newbie: But what if all these people and animals got confused when Tarzan was away for a while? And Jane said, “Ungawa” to the native chief without smiling, who took it to mean “Hey monkey, get me a banana,” who’d be more than a little insulted. And then when she got home to the treehouse and said, “Ungawa” to the elephant who took it to mean, “Elevate me,” but might try to satisfy her request in the wrong way, or said, “Ungawa” to the monkey up in the tree house who took it to mean “Friend,” but induced him to take liberties with Jane?

Experienced Writer: Yeah, I see what you mean. 

Newbie: So, as a writer I’d make sure that Tarzan never took a vacation without Jane, and watched his tone when he got back. Or decided to use lower context language with his homies before leaving for a long vacation.

Experienced Writer: “Ungawa! Which also means you learn fast.”


Gene Goldfarb lives in Manhattan, a recent transplant from Long Island. His passions are reading, writing both poetry and prose, movies of all kinds, and travel. His work has appeared in Black Fox, Misfit Magazine, Green Briar, Quiddity, The Daily Drunk, and elsewhere.

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