LIT 4334: The Golden Age of Children's Literature

Language in “Pooh”

I have always found the language of A. A. Milne’s Pooh stories to be one of its most endearing facets. There is something totally charming about the odd ways that the characters speak and write, especially the excessive capitalization and frequent misspellings. I think the appeal of the language quirks, for both children and adults, is probably because the speech patterns mimic those of real children.

The narrative function of Owl’s misspellings is the easiest to understand. Owl claims to be one of the most intelligent residents of the Hundred Acre Wood and Pooh often seeks his advice, but he still spells “his own name WOL” (50). Even the smallest children hearing these stories can understand that Owl is not quite as smart as he believes himself to be.

The more general misspellings seem like the way a genuine child might write the word, such as ‘heffalump’ for elephant. (‘Eeyore’ also seems to be an onomatopoeia of the sound a donkey makes, though it isn’t a misspelling). The misspellings in the dialogue are even more convincingly childlike. Christopher Robin’s misspellings on his signs are understandable, given that he is five, but Milne carries these misspellings into his writing of dialogue, when he presumably could correct them. Milne is therefore privileging entertainment over education in his stories: rather than correcting his characters, he respects their juvenile education and reports it honestly, without thought to his young readers perhaps learning to spell words incorrectly.


Finally, my favorite part of the quirky language of Pooh is the frequent capitalization. Pooh and his friends capitalize words and phrases to emphasize them: “Bear of Very Little Brain,” “being Useful,” “Not like Some” (50, 90, 50). To me, it seems to hearken back to the earliest parts of childhood, when we were first learning words and their meanings. Milne’s characters speak carefully and deliberately, and the capitalization supports this. They have recently learned to speak, and are still exploring language, words, and meanings. Language has not yet become a casual form of communication; it is still a Careful Way of expressing Oneself.

Finally, and interestingly, some dictionaries have actually incorporated some of the words that Milne created: “Eeyorish” is defined as “pessimistic and gloomy.”

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The Motif of Corrective and Confusing Speech

In Carroll’s Through The Looking-Glass, as well as his first book, there is a consistency of characters questioning everything Alice says, or correcting her; more so in Through The Looking-Glass, I find. It is a motif that spans both stories to the very end, and, for me at least, can make me nauseous at times, due to the literalness and word-picky characters in his stories. For poor Alice, I hardly know how she bears with it all, constantly having her words and sentences reevaluated and given meanings she hadn’t first meant, then being told that she should have said what she meant; which I’m sure, if she had said exactly what she meant, it would have been questioned and evaluated just as harsh.

Some major instances of this motif in Carroll’s Through The Looking-Glass are the scenes when Alice meets the red queen, Tweedledum and Tweedledee, the white queen, and Humpty Dumpty.

With the red queen, Alice says that she lost her way, in which the queen replies, “‘I don’t know what you mean by your way,’ said the Queen: ‘all the ways about her belong to me.'” For poor Alice, such a reply would be considered extremely rude an outbreak, especially in the social aspects of England at the time. Alice is simply saying a normal utterance: that she lost her way. Like most all the people of Wonderland and in the Looking-Glass, the red queen takes this literal, and, because she is a queen (and very ignorant, I may add), she automatically assumes Alice is claiming that all the ways are her’s.

red queen

Tweedledum and Tweedledee are much worse to her though, suggesting that, because the red king is perhaps dreaming of Alice, that she doesn’t really exist — that she couldn’t exist in two places at once. Instead of messing with the very words she speaks, they mess around with her logic, convincing her, to a point, that she is not real!

“‘And if he left off dreaming about you, where do you suppose you’d be?’

‘Where I am now, of course,’ said Alice.

‘Not you!’ Tweedledee retorted contemptuously. ‘You’d be nowhere. Why, you’re only a sort of thing in his dream!’

‘If that there King was to wake,’ added Tweedledum, ‘you’d go out–bang!–just like a candle!'”

Poor Alice, this even provokes tears in her eyes. This is a clear example of the cruel nature of the characters in Carroll’s books; perhaps they don’t mean to be cruel, since their logic is based off of nonsense and a common theme: that we rely so much on language to convey meaning to everything, that if those meanings are meddled or messed with, our existence shrivels up to the size of a useless, slugging snail.

The last scene I want to note, is that of Alice meeting Humpty Dumpty, who may just be the worst of them all, in terms of messing with Alice’s words. When Alice tells Humpty Dumpty her name, he follows with, “‘It’s a stupid name enough!'” Then asks what it means. Of course, Alice doesn’t understand why a name must mean something. Humpty Dumpty declares that it does, in fact; that his own name describes his own shape and good looks quite well. Similarly, Alice tells him her age, “‘Seven years and six months.'” Humpty Dumpty, of course, tells her that she’s wrong, that if he meant how old she was (which he pretty much did), then he would have said it. Then he says that her age is better left off at seven, then further messes with her words.


Poor Alice, such interactions could make one go mad. Clearly, Carroll meant all this upon the reader; it creates an atmosphere of nonsense, which is entertaining to children because it can be funny at times, and they don’t have to use much of their brain to get it. For me, I find it entertaining but at the same time, a bit angry at the characters and wanting to put an end to their nonsense, for some of it is so uncalled for. This is the motif in Carroll’s books. It works. It is original. It is a classic, with an everlasting place in our society.

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The Nonsense of Language

In “The Language of Nonsense in Alice, by Jacqueline Flescher, nonsense is said to bear the brand of paradox – “the two terms of the paradox [being] order and disorder” (Flescher 128). She determines that nonsense must be upheld by a foundation of a intentionally structured form, that nonsense cannot be considered such standing alone, but only when distinguished by its departure from the original foundation of order it had been built upon. Though there are ways nonsense can be systematized, two in particular that Flescher notes, the above notion seems to predominantly ring true. I find this extremely interesting, as the method of defining the meaning of nonsense seems synonymous to defining meaning in language.

Language only has meaning in the context of a pre-existing structure of rules and agreements. Literary language can be considered utterance, because it is not occurring within a “real” life context to give it a foundation. Thus, it is given meaning through its relationship to other words within the system of the text, not from some inherent force.

To look at a really basic example, pronouns used in daily conversation are given meaning due to the context and environment of said conversation. Pronouns in written literary language, such as a poem, are only given meaning due to their relationship with other words in the text, and sometimes not at all. Let us look at an example:


In this poem, the author, Shel Silverstein, addresses, “you.” Is “you” the individual reader? A specific other person? The larger audience? There is no way to know whom exactly “you” is addressing, because the meaning of this word is not inherent. We can only assume what “you” can be in that it clearly is not “he,” “she,” “it,” “I,” etc.

Homophones provide another example. In conversation, the words “cell” and “sell” sound the same, and one perceives the word’s meaning through the context of the conversation without ever thinking of which spelling is implied. Without a context though, these two words would both just be utterances, with no inherent meaning attached to either spelling – the words only mean something because we have prescribed a meaning to them through context and intertextuality.

In Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Alice seems to be walking through a world of nonsense. However, her perception of the characters and events that surround her throughout the story are mediated by the “norm” that her entire existence to date had been built upon. She recognizes Wonderland as “nonsense,” because she knows that it is not sense, or what she has learned that sense is. Norms are not inherent, just as meaning in language is not inherent. These are perceived through context, environment, intertextuality, a pre-determined set of codes and conventions and conditioning. Language in itself is essentially nonsense, maybe even more nonsensical than the Wonderland that Dodgson creates.