Study Guide

The Phantom Tollbooth Language and Communication

By Norton Juster

Language and Communication

"I'm the Whether Man, not the Weather Man, for after all it's more important to know whether there will be weather than what the weather will be." (2.11)

The Whether Man gives a catchy lesson on homonyms (words that have different meanings but that sound the same, like pair/pear, too/two, and whether/weather). His lesson is also a tongue twister – try saying this aloud three times fast! Do you agree with him that "it's more important to know whether there will be weather than what the weather will be," or do you think that it's "more important to know…what the weather will be" first?

"Very serious, very serious," the gateman said, shaking his head also. "You can't get in without a reason." He thought for a moment and then continued. "Wait a minute; maybe I have an old one you can use." (3.23)

We need reasons to do lots of things. According to the gatekeeper, you need a reason to "get in" to Dictionopolis. One thing stands out here, though. In real life, we think of reasons as concepts rather than <em>things</em>. We can't <em>see </em>them, or hold them in our hands. We <em>think </em>them. In Dictionopolis, reasons are real objects, like coins or bracelets, or in this case, "a small medallion on a chain." (3.24)

"We're not interested in making sense; it's not our job," scolded the first [cabinet member].

"Besides," explained the second, "one word is as good as another – so why not use them all?"

"Then you don't have to choose which one is right," advised the third. (3.60-62)

The attitude toward language described here is a little bit different from the one you might hear about in an English class, where you've got to learn the exact meanings of words, and always use the right one in the right place. These cabinet members, on the other hand, don't think words should "mak[e] sense." They're not looking for exactly the "right" words. Instead, they're trying to make sure no words feel left out. Aw, that's kind of nice.

Milo and Tock wandered up and down the aisles looking at the wonderful assortment of words for sale. There were short ones and easy ones for everyday use, and long and very important ones for special occasions, and even some marvelously fancy ones packed in individual gift boxes for use in royal decrees and pronouncements. (4.6)

This word store is described as a marvelous, wonderful place. In fact, it sounds just plain awesome. But imagine what your life might be like if you had to buy all of your words before you used them. Would you find this frustrating? Shmoop certainly would, but then again, we're pretty talkative.

"They never appointed a new Which, and that explains why today people use as many words as they can and think themselves very wise for doing so. For always remember that while it is wrong to use too few, it is often far worse to use too many." (5.64)

Words seem really important to the people of Dictionopolis, but here the Which gives us a glimpse into the not-so-great side of using all these words. If you use so many, you're really not expressing yourself very well, are you? You run the risk of being vague, and people might not understand just what you mean. The Which points out an important lesson for all you budding writers out there: it's better to use one right word than a bunch of words that are just close enough.

The Humbug, suddenly realizing what had happened, leaped to his feet in terror, and Tock worriedly checked to see if he was still keeping time. It was certainly a strange feeling to know that no matter how loudly or softly you chatted or rattled or bumped, it all came out the same way – as nothing.

"How dreadful," thought Milo as he slowed down the car. (12.6-7)

If this doesn't make you crazy, what will? This situation is a bit like the following saying: If a tree falls in the woods, and nobody's there to hear it, did it really make a sound? If no one can hear Milo and his friends talking, because they aren't making sounds, are they still talking? If you can't make any noise, do you even exist, or are you nothing? Yikes! That's a scary question right there.

"It will take years to collect all those sounds again," she [the Soundkeeper] sobbed, "and even longer to put them back in proper order. But it's all my fault. For you can't improve sound by having only silence. The problem is to use each at the proper time." (13.17)

The Soundkeeper is right about this. Too much of anything can be a bad thing. There were too many "sounds," so she tried to overcorrect with too much "silence." But that didn't work either. The two – sounds and silence – have to go together to create "proper" and useful communication. This also kind of reminds us of the Which's lesson, that one "proper" word is far better than a billion so-so words.

"But maybe he doesn't understand numbers," said Milo, who found [the Mathemagician's letter] a little difficult to read himself.

"NONSENSE!" bellowed the Mathemagician. "Everyone understands numbers. No matter what language you speak, they always mean the same thing. A seven is a seven anywhere in the world." (16.43-44)

Is this really true? Are numbers the same everywhere? If they are, we should really think about what their value is, compared to the value of language. The Mathemagician may be right that everybody knows what "seven" means, but that also means that there are limits to what it <em>can </em>mean. It doesn't have as many possibilities as a word does. For example, imagine that instead of words, Shmoop only used numbers. How could we convey the same information? Could we?

"That's why," said Azaz, "there was one very important thing about your quest that we couldn't discuss until you returned."

"I remember," said Milo eagerly. "Tell me now."

"It was impossible," said the king, looking at the Mathemagician.

"Completely impossible," said the Mathemagician, looking at the king.

"Do you mean – " stammered the bug, who suddenly felt a bit faint.

"Yes, indeed," they repeated together; "but if we'd told you then, you might not have gone – and, as you've discovered, so many things are possible just as long as you don't know they're impossible." (19.51-56)

Well that's weird. How can something impossible be possible? That's a strange concept, and a confusing use of both of these words. But maybe they aren't so different after all. We mean, impossible just adds two letters to the word possible. You could just as easily take them off again.

<em>It's true that there are many lands you've still to visit (some of which are not even on the map) and wonderful things to see (that no one has yet imagined), but we're quite sure that if you really want to, you'll find a way to reach them all by yourself.

Yours truly,

</em>The signature was blurred and couldn't be read. (20.13-15)

Bah! This just might be the most frustrating moment in the novel. Because the "signature [i]s blurred," we never find out the name of whoever it was who sent Milo the tollbooth. Names are a kind of language, too, right? But here, we don't get access to that language, and we're left in the dark.