The Limits of Language: Seuss Beyond Zebra

In On Beyond Zebra by Dr. Seuss, Conrad Cornelius o’Donald o’Dell, who is just learning to spell, writes out the alphabet on a chalkboard and says, “The A is for Ape. And the B is for Bear. / The C is for Camel. The H is for Hare.” He knows all the letters through to Z for Zebra. “So now I know everything anyone knows / From beginning to end. From the start to the close. Because Z is as far as the alphabet goes.” In other words, the alphabet allows him to learn about the known animals of the world, the implication being that without the alphabet he may never have known about hares or zebras.

The unnamed narrator, who is a few years older, floors Conrad Cornelius o’Donald o’Dell when he writes another letter on the chalkboard, a Y with a z or a lightning bolt as a tail, and says, “You can stop, if you want, with the Z / Because most people stop with the Z / But not me! / In the places I go there are things that I see / That I never could spell if I stopped with the Z. / I’m telling you this ’cause you’re one of my friends. / My alphabet starts where your alphabet ends!”

The twenty-six letters of the known alphabet enables them both to talk about the known animals of the world, but it also limits them. By extending the alphabet on beyond zebra, the narrator is able to discuss a whole slew of fantastic Seussian animals that cannot be represented by the standard alphabet.

He says, “My alphabet starts with this letter called YUZZ. / It’s the letter I use to spell Yuzz-a-ma-Tuzz.” Then there is Wum:

Other letters and animals include a letter which looks like an O with a squiggly tail: “Like QUAN for Quandary, who lives on a shelf / In a hole in the ocean alone by himself / And he worries, each day, from the dawn’s early light / And he worries, just worries, far into the night. / He just stands there and worries. He simply can’t stop . . . / Is his top-side his bottom/ Or bottom-side top?”

Language gives us the tools to discuss the world around us, but it also limits us. The Inuit’s supposedly have hundreds of words for snow (although it is an urban legend). For us, snow is only one thing, but for the (imaginary) Eskimos snow is many different things. Our language gives us a word to talk about snow, but it makes all kinds of snow appear to be the same. After I heard this, I began to look at snow differently.

We have one word for love, but the Greeks had four. There is agape, “true love” rather than physical attraction. Eros, or sensual desire. Philia, or friendly love. Storge, or natural affection, like a parent for the child. The fact that we only have one word is often confusing. When your buddy says, “I love you, man,” what is he saying? When the guy in the bar whispers, “I love you,” what does he mean? Once we step beyond language, on beyond zebra, there are no limits to kinds of love and snow and fantastic beasts we can talk about.

The narrator says, “I led him around and I tried hard to show / There are things beyond Z that most people don’t know. / I took him past Zebra. As far as I could. / And I think, perhaps I did him some good.” Conrad Cornelius o’Donald o’Dell concludes, “This is really great stuff! / And I guess the old alphabet / ISN”T enough!”

(Check out other metafiction for children: The World’s Shortest Novel? Snoopy’s “It Was a Dark And Stormy Night”A Nightmare Reading of Harold and the Purple Crayon, and Who is the Monster at the End of the Book? It Isn’t Grover, Dear Reader.)

Seuss, Dr. On Beyond Zebra. New York: Random House, 1955.

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