Haroun and the Sea of Stories is extremely concerned with words, naming, and the intricacies of language in general. It is filled with puns, plays on words, and double meanings, all of which encourage the reader to consider how exactly language works and functions, as well as what exactly its purpose is.
The novel contains many characters and locations whose names are derived from Hindustani words, and Rushdie even includes a reference glossary to provide the reader with additional tools to understand the names. This asserts, first and foremost, the idea that names and words have meaning and are worthy of consideration unto themselves. Most of the names have to do with language and speaking, such as "Gup" meaning gossip and "Batcheat" coming from a word that means chit-chat. In this way, the names of characters provide further evidence that language is something important and worthy of study. In the same vein, "Khattam-Shud" means "completely finished," and the character Khattam-Shud wishes to essentially finish and eradicate completely all the stories in the Ocean. Similarly, Rashid and Haroun's names come from Harun Al-Rashid, a historical caliph and an integral figure in One Thousand and One Nights. This reference provides further weight to their positions as storytellers.
Verse, rhyming, and song are used to highlight important passages and relationships throughout the text. The Plentimaw fishes mate for life, and speak in rhyming couplets with their partner in order to show their devotion to them. Similarly, though Batcheat's physical presence is minimal throughout the text, when she does speak, she's most often singing about her love for Prince Bolo. Rhyme also works to turn the act of reading the novel from a solo endeavor to a communal one, as some rhymes are harder to pick out unless they're read aloud and heard. This works to support the idea that language is not something to be used or understood by one person, as Khattam-Shud would like it to be, since he's the only Chupwala allowed to speak. Rather, language is a means of communication between individuals.
Iff the Water Genie states early on that to name or label something brings that thing into existence. This raises the question of what the act of naming something means, and what the implications are when naming and language are removed. Haroun's home city in Alfibay is so sad, it's forgotten its name. Further, the logic of the novel suggests that Khattam-Shud's insistence on silence will also mean that names are lost or forgotten as a result of the silence. These relationships between silence and loss indicate that the presence of language is linked to happiness and an understanding of one's existence in the world, while the complete absence of language eliminates understanding and purpose. In this way, when Haroun's city remembers that its name is Kahani, which means "story," it is filled with happiness and celebration thanks to its reclamation of its name and of this specific language. Essentially, the novel's insistence on the importance of naming encompasses the idea that by creating and using specific language to describe something, we can then begin to understand and engage with that thing in a meaningful and purposeful way.
Language, Words, and Naming ThemeTracker
Language, Words, and Naming Quotes in Haroun and the Sea of Stories
"What's the use of stories that aren't even true?"
"It was a figure of speech," Mr. Butt replied. "But but but I will stand by it! A figure of speech is a shifty thing; it can be twisted or it can be straight. But Butt's a straight man, not a twister. What's your wish, my young mister?"
"'Need to stop?' he bellowed over his shoulder. "'Need to go so quickly?' Well, my sirs, I'll tell you this: Need's a slippery snake, that's what it is. The boy here says that you, sir, Need A View Before Sunset, and maybe it's so and maybe no. And some might say that the boy here Needs A Mother, and maybe it's so and maybe no. And it's been said of me that Butt Needs Speed, but but but it may be that my heart truly needs a Different Sort of Thrill. O, Need's a funny fish: it makes people untruthful. They all suffer from it, but they will not always admit. Hurrah!"
"Khattam-Shud," he said slowly, "is the Arch-Enemy of all Stories, even of Language itself. He is the Prince of Silence and the Foe of Speech. And because everything ends, because dreams end, stories end, life ends, at the finish of everything we use his name. "'It's finished,' we tell one another, 'it's over. Khattam-Shud: The End.'"
"Do those names mean anything?" Haroun asked.
"All names mean something," Rashid replied.
To give a thing a name, a label, a handle; to rescue it from anonymity, to pluck it out of the Place of Namelessness, in short to identify it—well, that's a way of bringing the said thing into being. Or, in this case, the said bird or Imaginary Flying Organism.
"A strange sort of Story Moon our Kahani would be, if storybook things weren't everywhere to be found." And Haroun had to admit that that was a reasonable remark.
—"I don't know," panted Iff as he struggled to keep up with the charging boy. "We've never caught a spy before. Maybe we should scold him. Or make him stand in the corner. Or write I must not spy one thousand and one times. Or is that too severe?"
Haroun noted that many other Pages of the Royal Guard were dressed in half-familiar stories. One Page wore the tale of ‘Bolo and the Wonderful Lamp’; another, ‘Bolo and the Forty Thieves’. Then there was ‘Bolo the Sailor’, ‘Bolo and Juliet’, ‘Bolo in Wonderland’.
Haroun was rather shocked. "That sounds like mutinous talk to me," he suggested, and Iff, Goopy, Bagha and Mali found that very interesting indeed. "What's a Mutinous?" asked Iff, curiously. "Is it a plant?" Mali inquired.
"You don't understand," Haroun tried to say. "It's an Adjective."
"Nonsense," said the Water Genie. "Adjectives can't talk."
"Money talks, they say," Haroun found himself arguing (all this argument around him was proving infectious), "so why not Adjectives? Come to that, why not anything?"
"But but but what is the point of giving persons Freedom of Speech," declaimed Butt the Hoopoe, "if you then say they must not utilize the same? And is not the Power of Speech the greatest Power of all? Then surely it must be exercised to the full?"
"But it's not as simple as that," he told himself, because the dance of the Shadow Warrior showed him that silence had its own grace and beauty (just as speech could be graceless and ugly); and that Action could be as noble as Words; and that creatures of darkness could be as lovely as the children of the light. "If Guppees and Chupwalas didn't hate each other so," he thought, "they might actually find each other pretty interesting. Opposites attract, as they say."
"All my life I've heard about the wonderful Sea of Stories, and Water Genies, and everything; but I started believing only when I saw Iff in my bathroom the other night. And now that I've actually come to Kahani and seen with my own eyes how beautiful the Ocean is, with its Story Streams in colours whose names I don't even know, and its Floating Gardeners and Plentimaw Fishes and all, well, it turns out I may be too late, because the whole Ocean's going to be dead any minute if we don't do something. And it turns out that I don't like the idea of that, sir, not one bit. I don't like the idea that all the good stories in the world will go wrong for ever and ever, or just die. As I say, I only just started believing in the Ocean, but maybe it isn't too late for me to do my bit."
"Never thought it'd be so bad!"
"We have failed you! We feel sad!"
"I feel terrible! She feels worse!"
"We can hardly speak in verse."