Thursday, 8 October 2015

‘A Clockwork Orange’: Nadsat and the Joy of Language


by Lottie Perry-Evans


Nadsat, Russian for ‘teen’, is an invented slang which the protagonist, Alex uses to narrate ‘A Clockwork Orange’. Much of Anthony Burgess’ inspiration for the language came from a holiday to Leningrad in 1961. Burgess had a love of language which pervaded his writing. He made his love of language clear: “One feels strongly (at least I do) that practitioners of literature should at least show an interest in the raw materials of their art”.[1] One of the most obvious reasons for Burgess’ use of Nadsat is to allow the reader to empathise more easily with Alex, described as “one of the most appalling creations in recent fiction”[2]  Not only did Burgess use Nadsat to prevent the novel from becoming dated but he also viewed his use of Nadsat as a ‘brainwashing device’, something he writes about in ‘You’ve Had Your Time’ (1990): “The novel was to be an exercise in linguistic programming, with the exoticisms gradually clarified by context: I would resist to the limit any publisher’s demand that a glossary be provided. A glossary would disrupt the programme and nullify the brainwashing.”[3] However, despite his insistence that a glossary was not needed, there have now been many editions of the novel published that include a glossary. Burgess wanted the reader to be brainwashed into learning minimal Russian with the novel being “an exercise in linguistic programming”. When we have to read the word “glazzies” (eyes) several times, we can easily understand the meaning of the phrase “blinking my smarting glazzies”[4]– we have therefore surreptitiously been taught the Russian word for ‘eye’: ‘glaz’.
The fictional argot in ‘A Clockwork Orange’ is used by Anthony Burgess to reflect the generational gap between the youth subculture and the older generation. Nadsat is used by the first-person narrator, both to relate the story to the reader and to communicate with other characters in the novel. This sub-language is predominantly comprised of anglicised Russian words, however, it also contains influences from Cockney rhyming slang, the King James Bible, the German language; some words are of unclear origin and some are invented by Burgess himself.  Also, some vocabulary is almost childish English, such as eggiweg (egg) and appy polly loggy (apology), which further widen the appearance of a generational gap and lower the maturity levels of the teens who speak the language. Alex mainly uses this childish language whilst at home around his parents and when referring to home, which shows he is keen to hide his rebellious nature from his parents and to keep his home life and rebellious teenage life as separate as possible.
Although there are these other influences, Russian influences play the biggest role in Nadsat. Most of the Russian-influenced words are slightly anglicised loan-words, often maintaining the original Russian pronunciation. For example the Russian word “Lyudi” (meaning people) is anglicised to “lewdies”: “He had books under his arm and a crappy umbrella and was coming round the corner from the Public Biblio, which not many lewdies used those days.”[5]  Another example of a Russian word which has been anglicised by Burgess is “Babushka” (meaning grandmother or old woman) which he changes to “baboochka”: “The starry old baboochkas were still there on the black and suds Scotchmen we’d bought them.”[6]  There are at least a dozen words on every page that are non-English, with roughly three per cent of the text being foreign or borrowed.

Burgess was aware that linguistic slang was of a constantly changing nature. If he used modes of speech that were contemporarily in use, the novel would quickly become dated. He was aware that his character needed to have a unique voice that would remain ageless (therefore appealing to a wide range of readers) while reinforcing Alex’s indifference to his society’s norms. Alex’s name itself suggests his disregard for the law since it comes from the Latin: ‘a  lex’ which means outside the law. His name can also be traced back to Russian origin, coming from the Russian name Aleksei.  Burgess also uses Nadsat to suggest that youth subculture existed independently of the rest of society. The use of Nadsat by teenagers is recognised by a couple of psychiatrists in the novel, who are working on Alex at the time: Dr Brodsky says his language is “quaint”. He then asks his partner Dr Branom, if he knows anything about its provenance. “Odd bits of old rhyming slang” he says, with “a bit of gipsy talk too. But most of the roots are Slav. Propaganda. Subliminal penetration.”[7] However, not all the Russian words have to be guessed from the context, for the author does not want the novel to be totally unintelligible. Alex adds a few side-notes during the first couple of chapters in the novel which aids the readers’ understanding of Nadsat: “Pete had a rooker (a hand, that is) … and poor old Dim had a very hound-and-horny one of a clown’s litso (face, that is)”.[8] Throughout the novel, Burgess is playing with ordinary speech conventions, as if he is testing our ability to read.
It is fair to ask whether three per cent of the words should be anglicised Russian words instead of, say, Arabic or French. If most readers have to arrive at an understanding from contextual repetition of the words, surely Arabic words would serve just as well. Russian was chosen over other European languages because languages more closely related to English, such as German or French, would have been too similar to English for the full distancing influence of the language to take effect. For the Anglo-American reader, the Slavic words connote communist dictatorship, without moral value and without hope. The idea of the argot being tied in with communism is further enhanced by the fact that the novel was published just after the erection of the Berlin Wall. Burgess makes this argot Russian, as if to warn his readers of what society may become if it structures itself along totalitarian lines. It could become a society in which the youth take control and are irrespective of their parent’s views and moral values.  M. Keith Booker argues that Nadsat represents various forms of entrapment and conditioning which may reflect the subtle influence of Russian propaganda as well as having an ‘alienating’ effect on its teen speakers, since it cannot be understood by mainstream society. [9] Anthony Burgess is describing a common enough linguistic phenomenon. People in their forties may understand the slang contemporaneously used by teenagers but they can’t necessarily use it in the correct context, so it loses its meaning. It is not known where children learned the argot; even children themselves do not know how or where they picked it up. This has been a linguistic phenomenon for centuries; however, Burgess is exaggerating this linguistic process apparently beyond what seems realistic to heighten this generational gap.
It is not always obvious what the author has achieved with his use of such atypical vocabulary and it does not always appear to be necessary in the narration of the story. It is also clear that there are times when Burgess enjoys the use of this argot and allows it to demonstrate his love for language. It seems that his intention so far, was to amuse the reader in the way that puns or nonsense verse amuse us. ‘A Clockwork Orange’, however, is not nonsense. On the dust jacket of the Heinemann edition of ‘A Clockwork Orange’, the publisher suggests that this is “a fable of good and evil” demonstrating “the importance of human choice”.[10] This, however, is not the case since the novel actually presents a vision of society as it has developed at some future time, a vision that is not only unpleasant but it almost entirely unbearable. There is no sign of hope for the future and Burgess holds no shred of hope for society. The other characters do not act as aids in the author’s telling of the story; they are merely participants in events that illustrate Alex’s total lack of moral values. That is not to say, however, that the author is unconcerned with moral values. He sympathises with Alex, yet shows his actions to be utterly deplorable. Burgess is creating a hopeless version of society taken over by youth. The youth don’t share the values of their elders, nor do they admit any sort of associations with them. Parents are not to be obeyed, nor do they set an example. The use of childish English slang emphasises this point and creates a clear separation between the two generations.
The Nadsat glossary, which readers will find themselves referring to relatively frequently until they familiarise themselves with the language, is dominated by multiple terms for acts of violence and other criminal activities, for women, sex, parts of the body and money. This gives a sharp picture of the values of the teenage thugs from whose point of view the novel is narrated. Their speech is an invented argot very much based on the principles of classic criminal slang, and contrasted with the speech of the members of the norm society. The language is used to assert the teenagers’ opposition and contempt for everything that is, in their own words, bourgeois, middle-aged or middle-class. However, beneath the provocative surface of the vocabulary, Alex’s own language is thoroughly middle-class: he has no regional dialect and his language is scrupulously grammatically correct, which shows interesting parallels with his love for classical music. In this way Alex is distinguished from his aptly named friend ‘Dim’ who is communicatively sub-normal.  The sense of Alex knowing more is accentuated by his love of classical music, Ludwig van Beethoven in particular – a genre associated more often with conformist intellectuals than with rebellious teens. The use of Nadsat also prevents Alex from appearing dull to the reader by removing the use of conventional swear words and low-level language, whilst still allowing him the expected teenage rebellion of swearing as part of his speech.
Literary techniques such as alliteration, onomatopoeia, rhyme, chiasmus and hyperbole, are all plentiful in the speech of Alex and his friends. These techniques are designed to signify energy, confidence and creativity: to emphasise their freedom from the patterns of the language and so their freedom from the norms and constraints of society. The rhyming slang used is probably designed to connect the anti-language with that of the modern London underworld whilst also showing it to be playful and creative. The fact that the reader cannot understand the language means they have no emotional attachment to it and so the acts of violence aren’t as horrifying. Burgess himself said “to tolcheck a chelloveck in the kishkas does not sound as bad as booting a man in the guts”.[11] By disconnecting the emotive response to the words from their meaning, Nadsat creates a cushioning layer between the acts of violence and how the reader understands these acts. Burgess has chosen the vocabulary of over two hundred words which he used to create Nadsat very carefully, one of the more interesting choices being the exclusion of most abstract nouns. Concrete nouns for blood (krovvy), money (cutter) or drugs (knives) are present; however, any abstract concepts to do with knowledge, philosophy or love are conspicuously absent in Nadsat. This shows the lack of emotion of the teens who speak it and shows they are not able to communicate on any deep or meaningful level. However, Alex is not unintelligent – when he is forced to speak in regular English, his grasp of vocabulary is substantial.
In conclusion it is clear that Nadsat is absolutely essential to the writing of ‘A Clockwork Orange’ – it allows readers to connect with Alex, a protagonist that would otherwise remain loathsome. The language gives readers the option of distancing themselves from the violence in the novel; and prevents the novel from becoming dated. One of the key reasons for Burgess’ choice to create Nadsat was the same force that also drove Joyce and Tolkien to create their linguistic innovations: a clear and sustained love of language. Finally it makes the book more enjoyable to read on the whole as Burgess’ love of language comes across in the writing of the novel.


[1] Anthony Burgess, A Clockwork Orange and Nadsat
[2] Page 173, Anthony Burgess: The Artist as a Novelist, Geoffrey Aggelar, University of Alabama, AL, 1979
[3] Anthony Burgess, A Clockwork Orange and Nadsat
[4] Page 51, A Clockwork Orange, Penguin Books, 1972
[5] Page 10, A Clockwork Orange, Penguin Books, 1972
[6] Page 13, A Clockwork Orange, Penguin Books, 1972
[7] Page 91, A Clockwork Orange, Penguin Books, 1972
[8] Page 6, A Clockwork Orange, Penguin Books, 1972
[9] ‘Clockwork Language Reconsidered: Iconicity and Narrative in Anthony Burgess’ ‘A Clockwork Orange’’, Robbie B. H. Goh, Journal of Narrative Theory, 2000
[10] ‘The Argot and Its Implications in Anthony Burgess’ “A Clockwork Orange”’ – Robert O. Evans, Journal of Modern Literature, 1971
[11] Anthony Burgess himself

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