In 1978, Burgess published what can best be described as a tribute to George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, entitled 1985. This rather odd book is made up of a number of sections, including a dialogue between two aspects of Burgess himself. One section is fiction, an attempt by Burgess to update Orwell’s dystopian vision to the 1970s. In it, Britain is Tucland, a failing state dominated by heavyhanded union leaders and the infiltration of Arab money. It is, therefore, very much the vision of an expatriate who was not living and had not lived in Britain for quite some time, and was reliant upon newspaper reports for his perspective on the nation.
In this Burgessian version of Orwell’s dystopia, we find a revisioning of Alex and his gang of droogs, curiously enough. In this scenario, however, they are positive agents of subversive change rather than the violent agents of chaos we are familiar with from A Clockwork Orange. Sweetly, they arrange underground classes in Latin to keep culture and education alive as civilisation decays. Curiously, and perhaps as a nod to the increasingly multicultural nature of 1970s Britain, Burgess calls them Kumina gangs, “kumi na” being the Swahili equivalent to the English suffix -teen, just as Nadsat is in Russian. These underground-educated gangs, who are familiar with Latin and ancient Greek, speak in an in-group anti-language, using a macaronic mix of English and Arabic:
The kumina leader, black with an Aryan profile, pulled out a pack of Savuke Finns and said: ‘You want a cank?’
‘Thanks, but I had to give it up.’
‘You out of a job? Union mashaki? You antistate?’
‘Yes yes yes.’
It has been suggested elsewhere that this slang was perhaps based on Hindi, but if ‘mashak’, the Hindi for leather waterskin or mosquito, was intended, this makes little obvious sense. Alternatively, the word more likely signifies the Arabic for furious – مشاكس, which is in keeping with the plot of the novel, which features an attempted Arabic Islamic overthrow of Britain.
In keeping with a text purporting to be an updating of, or reaction to, Orwell’s dystopia, Burgess of course could not resist introducing a linguistic invention in response to Orwell’s famous invention of Newspeak.
In an appendix to Nineteen Eighty-Four, entitled “The Principles of Newspeak”, Orwell explains the nature and purpose of his futuristic language. Newspeak is not merely “the official language of Oceania”, sitting alongside current English (known as “Oldspeak”) until it can replace it. It is a consciously invented language which “had been devised to meet the ideological needs of Ingsoc, or English Socialism.”
Orwell’s linguistic vision for Airstrip One is based partly on the development of “Basic” English in the 1930s, a simplified version of English with a vocabulary of only 850 words, but also on ideas of linguistic relativity, what is popularly known nowadays as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, that language shapes thought. As Orwell writes, the purpose of Newspeak “was not only to provide a medium of expression for the world-view and mental habits proper to the devotees of Ingsoc, but to make all other modes of thought impossible. It was intended that when Newspeak had been adopted once and for all and Oldspeak forgotten, a heretical thought – that is, a thought diverging from the principles of Ingsoc – should be literally unthinkable, at least so far as thought is dependent on words.”
In Burgess’s dystopia, the oppressors are syndicalised unions rather than a totalitarian government. This would have potentially offered Burgess the opportunity to concretise and satirise trends within socialist and trade union circles towards obfuscation, expression of left-wing ideology and especially the introduction of language which evaded at any cost all possibility of causing offence, especially in terms of identity politics. Even in 1978, such trends were identifiable; indeed Burgess actually mentions them at one point in 1985, condemning what he saw as an increasingly censorious form of language enforced by state agencies and encroaching on truly free speech.
Perhaps this was too contentious for Burgess, or perhaps it was not germane to his narrative. Either way, instead he opted for a class-based satirical language. “Worker’s English”, he tells us, “represents the rationalization of a general pattern of proletarian language” which was later “made compulsory as a subject and as a medium of instruction in State schools”, and was based upon “the urban workers’ speech of the Home Counties, with a few additions from the industrial Midlands and North-West”.
Burgess attempts to aggrandise what is, effectively, little more than a satirical reverse of RP (received pronunciation) snobbery in class terms by adding to it a satire of the process by which academics and state agents seek to guide organic civilisational developments (not usually language but there have been instances in the past). WE, it transpires, is intended to be “a rational kind of language, in which grammar should be simplified to the maximum and vocabulary should achieve the limitations appropriate to a non-humanistic highly industrialised society.” Of course, it is denied that this is “part of a political programme” and instead is defended as “a social achievement with no political bias, with the two philologists concerned activated by a scientific desire for the reduction of entities and only secondary ambitions in the fields of class domination and pedagogic economy.”
The final clause is somewhat heavy-handed and gives the game away. This is linguistics as class warfare. Burgess distinguishes this from the then nascent, now much more prevalent, trend towards sanitising English of offensive terminology towards identity by noting that “an attempt, in early pedagogic experiments with WE, to replace she and her with the invariable Lancashire oo (from Anglo-Saxon heo) was greeted, even in Lancashire industrial towns, with strong resistance.” WE is not about correcting oppression in general, in other words. It is not feminist. It is not PC. It’s a comic aggrandising of demotic working class urban English, the tongue of Burgess’s own youth, in fact.
It is also scathingly anti-intellectual, no less so than Orwell’s Newspeak: “WE is not concerned with the abstractions of philosophy or even science, though, for rhetorical purposes, an arbitrary sub-lexis of polysyllables of Latin or even Greek origin is available, whose lexicographical definition is regarded as otiose.” Burgess’s WE is the institutionalisation of a form of debased demotic English, prone to statements of the obvious and entirely lacking in facility to express abstract thinking. It’s a highly dismissive perspective on the British working class, but by the time Burgess invented WE, he had long ceased to be part of that demographic himself.
It’s worth noting that, for such a slight novella, 1985 is replete with a range of spoken and written Englishes, all of which seem to reiterate Burgess’s thesis that society is dumbing down, with the possible exception of his curious droog-students and their Arabic-based slang. Burgess often used dialect and accent as a shorthand for character differentiation in his fiction, and we can see an example of this in the dubiously exaggerated Scots spoken by Bev’s fellow prisoner on the train to Sussex: “Sae, ye dullyeart horse-punckin, ye’d hae it that the Laird’s worrrd is kilted in a tippit?” he asks, implausibly, later adding “Ach, yon thieveless sook-the-blood. Ye scaut-heid reid-een’d knedneuch mawkin’-flee.”
More caustically, Bev’s underage daughter Bessie, who is addicted to soft pornographic TV shows, at one point is found watching “Spiro and Spero” (Latin for ‘I breathe’ and ‘I hope’ respectively), who transpire to be “a pair of cartoon dolphins who spoke English on the Chinese model: You Say He Not Come I Know He Come I Know He Come Soon.” Later, she sends him a postcard from the city of Ghadan (Arabic for ‘tomorrow’), where she has become part of the harem of an Arab sheikh, which reads “der dad i am alrit ere tely very gud i am ok luv besi.’
As with A Clockwork Orange, the prominence of one invented language operates to mask what is actually a rich and inventive linguistic topography. Whereas A Clockwork Orange featured at least three registers of English, as well as three different forms of teen slang, 1985 more perfunctorily features a range of linguistic experimentation which seems either jaundiced, ill-considered or simply intellectually tired.
As is often the case with futuristic predictions, Burgess got it almost entirely wrong. Nevertheless he remained proud of the fact that he had accurately predicted the name of Prince Charles’ first son, William. As fiction, it is readable (Burgess always is), and as a dystopia it is no more preposterous than many. Yet the real quality of 1985 lies with the essays which reflect upon Orwell’s text in a myriad of illuminating ways.