Anthony Burgess’s other invented languages

or, how to get from Nadsat to Nazi Newspeak via Aliens, Stone Age man, Jesus Christ, William Shakespeare, Roman sonnets, Trade Unions, Aussie rhyming slang, Medieval Latin blasphemy, and the Sicilian dialect.

Nadsat is Anthony Burgess’s best known invented language, just as Elvish is JRR Tolkien’s. But Tolkien did not just invent Elvish. Indeed, he created a whole raft of invented languages. What’s probably less well-known is that so did Anthony Burgess. In this series of articles, let’s take a look at his other encounters with invented languages. But first, some background. Or to put in another way, as is so often the case when dealing with the topic of invented languages in literature, but first, Tolkien.

Anyone familiar with the works of JRR Tolkien, and in particular his famous essay A Secret Vice, will know that the world of Middle-Earth developed out of his obsessive interest in inventing languages. Tolkien even coined a term for this practice – glossopoeia, deriving from mythopoiea, which he extensively theorised as his chosen method of story-telling, or myth-making.

For Tolkien, this practice began in childhood, when he attempted to reconstruct, or recreate, the kind of Germanic language which might have been spoken by the characters described in the Old English epic poem Beowulf. This attempt is now sadly lost. However, there are records of his earliest attempts to create an Elvish language, the end results of which may be found in the Middle-Earth mythos.

Tolkien also created languages for his other fictional creatures, including Dwarvish, or Khuzdul, for his dwarven race, and Adûnaic, or Numenorean, as one of a series of “Mannish” languages spoken by men and hobbits. There are also hints of “Black Speech”, the language of Mordor and the Orcish villains of The Lord of the Rings, most notably in the famous “ring-verse” which is inscribed on the One Ring of Sauron.

In most of these cases, Tolkien was partly inspired by the aesthetic qualities he perceived in existing, or antiquated languages. Various forms of Elvish demonstrate characteristics derived in particular from Welsh and Finnish, for example, while what little Dwarvish he presents in his writing is demonstrably Semitic (in the linguistic sense). Linguists have suggested that the Entish language of his sentient tree creatures may have been tonal, like many East Asian languages, while there are similarities between the fragments of “Black Speech” presented and ancient Hittite.

Most other writers who have engaged with glossopoeic creativity have not taken it to the extremes of Tolkien of course. Indeed, it is notable that, unlike Conlangers, who create languages for fun or for philosophical inquiry, writers who do invent languages tend to be minimalist in two modes. Firstly, they tend, unlike Tolkien, not to create full languages but instead offer only fragments and hints, or, for the sake of the reader, base their ‘language’ on a new lexicon while retaining the basic syntactic structure of English (as we have seen with Riddleyspeak, Nadsat and The Book of Dave‘s Mokni, not to mention the Newspeak of Orwell’s 1984. Suzette Haden Elgin may be an exception (like Tolkien) here in that she fleshed out the invented feminist language in her novel Native Tongue into the feminist language of Láadan.

Secondly, they tend not to do this multiple times. There are a few exceptions to this. Following Tolkien’s worldbuilding methodology, George R. R. Martin incorporated multiple invented languages into the world of Westeros which is the setting of his Song of Ice and Fire cycle of novels, later televised as Game of Thrones. His horse lords speak Dothraki, while there are plentiful references to Old High Valyrian, the language of a lost high culture society. There is a great article here on the work conlangers did to flesh out Martin’s hints into full languages, and on the linguistic history of Westeros.

Ursula Le Guin appears to have had a similar engagement as Tolkien with the secret vice, as her works are littered with invented languages. Three alone, including Hardic, feature in her Earthsea cycle, while she is also responsible for Pravic, an “anarchist” language found in her novel The Dispossessed, and an “androgynous” language found in The Left Hand of Darkness, and hence in the invented Hainish universe wherein that novel takes place. Interestingly, Pravic has been the subject of a linguistic project led by Martin Edwardes at Kings College London in 2016, when he sought to create not only the language of Pravic but to use it as a teaching mechanism to convey ideas of anarchism as expressed linguistically by Le Guin in her novel.

Le Guin, unlike Tolkien and Martin, worked largely within the SF (science fiction) genre as opposed to fantasy literature. Therefore, one might usefully apply Ria Cheyne’s 2008 taxonomy on “Created Languages in Science Fiction”, a taxonomy which certainly applies to A Clockwork Orange, which she mentions. Though focused largely on languages attributed to alien civilisations in SF, Cheyne’s taxonomy is useful, because it separates out how invented languages manifest in literature. Nevertheless, Burgess was not primarily an SF author, and his invented languages appear in notably non-SF texts, so some adaptation of her schema is required. For Cheyne, “a science-fictional created language exists and is complete in the totality of information given about the language in the text (or texts) in which it appears.” This requires a little parsing. It is not saying that constructed language development outside of the text, eg in Tolkien’s notebooks, or by fans is non-canonical or irrelevant. Cheyne is rather saying that we can adequately address the nature of an invented language by way of addressing what we are given of it. This suggests therefore as much a stylistic approach to created languages as a linguistic one. Based on this approach, Cheyne gives us nine possible forms:

  1. Utterances in, or purported to be in, the created language.
  2. Translated utterances from the created language.
  3. Information about how a word or phrase from the language was translated.
  4. Subjective impressions of the created language’s sound, or shape in the case of written languages.
  5. Information about how the sounds in a particular language are to be pronounced.
  6. Phonemic information.
  7. Information about grammatical structure.
  8. A glossary of terms from the language.
  9. Descriptions or discussions of other properties of the language, or of notable features within the language.

As Cheyne notes, this refocuses attention beyond the mere alien utterance; she emphasises rather “how created languages consist of more than simply the words in the language: the examination of neologisms alone does not fully address the created language.” Using Cheyne’s model, we can see how it might apply to A Clockwork Orange.

We have the Nadsat uttered by Alex and the droogs (1); and both in in-text contextualisations by Alex or others, we get explanations if not full translations of Nadsat (2); Dr Branom discusses speculatively aspects of Nadsat (9); and in many instances commencing with Stanley Edgar Hyman in the 1963 Norton edition of ACO we find the publication of a glossary (8), though this was against Burgess’s own wishes. With Cheyne’s model in mind, we can proceed to considering Burgess’s other invented languages, and thereby discover if her model is adaptable to the non-SF texts in which Burgess embedded created languages, which we will do in the next article in this series.

More significantly, we can explore Burgess’s lesser known invented languages, how he constructed them, what they entail, what they do in the works they appear in, and what light they might cast on his first, and best-known invented language, Nadsat.

Did you mean ‘forella’ or ‘soomka’?

Overlexicalisation as a problem for translators

We’ve talked elsewhere about Nadsat’s function as an anti-language or the language of an ‘anti-society’, a group that sets itself up as in opposition to society and its norms (Michael Halliday first wrote about this phenomenon in 1976 while Roger Fowler drew attention to Nadsat as anti-language in 1979). What we didn’t go into was how Burgess’s understanding of this social phenomenon shows through the way Nadsat is organised and the types of words it includes.

Burgess was a great admirer of Eric Partridge’s fascinating Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English and knew that words in anti-languages tend to group around a fairly limited set of specific meanings. Partridge’s Dictionary is just one in a long line of works – stretching back at least to 16th century glossaries of thieves’ cants – that  have tried to demystify the strange words used by outsiders, labelled by insider society as rogues and scoundrels.

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