Anthony Burgess might be thought of as more of a dabbler in invented literary languages than the glossopoia demonstrated by a Tolkien or a Le Guin. This is despite that fact that his one foray into a novel written in an invented language, A Clockwork Orange, remains his most successful work almost three decades after his death, as it was throughout his life. After all, he never repeated the linguistic experiment of ACO, except in terms of its cultural proliferation, as stageplay, movie, or musical.
Nevertheless, his other fiction, and he wrote over 30 other novels, does bear the imprint of his restless linguistic creativity. Furthermore, most of these were not SF novels (and not fantastical literature either.) It is worth, therefore, considering how his Tolkienesque secret vice manifested, especially in relation to the useful schema for constructed languages offered by Ria Cheyne.
In this article, we will look at Burgess’s language creativity throughout the 1960s, the same decade in which he published A Clockwork Orange. Prior to its publication, Burgess was already a rapidly establishing author. Even at this stage, his interest in language and restless linguistic creativity was apparent. His earliest published fiction, The Malayan Trilogy, features snippets of a range of languages intended to evoke the cultural melting pot of colonial-era Malaysia, in which Malays, ethnic Chinese and transplanted sub-continental Indians rubbed shoulders with the ruling British. There is thus a mildly macaronic quality to the text, one which is notably missing in previous English literary depictions of Malaya, such as those by Somerset Maugham.
Often overlooked by readers, Burgess’s other great dystopian novel was published in the same year as A Clockwork Orange. Entitled The Wanting Seed, it depicts a Malthusian future Britain which oscillates politically between authoritarianism and excess liberalism. As a result of the population crisis, and the concomitant demand for food and goods, there is a shortage of items like paper. Hence readers have had to deal with phonetically truncated texts in order to save paper in a pre-digital era. This is illustrated when a commuter is seen reading a book entitled Dh Wks v Wlm Shkspr. This spavined reduction of a title synecdochally suggests how literature itself has been debased linguistically in the dystopia Burgess has created in The Wanting Seed.
Though still English, in fact the quintessential literary English of Shakespeare no less, this is clearly a linguistic as well as cultural diminution. It goes beyond the editing and simplification work done by Charles and Mary Lamb, for example. Indeed, it fulfils two of Ria Cheyne’s criteria for a created language in its sole appearance – we get phonemic information (her point 6), in that the phonemes have been replicated in truncated presentation; and we get a description of properties and features of the language (Cheyne’s point 9), implicit in the minimalist quality of reproduction of English intended to reduce length and hence paper.
One might cavil that an unorthodox representation of English is nonetheless still English and hence not an invented language. This opens up an interesting debate about to what extent Nadsat is English, or indeed something like James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake. If we accept that Finnegans Wake is Anglophone literature, despite its multilingual punning lexis, then obviously so is Nadsat with its dual sources of lexis. However, neither case is an instance of orthodox use of English, and both require some intellectual exertions on the part of the reader beyond mere knowledge of English to fully comprehend them.
Bettina Beinhoff, in responding to Cheyne, notes in any case that if we, like Cheyne, define an artificial language as “a deliberate construct designed at a particular time for a particular purpose”, then “technically any language which has been (re)constructed is a conlang”, or constructed language. This therefore applies to Burgess’s reconstructed English in The Wanting Seed, and elsewhere too, as we shall see.
We can even go further, and question something like Riddleyspeak in Riddley Walker. It is a representation of English projected into the future, primarily by way of unorthodox spelling and some creative repurposing of signifiers. Russell Hoban spent five years creating Riddley Walker, and much of that was spent rewriting the novel into the Riddleyspeak dialect. Perhaps then, we should expand our understanding of invented literary languages to encompass the concept of invented literary dialects also. In this case, we can then account for Nadsat and Wakese (from Finnegans Wake) as literary inventions of linguistic creativity, that like Riddleyspeak may not actually function as invented languages (though we may wish for the sake of brevity to refer to them as such on occasion) but do function as invented dialects of English.
In Cheyne’s schema (and Beinhoff’s gloss of it), Riddleyspeak, Wakese and indeed the creative variants of English invented by Anthony Burgess, including Nadsat, all qualify therefore as invented languages.
Speaking of invented dialects of English, and of Shakespeare, a much more extensive linguistic experiment than The Wanting Seed featured the Bard of Avon in Burgess’s classic novel Nothing Like The Sun (1964). Purporting to be the story of Shakespeare’s love-life, Burgess presents a canny and inventive narrative which imaginatively fleshes out the few sparse facts of Shakespeare’s biography. Many of these inventive details were later to appear in Burgess’s coffee-table critical work, Shakespeare (1970), but they are better presented in Nothing Like The Sun, not least because in the earlier book he acknowledges the fictionality of his surmises, but also because of the extraordinary language he presents them in.
Nothing Like The Sun, in short, is written in an utterly convincing replication of the Elizabethan English of Shakespeare’s day. Burgess took enormous care to avoid any linguistic anachronism in the text, including only one word, “spurgeon”, which did not exist in Shakespeare’s time as a sly tribute to Caroline Spurgeon, the Shakespearean scholar.
The text may be considered an invented language insofar that it is a valiant attempt to replicate a modern prose narrative in the language current four centuries previously. It is fundamentally anachronistic in this respect. It is not, in other words, similar to actual Elizabethan prose such as might be found in Thomas Nashe’s Pierce Penniless (1592), or similar Elizabethan prose pamphlets. Rather, it is a modern novel in structure, characterisation and pacing, which is delivered through the linguistic medium of a reproduction of early Modern English. We could dismiss it as a clever fake except it does not purport to be a genuine Elizabethan (or Jacobean) narrative. Instead, it is, like Nadsat, an invented literary dialect.
Writing of Walter Scott, Burgess once described such contrivedly archaic forms as ‘Wardour Street English’, named after a street in London famed for shops selling fake antiques. But this does a disservice to Scott’s historical novels and to Burgess’s achievement in Nothing Like The Sun. In both instances, the inventive purpose is not to fool the reader into thinking they are reading a genuinely archaic text, but to instead generate a sense of immersive diachronic distance via language. Nothing Like The Sun is a modernist novel written in an Elizabethan voice.
Burgess slyly acknowledges this sleight of hand to attentive readers, as his narrative is actually a nested one, located within a frame in which a lecturer in Malaya, a metafictional “Mr Burgess”, is telling students in his farewell class the story of Shakespeare while becoming progressively drunker on rice spirit. The frame is not only metafictional but implausible – who could lecture in perfect Elizabethan, after all, and the narrative is no less lengthy than those of Conrad’s Captain Charles Marlow, who purportedly tells the entirety of Heart of Darkness in an evening.
A sample paragraph, detailing WS, the protagonist, pining for his dark lady while writing A Midsummer Night’s Dream in deepest winter will give a sense of how effective Burgess’s mock-Elizabethan is:
So cold and kibey a day that I laugh in scorn of our trade that we represent midsummer, all leafy and flowery. She has kept indoors, her house all muffled up with shutters as it too feels the cold. I am sick of these sugar rhymes. I dream after dinner (a drowsy one of fat pork and a pudding) that I am ass-headed Bottom in the bower of a tiny golden Titania. Thou art as wise as thou art beautiful. The mirror shows bad teeth and beard fast greying, a wormy skin. Old dad.”
The Elizabethanisms, for want of a better term, are self-evident: archaic adjectives like ‘kibey’ and pronouns like ‘thou’, for example. Nevertheless, this is utterly unlike any prose actually written in Elizabethan times. It is contemporary, that is 1960s, English prose with an Elizabethan veneer. It has standardised spelling, and critically, a modern sensibility towards characterisation and plot. It is a novel, a genre dating from the 18th century not the 17th or 16th. In the passage above, a diary piece, we are led to understand, the narrative voice in first person moves from descriptive mode to personal, to oneiric, then back to prosaic reality.
This is poignant, and it is also a very modern narratology for all the antiquated setting and language. When we recall that this diary entry is purportedly part of a larger narrative which functions in both first and third person, with at times an omniscient narrator who in fact transpires to be a lecturer in a nested narrative, we can see the postmodern complexities at work, the 20th century operating underneath a 16th century linguistic veneer.
In practice, this is also how Burgess claimed the linguistic invention came about. In a 1971 interview, he told G. Riemer that his intention was to avoid his “mock Elizabethan” from becoming “Wardour Street English”:
“ What I had to do,” he claimed, “was to try and teach myself the language and make it sound as though people meant it. It meant for a long time I was thinking in Elizabethan, using it in shops and in the home, and looking for a means of eventually seeing how far I could sit down and write it naturally. After a long labour I was able to do this, I think, to some extent, although it is not completely Elizabethan English; it’s rather Joycean.”
Though the suggestion that Burgess spoke in Elizabethan locution in shops sounds extremely fanciful, it is not beyond the possibility that he may have. What is certainly true is that the (re)construction of Shakespeare’s language owes as much if not more to James Joyce, and specifically to his linguistic experimentation in Finnegans Wake.
Burgess was to replicate this linguistic experiment for one of his final novels, 1993’s A Dead Man in Deptford. Just as Nothing Like The Sun presents the life of Shakespeare, so does this latter novel the brief life of his contemporary, Christopher Marlowe. Burgess had written his undergraduate thesis on Marlowe at the University of Manchester, and stated in his autobiography that he would have wished to write the novel sooner, in 1964 for the quatercentenary of Marlowe’s birth, but the pre-eminence of Shakespeare, also 400 years old that year, took precedence and he wrote Nothing Like The Sun instead. Therefore he waited some 29 years, for the 400th anniversary of Marlowe’s death, to write the fictional tribute he had long intended.
A sample paragraph from Kit Marlowe’s last supper scene will give us a flavour of how, if anything, Burgess’s command of mock-Elizabethan actually improved in the intervening decades since Nothing Like The Sun:
“The Widow Bull herself brought in the crusted mound, her girl the trenchers and horn spoons not knives. It was, said the widow, stewed soft for them without teeth. But all had teeth and strong ones. They ate smokily, Frizer left his daybed limping but limped not in his steady devouring. Good, he said, excellent good. Thou eatest but little, he said daringly to Kit. Thou drinkest overmuch of the wine. Eating and drinking should be nicely in equipoise.”
We can see here that Burgess has proliferated the Elizabethan prose forms, yet it still remains perfectly accessible to a modern reader. The slight imbalance of tone found in Nothing Like The Sun, where Burgess was prone to flights of sub-Shakespearean poesie in between more workaday sections is here elided. The archaisms here all function to serve the purpose of the narrative, to render as realistically as possible the life of Christopher Marlowe.
Despite this, Burgess was obviously self-conscious of how effective his reprised language experiment had been, and especially whether it did serve its purpose of functioning as a fitting tribute to Marlowe.
The final paragraph of the novel sees a sudden switch in narrator. The text up until then has been narrated in the voice of “Jacke Wilson”, a self-described “small actor and smaller play-botcher” and intermittent lover of Kit Marlowe. Jacke Wilson was a real Elizabethan actor, but is also a sort of pseudonym for John Anthony Burgess Wilson. As with Nothing Like The Sun, Burgess has positioned himself as the narrator of an Elizabethan playwright’s life from a spectator’s point of view. On this occasion, though, somewhat like the unveiling of the Wizard of Oz, he shatters the illusion at the end of the novel:
“Your true author speaks now, I that die these deaths, that feed this flame. I put off the illmade disguise and, four hundred years after that death at Deptford, mourn as if it all happened yesterday. The disguise is illmade not out of incompetence but of necessity, since the earnestness of the past, becomes the joke of the present, a once living language turned into the stiff archaism of puppets. Only the continuity of a name rides above a grumbling compromise.”
Burgess here acknowledges the artifice of his mock-Elizabethan language even as he claims a kind of legitimacy for linking his own name with that of his namesake who worked alongside Marlowe. We are in murky though heartfelt metafictional waters here, but we can accept at least that Burgess himself viewed the Elizabethan veneer he placed over a contemporary novel to be a “grumbling compromise” between attempting, impossibly, to tell the story as the Elizabethans themselves might have, in the style perhaps of a Nashe or Greene pamphlet, and taking the road of other novelists and rendering the story of Marlowe in straight, contemporary English.
More closely tacking to the kind of linguistic experimentation he engaged in with A Clockwork Orange, Burgess’s second volume of the Enderby tetralogy features an extended sequence involving an invented slang. Enderby Outside was first published in 1968 as a sequel to his 1963 volume Inside Mr Enderby, which featured the eponymous poet-recluse F. X. Enderby. On the run and suspected of murder, Enderby washes up in Morocco, where he encounters one Easy Walker, a man with an “accent and vernacular” described only as “a sort of British colonial English.” Walker later admits to being from “West Rothgar in New Sunderland. Fifty or so miles from the capital, boojie little rathole.” There is no New Sunderland in Australia, or indeed anywhere else, so Burgess may have been inventing geography as well as slang.
Just as Enderby is about to burn his passport, he is stopped by a white man with “punished” blue eyes and hair that looks bleached with the sun. “You cracked? You skirted? You got the big drop on? Grandmother of Jesus, I never seen,” says Walker. And continues much in a similar vein. Walker, who travels for a period with Enderby, speaks exclusively in his own idiosyncratic heavy slang, some of which has been identified as 1960s ‘Strine’ or Australian, and some of which appears to derive from one of Burgess’s favourite source books, Eric Partridge’s dictionary of slang. ‘Strine’ first achieved prominence as a cultural object in the mid-1960s, and it is believed Burgess may have been exposed to the work of Alistair Morrison, who wrote a series of humorous books on the topic.
Douglas Milton has scrutinised Easy Walker’s slang in greater detail than most, and offered extensive plausible explanations and definitions for most of Easy’s utterances. Nevertheless, some remain without etymology or even explanation, and it appears that Burgess, who reviewed a dictionary of Australian slang around the time of writing the episodes with Easy Walker, may have extrapolated beyond Strine and Partridge to invent some of Walker’s slang, as indeed he moved beyond the confines of Russian and Partridge to invent Nadsat.
Easy Walker’s language functions much like Alex’s Nadsat does, in that it is a superstructure of unusual worlds and phrases draped over a conventional English grammatical structure. As with Nadsat, it features creative morphology, humour, punning and a range of other inventive forms, but it lacks the distinctive alienating quality of Nadsat – the superimposition of Russified lexis. Rather, Easy Walker’s slang is a strongly opaque allusive form of English, drawing upon ‘Strine’ and Partridge for some of its qualities while other components, though their broad gist may be discernable from context, remain undeciphered and likely the product of Burgess’s linguistic creativity.
Terms like “sprids” or “jalooty” have thus far evaded attempts to uncover their etymological origins, whereas most of Easy’s slang is identifiable either from Strine directly or else from some variant or other of rhyming slang. Easy speaks his own idiolect, in other words, and despite language existing primarily as a means of communication, he lacks the kind of droogs Alex possesses with whom he can engage in his anti-language. The opacity of Easy’s slang, in other words, serves to isolate him from society rather than to bond him to others in opposition to it. This fact is not lost on the occasionally perceptive Enderby, who identifies it as “a home-stitched patchwork of patois.”