The early 1970s were to become somewhat of a golden era for Burgess in terms of language invention. What’s interesting about this phase of glossopoeia in Burgess’s fiction is firstly, that it transcends the novel as genre or form, and secondly, that it migrates out of what we previously termed created dialects of English, such as Nadsat, into creating languages beyond the remit or linguistic framework of English.
In 1971, following a couple of years digesting the anthropological research of Claude Lévi-Strauss, Burgess released one of his most curious and for many people perplexing novels, M/F. Burgess’s version was that the book arose from a suggestion by the actor and producer William Conrad that someone should update the Oedipus myth. However, the conflation of myths as well as the structuralist form of the novel suggest that the French anthropologist was the major influence.
Both Lévi-Strauss’s work and the Sophocles drama are interested in the unfolding of riddles and prophecies in the lived experiences of their subjects and audiences. Likewise, M/F is predicated on the practice of riddles, and readers are challenged consistently throughout with puzzling out its meanings. In the end, it transpires that this is Burgess’s point in the novel – his conclusion is that meaning is inescapable. There can be no arbitrary relationship between cause and effect, nor between event and interpretation.
One of the layers of riddles to be solved by M/F’s readership is the stratum of language. Much of the novel is set on the fictional Caribbean island of Castita, and Burgess offers examples of the Castitan language in terms of fragmentary phrases and placenames. Because Castitan is, we are told, derived from a Romance dialect of early European settlers. In the novel we are told that it “derived from the Romance dialect spoken by the first settlers, who themselves had gone to settle on the Cantabrian coast from some nameless place in the Mediterranean.” This renders much of the given fragments of Castitan a familiarity while maintaining an unsettling foreign quality. This seems close to Spanish, Italian and Portuguese, and can be recognised by speakers of these languages, in other words, yet is not any of them.
For example, the Castitan word for ‘festival’ is ‘fista’, clearly cognate not only with the Portuguese ‘festa’ and Spanish ‘fiesta’ but also with the English word. We see similar broad familiarity with ‘senta’ for ‘saint’ likewise. It is when we come to toponyms like “Strèta Rijal” (Royal or Regal Street) or “Dwumu” (Duomo, or cathedral) that the vowels chosen seem somewhat unfamiliar. By the time we encounter “Todij cwéjstijonij” (all the questions), even readers familiar with Romance languages may find this occupying the limits of their frame of reference.
Burgess’s earliest critics, working from Castita’s other similarities to his home at the time of writing the novel, Malta, made the reasonable assumption that Castitan’s curious spelling was somehow related to Maltese. But Maltese is derived from Arabic ultimately, despite its Latin alphabet. It took Maltese scholar Arnold Cassola to uncover what had actually inspired Burgess in the creation of Castitan. Cassola even wrote a glossary to Castitan, alas somewhat hard to find nowadays. Drawing on Malta’s close cultural relationship with its nearest neighbour, Burgess based Castitan on the Sicilian dialect. Cassola goes into significant phonetic and linguistic detail to demonstrate the Sicilian origins of Castitan here.
Burgess’s Castitan operates as another riddle in a book which is built upon them. Its function, as one element in a fictional tripartite cultural melange that transplants a Sicilian-speaking Malta to the Caribbean, denotes it as another invented dialect of Burgess’s. It is not quite Sicilian, just as Castita is not quite Malta and not quite in the Caribbean (its given geolocation in reality is open water.) M/F borrows from Sophocles, Anglo-Saxon kennings and from structuralism to make a cunningly simple point: nothing is arbitrary. Whether destined, or structured or simply cleverly euphemised, patterns pervade everywhere, and in particular in art and language.