Okay, so we lied. There are actually going to be four posts in this series. In the previous two, we looked at how Anthony Burgess, author of A Clockwork Orange (which is often proposed as an influence on Riddley Walker) praised Russell Hoban’s 1980 novel, and also some of the literary elements which went into the creation of ‘Riddleyspeak’.

In this article, we’re going to look at Riddleyspeak itself, how it functions linguistically and what the critics made of it. In the next and final one, we’ll take a look at Riddley’s legacy.

It’s worth looking at some of the earlier scholarship on Riddley Walker to begin with, as some of the novel’s first readers were among the most (and the least) perceptive. For Penelope Lively, reviewing the novel in 1981 in Encounter, “The matter of the book – for all its chilling supposition – is the human mind”. This is astute as far as it goes; after all what strikes the reader from the first page is a kind of minor Sapir-Whorf epiphany. We encounter Riddley’s story in his own language (or that which Hoban created for him), and thereby experience his world filtered through its distortions, limitations and sly creativity. The novel is, therefore, clearly about how Riddley thinks, as expressed in his own words, which are differentiated from ours. But this is a limited insight. Along similar lines, Nancy Dew Taylor’s 1989 article for Critique suggests that “The true subject of Riddley Walker, like that of A Clockwork Orange, Animal Farm or Doris Lessing’s Sirian novels, is not outer space or future societies but our own society”. This is even more limited than Lively. Setting aside the fact that A Clockwork Orange and Animal Farm clearly ARE about future societies and clearly NOT about outer space, self-evidently Riddley Walker is too. It is distinguished from those two novels by its post-apocalyptic scenario, one it shares with a whole sub-genre of literature, but those key datums of setting are shared.

It’s also more than a bit of a truism to say that SF (and Riddley Walker is SF) speaks about the society in which it is created. Is it not obvious that Orwell’s 1984 is about his own 1948? Or Zamyatin’s We about the early Soviet Union? Of course it is.

Taylor does address the issue of Riddleyspeak directly, but she is not especially enlightening. For her, it is “a broken language, for like books, ‘culture’, and even mankind, language was almost destroyed during Bad Time”. We can easily query this. For language to be broken, it must fail in its chief function, which is to communicate. Whatever we may think about Riddley Walker, it is clearly comprehensible, despite the unorthodox language, which is not the same as saying that it is initially easy to read, of course. Hoban himself acknowledged that “Some words that look strange will explain themselves when sounded out; others may require a little more work”. But Finnegans Wake it is not (though as previously discussed, there is an indirect debt owed.)

What does Taylor mean by broken, then? She appears to mean simply that it’s not orthographically correct: “Hoban’s created language is generally read phonetically,” she notes, “yet he manages to imbue its crudity with a poetry and irony all of its own”. This may well be true, and Riddley Walker is indeed both crude and poetic (and in places ironic) but again, this tells us little. We get a little further with David Dowling (whose 1988 article actually preceded Taylor’s in Critique, thus rendering her lack of insight all the more lamentable). He asserts that Hoban “simultaneously reinvented the English language, questioned the whole status of storytelling in a society, and evoked in the reader that anguished conflict between despair and belief that makes it the perfect companion text for our age…” Reinvention is a very large claim. We have seen, via Taylor, a certain orthographic idiosyncrasy, but there is little evidence of any other than surface level grammatical amendments in Riddleyspeak.

Dowling’s analysis is useful, however, because unusually, he contextualises Riddley Walker within Hoban’s wider oeuvre. For Dowling “Hoban has always endorsed the child’s viewpoint for its anarchic challenge to adult ways of doing things”. This form of challenge is of course common in literature. We see it in A Clockwork Orange, of course. But it too has precedents in Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, Kipling’s Kim, Twain’s Huckleberry Finn and a whole raft of texts in which child protagonists are used to cast a cold eye on the adult world.

But Dowling also notes Hoban’s interest in language, and how he has sought to subvert it prior to writing Riddley Walker. In relation to his novel Kleinzeit, Dowling suggests that “the hero’s task is to discriminate the static from useful information” in a “wildly animated universe” where “Hospitals, Undergrounds, and glockenspiels all have advice to give”. In Kleinzeit, “Word himself is hopelessly allusive and elusive, and much of the novel is an attack on coded meaning of any kind”.

So, if Hoban’s track record is of allusive fiction which calls into question the very idea of fixed linguistic meaning, we can of course expect polysemous punning and similar experimentation. Dowling characterises Hoban’s challenge with Riddley Walker thus: “Hoban was looking for a way to speak to us in tongues, like the shaman, without forsaking everyday dilemmas or the everyday English language that are the stuff of his, and most, fiction. In Riddley Walker he found a way”. Dowling makes a couple of excellent points about the construction of Riddleyspeak, but only after some bum notes. Riddleyspeak, he says, is the “only intricate structure linking Riddley’s tribe, however tenuously, with the dim past, with us”. This is in one sense a requirement for the novel to be readable, of course. Hoban cannot attempt to emulate the kind of massive organic change over millennia that languages actually undergo, because to do so would render the novel unreadable. Dowling also suggests that Hoban may have got the idea for his “mutated language from  Jack London’s 1910 story The Scarlet Plague, which also features a man called Granser in the ruins”, but bizarrely London’s post-apocalyptic story has almost all the elements of Riddley Walker EXCEPT for the language inventiveness.

London’s text is simply unorthodox, that is, demotic, in its grammar, especially when presenting reported speech, with a small amount of contemporary slang lexis added to indicate to its readers the lower-class identities of its speakers, in order to signify a civilisational decline. For example: “Granser, what for do you always say so much what nobody knows?” or, “My dad told me, an’ he got it from his dad afore he croaked, that your wife was a Santa Rosan, an’ that she was sure no account”. Perhaps we can suggest an extrapolation or extension, from London’s substitution of lower-class demotic English to signify civilisation’s fall, to Hoban’s phonetically rendered, punning, childlike language.

Dowling doesn’t go so far, and neither I think will we. Instead, he offers a kind of schema for comprehending Riddleyspeak, or “nukespeak” as he bafflingly refers to it, which is well worth examining. He enumerates ten different “literary devices” which characterise Riddley’s language, then goes on to list nine:

  1. Phonetic spellings
  2. Homonyms or Puns
  3. Metathesis (the transposition, usually of syllables or other contiguous sounds.)
  4. Childish pronunciation
  5. Onomatopeia
  6. Archaic English
  7. Computer jargon
  8. Contemporary slang (though the examples Dowling offers are really just generic vulgarity and so not especially contemporary to the late Seventies/early Eighties).
  9. “Clockwork Orange-ese”. The examples Dowling gives here – ‘vackt’ and ‘zanting’ – are not Nadsat words and there is no indication of them being formulated in a manner reminiscent of Nadsat.

Irrespective of how “Clockwork Orange-ese” these terms are (and that categorisation alone suggests that Dowling lacks familiarity with Burgess’s novella), ironically, his other categories indicate a debt to Burgess. As we have previously demonstrated, Nadsat features archaisms, childlike formulations, punning, slang, vulgarity and phonetic spellings. Based on this schema, Hoban’s innovations are limited to metathesis and the introduction of computer jargon. However, Dowling’s list is one of “literary devices”. He is no linguist. We will shortly come to a critic who is an estimable linguist, however.

Dowling’s conclusion is that Riddley Walker is a reminder that “wherever we walk we will inhabit text, with its information, its ambiguities, its recipes for disaster, but above all its energy and invention”. This is almost as saccharine and unsupported as Taylor, and additionally is incorrect. We may well inhabit discourse, but discourse is not always textual. More usefully, he suggests that Riddley “lives in a deconstructed world where no position is privileged, no code to decoding apparent. Apparent key words like ‘aulder/older, hart/heart, wood/would,’ and ‘saviour/saver/savor’ replicate and mutate dizzyingly even as he contemplates them”. There is indeed a focus on punning in Riddley Walker which goes beyond even A Clockwork Orange, though not as far in the sense of punning across multiple languages. This polysemous intent is Hoban’s own, deriving as Dowling has noted from his previous fictions which foreground the impossibility of rigid signification in language.

For Dowling, ultimately Riddley’s story is a story about storytelling, and the nine tales spun throughout the novel are the key to understanding it. Dowling’s retreat into narratology is unsurprising. He was not a linguist and Riddleyspeak’s linguistic characteristics were not fully understood by him. By contrast, R.D. Mullan was a talented linguist and his essay published in 2000 in Science Fiction Studies (though originally written in 1991) demonstrates this.

Mullan commences by laying out the state of Riddley Walker criticism as it stood at the time of his writing: “the consensus, then, is that Riddley Walker is a very good mainstream novel that attempts and achieves marvellous things in language”. He notes Burgess’s comment about it being “what literature is meant to be”, and selects some other quotes which reference Riddleyspeak, such as I.F. Clarke’s lazy suggestion that it is “a form of Post Modern English” made up of “elementary spelling, primitive punctuation, folk etymologies, a simple and often crude vocabulary”. Mullan particularly targets Norman Spinrad who claimed that “the invented patois” of Riddleyspeak was a “transmuted and degenerated English” which was “entirely arbitrary”, coming off “like a baggy-pants American comedian rendering British dialects (Hoban is an American residing in Britain)”.

Mullan is unimpressed, by Spinrad in particular. His response is, intriguingly, almost entirely linguistically-based. Firstly, he dispenses with the fiction that Riddleyspeak is a plausible organic evolution of contemporary English: “Riddley’s language is a future English in only one respect, the folk etymologies. There is nothing in its phonology or in its morphology (with one important exception, the past forms of weak verbs) that cannot be found in one or another dialect of present-day English”.

Having summarily despatched Spinrad’s dubious objections, Mullan identifies three versions of written English in Riddley Walker, and helpfully quantifies them for us, in what is one of the earlier examples of corpus linguistics methods applied to invented languages in literature: “There are 83,422 words in Riddley Walker: 490 in the 1980 spelling of The Legend of St Eustace (123-24), 2917 in the “old spel” of The Eusa Story, and 80,015 in Riddley’s own spelling”. [It’s worth noting that “old spel” here refers to a form of writing which dates from between 1980 and Riddley’s time.]

Using rudimentary corpus methodologies to do some comparative work across these three forms, Mullan identifies a curious trend: “When we compare the respelled words of the old spel with their equivalents in the new spel, what must intrigue us most is the number of instances in which new spel has restored the spellings of 1980”. Mullan then embarks on a significant analysis of Riddleyspeak which we shall come to shortly. The issue of the spelling practices however not only belies any implicit suggestion that Riddleyspeak could have organically developed out of contemporary language, but also suggests that Hoban was paying particular attention to trying to render his text accessible to readers. In relation to key Riddleyspeak terms like ‘trubba’ for trouble or ‘Addom’ for atom, which reflect contemporary verbal pronunciation, Mullan states: “Hoban chose to spell such words, in these respects, as they are spelled in 1980 English, whether or not such spellings accurately represent the speech of Inland”. In short, we must understand Riddleyspeak somewhat as we do movies about foreign lands or ancient worlds which nevertheless feature English-speaking actors. A degree of suspension of belief is required.

Just as we attempt to forget the fact that Elizabeth Taylor’s Cleopatra speaks English rather than Ptolemaic Greek, we must accept that Riddley’s language is a kind of compromise, intended to permit communication. Mullan is right to highlight this as intriguing. On the level of the text itself, it is scarcely plausible that young Riddley would convey his thoughts in a manner more comprehensible to an audience of the distant past. On the practical level of marketing a novel to readers, however, this makes perfect sense. As Mullan has it, “author and publisher, either or both, may have pondered the convenience of the reader and decided or decreed that a certain proportion of familiar spellings be allowed”.

The responses to Mullan’s article, commissioned by Science Fiction Studies in 2000, are also worth noting. Kenneth Andrews commends Mullan’s “examination of the orthography and sound system of the English language three thousand years after a nuclear war”. Andrews highlights Mullan’s identification of “folk etymologies”, made up primarily of puns and “misapprehensions of words or phrases”, as key to Hoban’s creative process in generating Riddleyspeak. This, says Andrews, should be the focus of future research, though to this author’s knowledge that baton has not yet been picked up.

Deborah Ruuskanen likewise praises Mullan’s “view of the language used in the novel, with specific reference to the dialect and the graphology” and in particular what she calls his “neat little typological study of the dialect”. In fact, Mullan’s essay is broken up into a range of sections, about half of which relate to the novel’s language and the rest to setting, subtext, themes and narratology. In terms of the language, Mullan, having identified two other forms of English accompanying Riddleyspeak, goes on to analyse it in terms of phonology, orthography, morphology, syntax and punctuation, and lexicon, before leaving language in order to deal with the other elements he discusses.

To summarise Mullan’s findings would be to do an injustice to the work that he did. It is best read in its entirety. However, we can add that he is able to phonologically describe Riddleyspeak because so much of the novel is written as it might be spoken. Hence he can conclude that it is an ‘r-dropping’ dialect, which lengthens some vowels while shifting certain consonants, and so on. Mullan more than adequately demonstrates the consistency of Hoban’s creation here.

Orthographically, Mullan identifies the systematic changes in spelling Hoban attributes to Riddleyspeak, including eradication of silent letters, the introduction of the diphthong ‘y’ and other adjustments. Of particular interest are the splitting of compound words from standard English and the compounding of proper names.

Morphologically, he identifies “no apparent difference between the 1980 system and Riddley’s system of forming plurals, possessives, verb singulars, comparatives, superlatives, and adverbs, other than the absence of t from the superlative suffix”. Mullan delineates the extensive differences between Riddleyspeak and standard English in terms of verb forms, concluding that “this, of course, is far from being as systematic as the weak-verb system of Standard English, in which -ed can be regarded as a single suffix varying phonetically to fit the stem. But perhaps we can say that we have here a system in transition”.

Most notably, Mullan identifies syntax and punctuation as one area in which Riddleyspeak tacks closely to standard English, thereby facilitating ease of comprehension for the readers. Hoban has obviously recognised the importance of sentence markers and construction for readers seeking to extract meaning. Somewhat archly, Mullan claims: “Riddley’s syntax is not much different from ours, at least not much different from what we find in freshman papers”.

In terms of lexis, Mullan, like Dowling, identifies jargon derived from computing terminology – computerese as he calls it –  as an innovative component. It is interesting to consider how much less jarring the expanded meaning of terms like ‘program’ is today, following the information technology revolution, than it must have been at the time of publication.

Ruuskanen does introduce one additional idea not mentioned by Mullan. For her, Riddleyspeak is a grapholect, or a visual depiction of a dialect. This somewhat underused term is specific and accurate, but of limited analytical assistance. David Sisk, in a similar vein, highlights the “importance of Riddley as a limited first-person narrator who tells the novel in the form of a manuscript he has written”. This is fair comment, and identifies Riddley Walker as an idiolectal text not unlike A Clockwork Orange. [The key difference between the two is that Hoban’s text, as Mullan has demonstrated, is mostly in Riddleyspeak, whereas A Clockwork Orange, as we have previously demonstrated, contains a surprisingly low proportion of actual Nadsat, and its density varies throughout the novella.]

We must recall with both texts therefore that conclusions about anything in these novels beyond language and the perceptions of their narrators are inevitably filtered by those narrators and their idiosyncrasies and intellectual limitations.

Timothy Bugler offers the most significant response to Mullan. He poses a number of questions which do not appear to have occurred to Mullan, such as “why does Riddley make chapters? What sort of work is he actually putting together? … Where does Riddley get the idea of chapters from?”. He identifies a range of features that suggest “more textual sophistication among the literate elite than might seem to be the case: the use of chapters, italics, quotations, and referencing”. He supports this argument with reference to other apparent remnants of literacy which have survived in Riddley’s text – quotation marks and “that fascinating and ingenious device, the footnote”.

Bugler, a self-confessed “editor and student of linguistics” claimed to be “variously amused, amazed, and appalled by Hoban’s invention”, while noting that its “elaborate distortion of standard language works to great effect in enriching Hoban’s thematic concerns”.

What we can conclude from all this is that Hoban’s five years writing in Riddleyspeak led to a remarkable uniformity of invention, and that he carefully preserved elements which would most assist the reader in terms of comprehension, while also suggesting a kind of childish degradation of the language via orthography and other elements, though slyly hinting that perhaps more might have been preserved in terms of literacy and knowledge to those perceptive enough to notice.

All in all, this is a significant feat for a grapholect or idiolect in literature, and it was one that others were eager to emulate. In the next, final article in this series, we will look at Riddley’s legacy –  Max, Iain and Dave. Or to be more expansive, Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985), Iain M. Banks’s Culture novel Feersum Endjinn (1994) and The Book of Dave (2006) by Will Self.

Hoban’s careful invention of Riddleyspeak is demonstrated therefore not only by the persistent popularity of the novel, but also its significant cultural legacy. Whereas other creators and writers have happily followed Riddley’s tell, we can see that Hoban’s inventiveness has often left critics a little like Rightway Flinter:

“He wer pulling his beard you cud hear his thots grinding in his head like mil stoans.”

2 thoughts on ““The Sylents Swallering Up the Souns” – Riddley Walker and the critics

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