This article originally appeared in Babel magazine issue 19:


Jim Clarke examines the linguistic legacy of novelist, composer and amateur philologist Anthony Burgess on the centenary of his birth.

Anthony Burgess (1917-1993)

It is little surprise that Anthony Burgess is today best known for a novella which is written in a strikingly futuristic invented language. More than fifty years after its first publication, the Mancunian novelist’s infamous shocker A Clockwork Orange continues to attract new generations of readers, who are intrigued as much by the teen slang ‘Nadsat’ employed by Alex and his droogs as they are by the moral fable which lies beneath.

Yet language, and its infinite permutations and possibilities, permeates every one of Burgess’s 33 novels. From his first-published book Time for a Tiger, with its Jawi dedication to all his Malayan friends (“Kepada sahabat-sahabat saya di Tanah Melayu”), to his posthumous final novel, Byrne, written entirely in 18th century poetic forms, his entire career in fiction was dedicated to preserving what he called the ‘opacity’ of language in the service of art.

Language – especially its study and manipulation into fiction, poetry and plays – was only a second love for Burgess, however. He was a lifelong lover and composer of music. A lonely young boy who grew up above a Manchester pub listening to his father hammering the piano keys below, he build a crystal wireless to keep himself company, and first encountered the Modernist music of Schoenberg and Debussy. This passion eventually led Burgess to seek to uncover inherent musicalities in language itself. Multiple novels betray this interest in making language, in the words of Walter Pater, aspire to the condition of music. His particular interest in musical counterpoint, and its impossibility of being rendered in language, led to some of the most innovative experimental novels of the late Twentieth century, such as Napoleon Symphony.

At Manchester University, Burgess was well-grounded in the linguistics of the day, including philology, morphology and his pet love, phonetics. Burgess remained insistent, in both of his linguistics texts, Language Made Plain and A Mouthful Of Air, that an understanding of the phonetic alphabet was crucial to learning foreign languages. His own linguistic prowess was impressive. Fluent in most Western European languages, he also picked up Malay and some Chinese as a teacher in the Far East. Later additions included Russian and Japanese. This impressive multilingualism manifests in many of his fictions, from the Russified slang of Nadsat in A Clockwork Orange to the macaronics on display in novels like The End of the World News and Earthly Powers.

Burgess met his first wife Lynne as an undergraduate, and they commenced married life together after his wartime service in Gibraltar. However, her alcoholism proved problematic, no more so than when he received his infamous, though fortuitously incorrect, diagnosis of a brain tumour and was retired back to Britain. With a year to live, so he believed, and no means of support for his troubled wife, Burgess produced six novels in a year, including A Clockwork Orange. One, entitled The Doctor Is Sick, even ironically featured a professional linguist condemned to the same indignities of spinal taps and hospital food that he himself had endured. Though linguists seem unlikely protagonists of novels, they abound in Burgess’s work. Dr Edwin Spindrift, the eponymous patient, was followed by Professor John Campion in Burgess’s finest novel, Earthly Powers, and the narrator of the short story “Snow”, a British colonial officer tasked with creating “a phonetic description of the national language or bahasa negara” in Malaya.

A lifelong sufferer of colour-blindness, Burgess relied on his wives to dress his characters, and habitually distinguished them by language-related quirks. Stammerers and sufferers of rhotacismus or lisping can be found in many of his novels, not merely depicted but also accurately described linguistically. However, his most notable characterisation via language is undoubtedly Alex in A Clockwork Orange, who simultaneously distances the reader from his appalling acts of violence and brainwashes the reader into learning his own complex argot by dint of careful repetition and contextualisation.

So prodigious was Burgess’s fictional output in those early years that his publishers were forced to invent multiple pen names. A Clockwork Orange and the Enderby novels were quickly followed by Nothing Like The Sun, the life story of Shakespeare told in entirely authentic Elizabethan English. He reprised the technique three decades later when he came to write a novel about Shakespeare’s contemporary, Christopher Marlowe.

These extraordinary acts of ventriloquism, speaking in the voices of the past, were to culminate in one of Burgess’s most significant linguistic creations, the artistic excavation of Europe’s mother tongue. When the director Jean-Jacques Annaud decided to create a film about paleolithic man, he turned to Burgess as linguistic expert. Burgess’s task was to create a form of speech for Annaud’s Ice Age tribe. Rewinding the linguistic clock back 80,000 years to uncover an Ur-Proto-Indo-European language is necessarily speculative in the extreme. The simplistic grammar and repetitive root forms in Burgess’s ‘Ulam’ language are utterly convincing if not entirely scientifically derived. From the Greek ‘rhododendron’ comes the root dondr, meaning tree. From this dondr-dondr can designate an entire forest. If tir means deer, then tir-dondr can signify a stag with antlers. It is likely that early language did emerge in such associative forms, and Burgess notes the similar piecemeal development of alphabets out of hieroglyphics in both of his popular linguistics texts, Language Made Plain, and A Mouthful Of Air.

A lifelong exile, Burgess’s loyalty ultimately was not to England but to a notional place he called Anglophonia – the English language itself, in all its multifaceted glory. Despite his prodigious linguistic output, including two books on linguistics and countless pieces of journalism about language, his linguistic legacy still centres on the pyrotechnic slang he invented for A Clockwork Orange. An international team of linguists are now examining how this carefully constructed language has been translated into over thirty languages, to explore how the process of translation itself functions. A century after his birth, the reluctant writer’s work in language is finally getting the credit it deserves.

Dr Jim Clarke is Senior Lecturer and Course Director of English and Journalism at Coventry University. His book on Anthony Burgess’s aesthetics will be published by Palgrave MacMillan later this year.

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