Scholars, authors and artists are attending a ‘sum poasyum’ at Canterbury today (24th October 2020) in honour of the 40th anniversary of Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker.
In the previous article, we looked at how Anthony Burgess, himself the author of a number of novels in invented languages, rated it so highly. His novella, A Clockwork Orange, is often compared to Riddley Walker, or proposed as an influence upon Hoban’s novel. But to what extent are the invented languages of Nadsat and Riddleyspeak similar? And is it possible to assess whether Burgess was a significant influence upon Hoban?
It’s worth noting, firstly, that there is no particular consensus among critical responses to Hoban’s linguistic experiment. Some critics have sought to simply describe Hoban’s inventiveness, such as The Guardian’s John Mullan, who described Riddleyspeak as a “devolved form of English.” For Mullan, Riddleyspeak features “neo-primitive idioms” derived from a lost technological era, as well as “neocolloquialisms” and “survivals from demotic English.” All of this looking backwards seems to evoke the assessment of Penelope Messic in The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists that Riddleyspeak is a form, albeit crude, of “Chaucerian English”. [“Penelope Messic reviews Riddley Walker by Russell Hoban”. Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. 38 (6): 49–50.]
Quentin Blake’s illustration for the Folio Society edition of Riddley Walker, 2017.
This school of thought is not well supported, however. There is of course a form of looking backwards evoked by the language of Riddley Walker, in that the setting – a post-apocalyptic primitive Kent – maintains a faint but potent sense of before times in which a more advanced civilisation existed. However, this is not easily mapped onto the trajectory of English from the 14th century to the present day (or the late 1970s, when Hoban wrote the novel.)
The major changes from Chaucer’s Middle English to that of the present day are simply not reversed in Riddley Walker. Very broadly speaking, the distinctions between Middle English and contemporary English are related to pronunciation, such as the great vowel shift, and a standardisation of spelling. This is in contrast to the much more significant earlier changes in English, from Anglo-Saxon to the English of Chaucer, in which large tranches of grammar and vocabulary were overwritten by the French-speaking Norman ruling class after 1066.
Fifteenth century manuscript of the prologue to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales
We can see, however, that the language of Riddley Walker does not revert to a previous type of English, or at least not of the English of educated literate people like Geoffrey Chaucer. Rather, the destandardisation of spelling functions as a kind of punning device, operating on both the phonetic level to provide one meaning and on the orthographic level to suggest another. This technique can also be found in A Clockwork Orange, wherein Russifications such as ‘horrorshow’ for ‘good’ function as visual puns in addition to their intended meanings. Arguably, either directly or indirectly via a text like A Clockwork Orange, Hoban derives this technique from Joyce’s paranomasic Modernist classic Finnegans Wake. Joyce’s influence over Burgess is well-recorded; Burgess himself wrote two works of criticism about Joyce. However, there is no evidence that Hoban was directly influenced by either Burgess or Joyce. Rather, techniques of language invention which Joyce introduced can be found in the work of both later authors.
Hoban himself attributed the invention of Riddleyspeak to his own preoccupation with sounds, the unorthodox grammar of English during his childhood in America, and the influence of African American English. In a 2010 interview with Prithvi Varatharajan of ABC, in a programme about invented literary languages which coincidentally also examined A Clockwork Orange, Hoban explained how initially, having been inspired to write the book by encountering the painting of St Eustace at Canterbury Cathedral, he had attempted to write it in standard English:
“I didn’t write the whole thing in straight English. I started the first chapter in straight English and then I saw that it wasn’t working and new words kept creeping in, so I decided to go all the way and use an invented language…
“I’ve always been preoccupied with sounds, that’s part of my particular mindset. When I’m alone in the house, for example, I often walk around speaking nonsense words aloud, like ‘parv’ or ‘jrk’…
“I kept a word list as I went so that I’d be consistent. That is, as soon as I put an invented word in I made sure that I went back and put it in all the earlier passages. It wasn’t that radical. For example, where I grew up in Pennsylvania the kids often dispensed with the auxiliary verb, so instead of saying ‘I have done that’ they would say ‘I done that’. And other changes I guess I got from black slang maybe. The thing is that if you read the book aloud it’s pretty easy to follow the language.”
This is, perhaps, what is most seductive about Riddleyspeak – orthographically, it is highly unconventional, and slows the reader down, but in terms of phonetics, it sounds not too different from contemporary English, albeit with occasional variations to acknowledge the Kentish accent. Hoban himself acknowledged that the intended effect of this linguistic intervention was to slow down the reading experience in order to emulate the cognitive slowness of the putative author, 12 year old Riddley himself. Because the world and the narrative is mediated through Riddley’s narrative almost entirely, but for a few passages he quotes, this also has a synecdochal effect of rendering Riddley’s milieu into a slow, ill-educated but somehow slyly cunning kind of world, which is in perfect keeping with its setting in a post-apocalyptic environment. The reader’s struggles to make sense of Riddley’s language therefore emulate Riddley’s own quest to understand the Inland world which he explores in the novel.
Again, we can identify a parallel with the role of the invented language in A Clockwork Orange, where the intrusiveness of Nadsat also serves an authorial purpose intended to emulate aspects of the plot and setting. Just as Burgess’s protagonist Alex is brainwashed via the Ludovico technique to be ‘good’, so the reader, in ploughing through some 60,000 words of text in which significant proportions are rendered in Nadsat, is forced to learn Alex’s slang. As a result, Burgess claimed, they are brainwashed into learning minimal Russian. However, there is a caveat here, in that Nadsat is not Russian and not solely generated from Russification of English. Indeed, we have conducted a study of what actually makes up Nadsat (see here and here). That noted, Burgess’ purpose does seem to be achieved. Repeated studies have indicated that readers of A Clockwork Orange have excellent recollection of Alex’s language weeks after having encountered the novella.
So in both instances, we have a novel which is written in the idiosyncratic slang of a narrator-protagonist, which in its construction reveals as much about the imagined (and dystopian) society depicted as it does about the narrator, and furthermore manages to evoke the action of the narrative in terms of reader response. Hoban may not be indebted to Anthony Burgess, but it seems more plausible than the authorial suggestion that his language invention and its qualities derive from his childhood and exposure to African American English.