In Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker, Hoban portrays a post-apocalyptic society ravaged by a nuclear war. While he masterfully crafts the story to warn readers about the dangers of technology, the real achievement is in the strange language, called Riddleyspeak, in which the book is written in. As Ferdinand de Saussure asserts, language is the mechanism by which people pull ideas from the nebulous cloud of thought. One can only know as much as he or she can express, so language not only affects how people think but also serve as a framework for a community to be built on. Russell Hoban uses the altered Riddleyspeak language in Riddley Walker as mirror into the values and psyche of the destroyed society.
On a superficial level, the new language is able to change the nuances, connotations and even meanings of words. For example, diplomacy becomes “plomercy”, which indicates the shift of the very idea of diplomacy to something much more sinister with the new word for the idea encapsulating “mercy”. In this sense, the new language is able to vividly capture the history and cultural change of this fictitious society. Hoban is able to transmit to the audience the representation of this society and its values not only through the plot but through the actual visual vehicle of the representation as well. This technique has the effect of adding another level of immersion for the audience.
Another point that Hoban makes by his creation of Riddleyspeak is that society can only progress as far as the language will permit. As Goodparley notes, “Words! Theywl move things you know theywl do things. Theywl fetch. Put a name to some thing and youre beckoning” (122). He recognizes that words are the drivers and foundational templates that shape the ideas that people think of. An example is given when Goodparley himself can’t understand the “Legend of St. Eustace” because it is written in modern English and in fact, interprets it completely incorrectly, twisting it into the only version that can be accepted by the confines of the Riddleyspeak language. Writing the story in Riddleyspeak affects the way that readers can perceive Hoban’s messages, not in the context of how modern day readers think in the template of English, but in the template of Riddleyspeak. To transmit these ideas, which can only be expressed in that situation of a world being riddled by post-nuclear war problems, Hoban needed a different framework, which he found in his created language.
Finding meaning in the nothingness is a recurring theme in the novel, appearing in “The Lissener and the Other Voyce Owl of the Worl” story by the owl “saying the sylents” (85) and the day coming out of the “shape of the nite” in the “Why the Dog Wont Show its Eyes” (18). This idea of finding value in nothing and actually using nothing to define everything else is also prominent in the language itself. Riddleyspeak is full of missing parts in comparison to English: letters, apostrophes, contractions, and words. Part of the reason nothingness is important is because it defines “somethingness” by contrast. Without the night, we could never quite grasp what day is and Riddley’s society is defined by what it lost, so we can understand how technology and advanced knowledge has the power to affect society. The missing parts in Riddleyspeak give definition and emphasize what is given and reflect this value of nothingness in the society.
Another idea echoed throughout the society is that of death and rebirth as a cycle for progress. To have the birth of something new, something must die or change. For example, in the novel, Riddley’s father must die before Riddley can become the new connection man. Similarly, the English language of the destroyed society was deconstructed in order for the new language to come up to bring reforms. The new language is severely limited especially with the highly specific science terminology needed to create such technologies as nuclear bombs, as evidenced by the fact that most advanced weaponry that the people could create was gunpowder. Though the new language does provide a significant hindrance to technological progress, it also prevents people, such as Goodparley and those in the Ram, from creating another nuclear disaster.
Language is perhaps the most powerful tool that mankind has, and it is fully evidenced in Riddley Walker. The choice of writing the novel in a warped form of English is not merely for aesthetic purposes but also to convey and reinforce the nature of Riddley’s society.