The Need for Nadsat in A Clockwork Orange

A Clockwork Orange, by Anthony Burgess, develops a fictional account of a violent futuristic society, while integrating commentary on current political and social issues.

Not only does A Clockwork Orange present Burgess’ view on behavior science, but it also contains an invented language mixed in with English. Being well educated and having a background in languages such as Russian, German, and French, Burgess created a language known as Nadsat. Nadsat is influenced by Russian, German, English, Cockney Slang, and it also contains invented slang. The language has a poetic feel to it and Burgess’ writing contains context clues that help the reader determine what the unknown language means. The history of what led to Burgess’ ideas for the novel explains the history of Nadsat because it points out the need for a fictitious language.

A Clockwork Orange follows a teenager by the name of Alex, who teams up with his hoodlum friends in the night hours to commit a little bit of the old ultra violence. After one of Alex’s droogs challenges his leadership and loses, all of his friends turn on him, and our humble narrator is arrested and sent to prison for murder. In prison, Alex volunteers for a radical new treatment, which can cure him of his evilness, in exchange for a shortened sentence. Alex is released back into society, only to have the people he has wronged take their revenge on him. He finally finds redemption by living a normal life in society.

There are three events that led Burgess to ideas for the novel that needed a language to separate it from the content. The biggest influence happened in 1943, when Burgess’ pregnant wife, Lynne, was attacked and brutally raped by a group of AWOL American GI’s. This attack sent her to the hospital where she suffered a miscarriage (Contemporary), and eventually died (Keckler). Burgess turned this tragedy into a scene in the novel. The home of a writer by the name of F. Alexander is invaded by Alex and his thugs. Alex brutally rapes his wife, who later dies.

What is interesting is how later in the novel, Alex happens upon Alexander’s home again, forgetting exactly why it seems so familiar. Alexander gets his revenge on the poor Alex, who opens up to the horrors he suffered in prison, unknowingly telling Alexander ways to harm him. Alexander represents Burgess’ desire for vengeance; Burgess is able to take out his anger on Alex, a murdering rapist.

Burgess does not characterize Alex as just a murderous rapist. To come to terms with his wife’s death, he had to believe that it is inhuman to be totally good or totally evil (Burgess ix). In the final chapter, Alex undergoes a moral transformation; “he grows bored with violence and recognizes that human energy is better expended on creation than destruction” (vii). Burgess could not believe that the men who raped his wife were totally evil, so Alex had to redeem himself by living a normal life.

The second event that influenced the creation of his novel happened when Burgess and his wife took a trip to the Soviet Union and encountered a group of thugs who strangely maintained a kind of honor code (Contemporary). Burgess displays morality in Alex by not making him a common thug.

The Nadsat language adds to this by letting Alex speak in a poetic nature. When Alex comes across a drunkard bum on one of his night outings, he stops his playmates from beating him “because it used to interest [him] sometimes to slooshy what some of these starry decreps had to say about life and the world” (Burgess 13). The prevalent sense here is that if the bum had something noteworthy to say about life, Alex would have respected that and left him alone. It so happens the drunk proceeds to insult our young hoodlum, which forces him and his pals to continue the beating.

Burgess also instills culture in Alex shown by his love of music. During a night’s end at the Korova Milkbar, the gang’s hangout, Dim acts rude, shouting vulgarities at a devotchka with a beautiful singing voice. Alex verbally abuses Dim and hits him in the mouth because he interrupted the woman’s singing (Burgess 28). If anything, Alex’s cohorts are the ruthless thugs, seeing that they are there only to obey Alex’s orders. Alex’s actions display his love for music seeing that he is willing to risk friendship for it.

The final influence came from reports that Burgess read about American prisons using behaviorist methods of reforming criminals, with the purpose of limiting their freedom of choice to fit societal standards (Contemporary). Nadsat plays a part here seeing that Burgess gives Alex the choice of using two languages. In the middle seven chapters, the focus is on Alex in prison and the Ludivico process of conditioning. The process is designed to eliminate moral choice from the subject by inflicting physical sickness when he/she comes in contact with violence. Alex can no longer inflict his violent nature on others. Burgess comments on the dangers of this science by showing how Alex can no longer defend himself once he is released from prison.

As is evident, the novel has a narrator with a violent nature and needs something to downplay the violence. The culture Burgess instills in Alex just is not enough to make him a well rounded character that the audience can identify with. A novel written with only a political agenda, or only for vengeance would not be accepted in the literary world. Burgess knew this and invented a new language, known as Nadsat, for his hero Alex. Since Nadsat is mixed in with English, Burgess uses it as a way to show a duality in Alex, which works as a metaphor for human nature.

“There are no words…that give positive feeling of warmth or caring or love. When Alex wants to refer to goodness he has to do so by opting out of Nadsat and for English” (Petix 125). This puts the hero where he belongs, half in and half out of the human race (The Ultimate 14). Alex exploits his evil side with made up words, while resorting back to a recognized language that identifies his good side. Hence Burgess uses language as a way to display the good and evil in everyone.

The words, “by their very incongruity with the activities being described, lend a note of poetic intensity to the narrative that contrasts with the nightmare horror of the action” (DeVitis 105). The use of britva for razor, keeshkas for guts, and drat for fight takes the reader out of the violence and into the flow of the words. Take for instance the passage:

I could never stand to see a moodge all

filthy and rolling and burping and drunk, whatever

his age might be, but more especially when

he was real starry like this one was. He was sort

of flattened to the wall and his platties were a

disgrace, all creased and untidy and covered

in cal and mud and filth and stuff. So we got

hold of him and cracked him with a few good

horrorshow tolchocks, but he went on singing.

(Burgess 13)

The focus here is taken off the violence of beating up an old filthy drunkard and put onto the language. Cracked does not sound as violent as busted up. Tolchocks sounds smoother than hits. Cal is not as vulgar as shit.

The words of Nadsat were not just chosen for their poetic quality; most of the language originated from other languages. The origin of Nadsat is mostly Russian, with bits of English slang, Cockney Rhyming slang, German, and French (Nadsat). Burgess also invented a few slang words. Some of the words are taken directly from Russian with the same spelling and meaning. These include devotchka for girl, droog for friend, britva for razor, and Bog for God. Others are shortened from their Russian translation. These include biblioteka meaning library, which becomes biblio in Nadsat. There is also zamechatelniyi meaning remarkable, which becomes zammechat.

“Burgess has altered some of [the words] in ways that one might reasonably expect them to be altered in the mouths of English speaking teenagers” (Aggelar 170). Take for instance the Nadsat word horrorshow meaning good. Its roots are from the Russian kharasho meaning good or well. The initial consonant ‘k’ is an unvoiced velar fricative, which does not exist in English. The assumption Burgess makes that it would become a voiceless glottal fricative in the mouths of British or American teenagers is probable, seeing that the aspirate, or puff of air produced when saying the ‘h’, is already contained in the Russian phoneme (171).

In addition to phonetic substitutions, Burgess made other accomodations to make it easier for British and American teenagers to pronounce the words. Some of the words are shortened from English, like prod from produce and sarky from sarcastic. He also takes nouns, and turns them into verbs, like sodding from sodomy. Furthermore, he takes terms, like snuff it, directly from the English slang connotation, in this case meaning to die.

There is also a bit of Cockney rhyming slang as well as a little German influence. Cockney rhyming slang, from the East Side of London, takes the meaning of a word and rhymes it with the last word of a phrase. Burgess translated these words and meanings directly from their Cockney origins. They include hound and horny for corney, luscious glory for upper story (Cockney slang for hair), and pretty polly for lolly (slang for money). The smallest influence is from German with only a few Nadsat words. Klop in German, meaning hit, becomes Clop, meaning knock; schlager, meaning club or bat, becomes shlaga, meaning club; and taschentuch, meaning handkerchief, becomes tashtook, with the same meaning.

Aside from the influence of other languages, Burgess invents some slang himself. The largest influence on this is his appreciation for James Joyce, for whom he wrote Re Joyce, a book analyzing Joyce’s use of language. Joyce uses compounds and the most obvious one in Nadsat is Godman, meaning priest, derived from “man of God.” Burgess took this a step farther by forming a hybrid of two words. There is skriking, meaning scratching, from strike and scratch, and staja, from state and jail. Joyce also makes up long words, and appypolly loggy for apology, exemplifies this notion.

Burgess also does other things to the language like take part of a word and shorten it, much like he did with some of the Russian and English slang words. The origin of cancer, meaning cigarette, comes from “cancer stick,” snoutie, meaning tobacco or snuff, from snout, and sinny from cinema. He also gets creative with his slang. Alex calls sexual intercourse a little bit of the old in-out-in-out. He also calls his parents pee and em, for papa and mama.

When A Clockwork Orange was first published, the Nadsat glossary of over 200 words was not published with it. Burgess’ intention was to have the reader figure out the language using schema theory. “Schema theory proposes that a schema, or abstract knowledge structure, summarizes what is known about a variety of cases that differ in many particulars and further, that it represents the relationships among its component parts” (40). Basically, this means that Burgess provides context clues that allow the reader, based on previous knowledge, to make associations between the Nadsat and English words to figure out the unknown language. This is illustrated in the passage:

As a stepped back from the kick I must have

like trod on the tail of one of those dratsing

creeching pusspots, because I

slooshied a gromky yauuuuuuuuw and found that

like fur and teeth and claws had like fastened

themselves round my leg, and there I

was…holding this silver malenky statue in one

rooker. (Burgess 63)

The easiest word to start from here is pusspots. Using previous knowledge of the term pussy cat and the context clues tail, fur, teeth, and claws, the reader can determine that this term means cat. When the narrator trod or walked on its tail, the cat made the sound yauuuuuuuuw. This indicates that the verb slooshied means listened to, since the narrator is the subject, and the adjective gromky means loud, enhancing the noise the cat made, indicating how hurt it is. Furthermore, one holds with their hands, showing rooker means hand. And since he was holding the statue in his hand, it could not be that big, indicating malenky means small. So by using the context clues provided in the writing, the reader can determine the Nadsat words.

Anthony Burgess challenges the reader with his use of Nadsat to appreciate the language, by looking past the violence in the narrative. “Nadsat at first appears to the reader as a barrier of communication; but it actually becomes a device that enhances the narrative” (DeVitis 105). The novel was later adapted into a film, in 1971, where the language was more comprehensible against the visuals on the screen. Unfortunately, the language in the film does not work on the same level as in the novel, since the audience is watching the violence. On the up side though, the popularity of the film, even today, introduces new generations to Nadsat. In my case, I found Stanley Kubrick’s (director and co-writer) film to be a visual masterpiece, which led me to the novel to discover the literary aspects and significance of the language.

Works Cited

Aggeler, Geoffrey. Anthony Burgess: The Artist as Novelist. University: University of Alabama, 1979.

Burgess, Anthony. A Clockwork Orange. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1986.

“Contemporary Authors Online.” The Gale Group. 1999. 27 Nov.1999.

De Vitis, A. A. Anthony Burgess. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1972.

Gladsky, Rita K. “Schema Theory and Literary Texts.” Language Quarterly. 30.1-2: 40-46.

Hyman, Stanley E. Glossary of Nadsat Language.

Keckler, Jesse. “Biography.” A Critical Look at A Clockwork Orange. 27 Nov. 1999.

Nadsat Dictionary. 3 Oct. 1999.

Petix, Esther. “Linguistics, Mechanics, and Metaphysics: Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange (1962).” Critical Essays on Anthony Burgess. Ed. Geoffrey Aggler. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1986. pp. 121-131.

“The Ultimate Beatnik.” Ed. Boytinck, Paul. Anthony Burgess, An Annotated Bibliography and Reference Guide. New York: Garland Publishing, 1985.

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