The Role of Language in A Clockwork Orange
Anthony Burgess wrote A Clockwork Orange in 1962, when the fear of war loomed over everyone’s heads. The youth of that generation were born to be rebels. They felt they needed to counteract the obedient society of the 1950s and sow their own path. Therefore, they created their own kind of youth culture that was bonded through their differences. It also created a sense of dysfunction between the generations, causing unrest to steadily grow. As a result, Burgess explores the role of language in his dystopian world and how one’s societal status could be perceived by how one communicates with others.
Burgess utilizes Nadsat, the slang he invented for the novel, to make the dystopian society more realistic. It is yet another reason why the story has remained so popular with youth. It is a timeless language that is utilized to brainwash the young into accepting violence as a part of evolving. He also employs it to comprehensively depict the struggles of growing into one’s skin. Alex and his gang represent the extreme of what societal pressures can do to a growing mind. However, their individuality, skepticism, confusion and humor also attract an audience that struggles with the ideals of their society. It is a form of slang, which is a broken-down version of language, that is mostly used by the young to correspond more effectively with each other. It is also a way to separate adolescents from adults. They did not want to follow in the footsteps of the mature figures in their lives, who readily conformed to the restriction of outdated stereotypes.
The word ‘Nadsat’ is defined in the book to be a reference to teenagers: “It was nadsats mostly milking and coking and fillying around (nadsats were what we used to call the teens)” (Burgess 27). However, because the narrator says it in the past tense, it is likely that the word has since been modified for the younger generations. Which demonstrates that there have been many decades with the same sort of system. It also suggests that violence has become a part of the cycle of life. Alex is fifteen and an experienced gang-leader, which means that the corruption of youth happens earlier and earlier as time goes on. Slang represents the newest mode of communication, and adapts to each generation according to the issues of that time. Language is always changing and growing into new forms. Burgess takes inspiration from the British slang of his decade, to exemplify the extremity of Alex’s futuristic society. Burgess is also using the roots of his dystopian slang to create even more parallels between what may happen, and what has already happened.
Nadsat affects the reading of the book because it is a mixture of Russian slang, criminal terminology, armed forces jargon, and even some Shakespearean inspired lines. It gives many different types of readers a chance to relate to the unique forms of slang. In the beginning, it is somewhat difficult to identify the meanings of the Nadsat words, but it does not take long to figure it out. For example, “I gave them the ultra-violence, the crasting, the dratsing, the old in-out in-out” (Burgess 71). Alex is speaking about the actions him and his gang often carried out on innocent people. The term, ultra-violence is used throughout the novel to cover all of the atrocities that Alex performs. The phrase “in-out in-out” can be inferred to mean sexual intercourse, including the savagery of rape. Which leaves “crasting” and “dratsing” to represent his more frequent crimes of stealing and beating, so crashing and destroying people’s homes and businesses. One just has to use context clues, and focus on the words one already understands, to reveal the meanings of the Nadsat terms.
Burgess is highlighting the fact that Nadsat is an integral part of the novel, it is the foundation for the entire dystopian world. Although slang is already a key player in every society, this particular mixture of words is very unique. It almost gives the story a whimsical feel. The phrases are extremely absurd but depict horrible scenes that Burgess’ civilization is almost numb to. For example, when Alex returns from the experiment and his victims seek vengeance: “starting to deal me malenky weak tolchocks on my litso” (Burgess 144). They are older, and much weaker physically than Alex but because of the treatment, he cannot fight back. Therefore, an entire group of them pounce on him and turn his face into a punching bag. Burgess is pointing out the fact that humanity has always been violent, and most people believed that ignorance truly was bliss. They happily remained indifferent to any actions that did not directly affect them, just so they would not have to deal with the consequences.
The application of Nadsat in the book also causes the reader to become complicit in Alex’s acts. He is narrating the story as he would if describing his adventures to a friend or new member of his gang. The reader is hearing first-hand what Alex has done to innocent people, and his lack of remorse when re-living the experiences. He even speaks directly to his audience: “And you could viddy this old baboochka talking back to them” (Burgess 58). It is as if the readers are going along for the ride with the gang, and committing some of the acts themselves. Therefore, by understanding the slang and as a result, understanding Alex, the reader is no longer just a distant audience to a novel. They are players in a world where violence is a form of self-expression.
Another interesting feature about Nadsat, is that it is only truly interpreted correctly by youth. One of Alex’s fellow droogs, Pete left the gang because he realized how immature the gang’s actions were. He was becoming an adult and learning how to become just another cog in the corporate machine society has become. Therefore, he no longer speaks in Nadsat but perfect English. When Alex runs into Pete again, “This devotchka who was like Pete’s wife. . .giggled again and said to Pete: ‘Did you used to talk like that too?’” (Burgess 188), he finds out that one can escape the gang life. Pete was able to walk away from his violent lifestyle without any ramifications, and create a better life for himself. Ditching Nadsat is like a transition from juvenile language to professional language. It is similar to when a child is beginning to learn the alphabet and then realizes they can connect the letters to form words.
A major theme in the novel is the passivity of the rest of society. They are afraid of the characters who come out at night but do not explicitly do anything to prevent their behavior. The criminals seem to be mostly adolescents acting out and rebelling against the stereotypes that make the adults lives so boring and monotonous. Burgess took a common concept, youth fighting tradition, and made it more extreme and graphic. It is a creative way of illustrating the cons of conformity whilst also shining a negative light on the immaturity of being different. The normal members of society, like Alex’s parents, do not speak their mind often and only really talk about their daily routine. It is in direct conflict of the teenagers who have the ability to transition from speaking like intellectual students during the daytime, to nadsat speaking gang members during the nighttime. They are versatile as they grow older and accept that conformity is safety. Therefore, it is not always negative to become a functioning adult in society. The role of language in A Clockwork Orange is to illustrate the transformation from childhood to adulthood, rebellion to obedience.
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Anthony Burgess wrote A Clockwork Orange in 1962, when the fear of war loomed over everyone’s heads. The youth of that generation were born to be rebels. They felt they […]