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Bridging languages

Language«Who is the pee of these slovos I slooshy?»
«What is a language, and how it can be defined?»
A question that looks either too complicated or naïve to be answered. Nevertheless, it is somehow true that if we rarely wonder about this is just because we rarely are able to address such a question properly.

A language is a code, a group of symbols, characters, and rules combining them. A sort of standard shared by a multitude of people, aimed at the exchange of information between them. This is the most straightforward definition of language I can envisage, but it is also the most impersonal. I am sure I can do better than this.

A language is something more. It is the means through which people express everything they feel to the others. Emotions and states of mind like fear, anger, happiness, joy, need words and sentences in order to be communicated. A language is also the synthesis of cultures, a sort of constitution in which the history, the geography, the beliefs and common attitudes of a certain population are engraved.

The latter consideration opens the floor for discussion to all the different hypotheses about how languages are born. A range of diverse possibilities, spanning from the evolution of the human being, to the work of god.

It is not my intention to support any of the two opposite theories, even because I would most probably disagree with both. The only common aspect I feel like stressing is that the generation and evolution of a language is, in any case, a long and complicated process, which cannot take place in a limited period of time, and thanks to the effort of a single person.

What if a man, a single individual, creates from scratch a brand new language? It would be nice to know what inspired Anthony Burgess when he invented the Nadsat, a slang spoken by Alex and his droogs, the characters of the famous novel A clockwork orange, (published by William Heinemann in 1962), whose popularity was further boosted by the movie directed by Stanley Kubrick in 1971.

The Nadsat is a novel language wisely created by Burgess after mixing words of Russian to English, and completing the vocabulary with terms invented by exploiting homophony. For example, the word head, that in Russian is golová, in the Nadsat of Burgess becomes gulliver (from Gulliver's travels).

The big question is: was it really necessary the effort to create a new language to be spoken by the main characters of a novel? Since Anthony Burgess was not only a writer but also a linguist, the Nadsat might seem a way to show off his skills. In fact, the messages lying beneath the Nadsat are more important than a simple exercise.

A clockwork orange, Anthony BurgessAs I already mentioned, the language is the synthesis of a culture, of features and attitudes shared by a multitude of people. Alex and his droogs, in A clockwork orange, are a group of teenagers showing a violent attitude and anti social behaviours. However, such personal features are not an end in themselves, as the droogs are pursuing and feeding a sort of subculture that refuses a certain part of the good behaviours imposed by the current — at that time — society, but that does not pretend to totally replace social conventions.

Given this context, a novel language, or better a slang, based on English, i.e. the native language of the society where the novel takes place, and enriched by a set of words not belonging to the standard vocabulary, is a perfect choice. Perfect to highlight the distress shared by teenagers towards the rules and limitations imposed by the society.

It is not by chance if the term Nadsat is a Russian suffix identifying the numbers from 11 to 19, defining a nearly perfect parallel with the  English teen, used to address people from 13 to 19 years old (i.e. teenagers).

Some additional considerations can strengthen, if necessary, the forward looking vision of Burgess when he created the Nadsat for his novel. Since his intention was to write about teenagers in distress who have many difficulties to find their identity in the current society, why did not he use the real slang in usage at that time?

Slang languages are not meant both to last for a long time and to have a wide diffusion, because of a reason that might look naïve: fashion. I can tell it simply looking at my experience. The slang I used to speak when I was a teenager (more than 15 years ago), is totally different from the one spoken today, and was also different from the one used by people in other cities and regions of Italy.

If Burgess had used the slang spoken by British teenagers in the first '60, A clockwork orange would have seemed an old fashion novel in a matter of few years from the publication. On the contrary, thanks to the Nadsat, if someone reads the novel today, exactly half a century after its conception, he/she has the feeling of a very recent work, because the message it bares – the social distress of teenagers – is not dependent on the story setting.

Nevertheless, Burgess was so smart to keep in any case a rather strong link with the period when A clockwork orange was written, but to hide it in between the lines of the story. I do not think that the Nadsat is a mix of English and Russian, i.e. of the two most relevant languages digging the trench between the Countries belonging to the North Atlantic Treaty and those within the Warsaw Pact during the cold war, purely by chance.

«An oomny rasoodock was into Burgess zammechat gulliver»


The sentences in Nadsat have been written by the author of the post.

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