June 14, 2017
Nadsat and the novel, A Clockwork Orange – a look at the power of language

If you’ve never heard of Nadsat, it’s time to take notice. It is a made-up language used by teenagers in the novel, A Clockwork Orange, by Anthony Burgess. Burgess was not just any author though, he was also a linguist, which came in handy as he used his upbringing to portray his characters as speaking a type of English that was influenced by Russian and a range of other languages and slangs.

But, it’s not just any sort of made-up language for a story. Nasdat depicts the power of language and its immense strength.

More about Nadsat

Nadsat is actually the Russian word for “teen.” However, the fictional slang derives from several forces, including Cockney rhyming slang and Romany. Within the makeup of the languages, the author has carefully allowed context to offer clear definitions. Similar to the infamous Newspeak in George Orwell’s, Nineteen-Eighty Four, Burgess set out to create a timeless language that would depict his dystopian future. As a result, Nadsat removes geographical location from the novel and is such that is could stand for anywhere from Russia to America, to the United Kingdom, which is an exceptional showcase of just how powerful language can be.

Despite the author insisting there should not be a glossary for the language, there have been several editions of the novel that include one. Let’s take a look at some of the linguistic makeup of Nadsat.

The Law

If you are in a “shaika,” a Russian word for “band of thieves, or gang,” you’re going to want to avoid the “rozz” – English slang for “rozzers,” or police. Otherwise, you could be sent off to the “staja,” an invented word for jail, and you will be considered a “prestoopnik” (Russian word for criminal).

Miscellaneous Linguistics

Let’s take a quick look at some of the inventive words used in the novel:

  • Dook – Romani Gypsy word for ghost
  • Yahoody – Arabic word for a Jew
  • Tashtook – German word for handkerchief
  • Vaysay – from the French, “toilet”
  • Cutter – money, from the English/Cockney Rhyming Slang for “bread and butter” which means money
  • Polyclef – a skeleton key, derived from the French “clef” for key and Latin prefix “poly-“ meaning many

Linguistics at its most powerful

Putting aside the idea that Nadsat was intended to “brainwash,” it has to be said that linguistically, it is an incredibly complex and intelligent construction, typically using homophones and compound words as well as other intricate language-creation techniques to devise an entirely new register.

Anthony Burgess’s role as author and linguist, along with his somewhat playful use of Russian and other languages to create a secret dialect for main character, Alex, is witty, pleasing to the ear, and shows just how massively powerful linguistics can be – even when you use a multitude of languages to create an entirely new dialect. While A Clockwork Orange may be described by some as a look at the shady side of life, you cannot help but admire the striking lingo that the author has expertly created.