Wednesday, 17 October 2012

A Clockwork Orange: Zammechat.

This week marks the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Anthony Burgess’ 1962 novella ‘A Clockwork Orange’. ‘A Clockwork Orange’, mainly remembered for its shocking ‘ultra-violence’ and subsequent censorship is one of a handful of books that makes use of a totally original, obscure dialect which is individual to its narrator. Alex relates his tale in an argot called Nadsat. Nadsat is a vibrant, spontaneous mix of derived Russian, modified Slavic words, Cockney rhyming slang and hybrid words of Burgess’ own creation. 

A substantial number of the words are derived from Russian; ‘Slooshy’ from ‘slushat’ (to listen), ‘lubbilubbing’ from ‘lyublyu’ (making love) and ‘neezhnies’ from nizhniyi (underpants) are particularly memorable, sonorous examples. 
Some words are literally conceived; 'the old in-out' means sexual intercourse and ‘chumble’ onomatopoeically fuses ‘chatter’ and ‘mumble’. 
Some words have a rather childish, school-boy tone; ‘bad’ becomes ‘baddiwad’ while ‘apology’ becomes the ludicrous, yet rather melodious ‘appy polly loggy’.
While employing some traditional rhyming slang, Alex also contributes some original efforts such as ‘cutter’ for money (from the phrase bread and butter), and the unrhymed and obscure ‘pan-handle’ for ‘erection’.

The conglomeration of these various forms results in a hybrid, (sometimes perplexing) narrative discourse; a discourse which is as particular and peculiar as the character of Alex himself. Nadsat is fast-paced, observational, opportunistic and transmutational. It isn’t often that an author will create a new language for their characters, but Burgess did, and it has massive and multitudinous effects on how we read and respond to ‘A Clockwork Orange’. Essentially it wildly differentiates Alex, and his dystopian universe from our own. Burgess paradoxically locates his world far in the future and uncomfortably close to real-life; Nadsat is foreign, yet fundamentally grounded in reality. ‘A Clockwork Orange’, today, as it did in 1962 calls for a re-evaluation of our fixed, standardized plain-English. Burgess presents language in a state of flux, with a mutability and originality that makes spoken English seem paltry in comparison. 
NB: In the first edition of the book, no key was provided, and the reader was left to interpret the meaning of the words from their context. I have included a link to a ‘dictionary’ style list of definitions, however, while there is understandably interest in ‘translating’ Alex’s dialogue, I suggest that its lyrical beauty is un-translatable. Decipher ‘A Clockwork Orange’  as you will but first read it blind, ignorant, as the strange thing that it is. 

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