Fat Books & Thin Women

A Clockwork Orange, Nadsat, & Creating a World Through Slang
January 10, 2012, 2:23 pm
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Reading Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange a second time, with two years of Macedonian under my belt, was an odd experience. My first reading was characterized mostly by my impatience with the nadsat, the slang that Alex and other teenagers use, and inability to stay awake for more than a few pages of what seemed to me the incomprehensible speech of Burgess’s characters.

One of the other volunteers in Macedonia mentioned that he had reread the book after learning Macedonian and that knowing the language had fundamentally changed his reading of the book. That’s why I finally reread Clockwork, after having had it on my shelf for well over a year. I was curious, and nothing more, about whether knowing a Slavic language would demystify the nadsat and change my reading experience.

Short answer, it did. The nadsat spoken by Alex has a lot in common with the MakeNglish spoken by Peace Corps Volunteers in the country, when we say things like “I’m odying to the prodav” (should be “Одам на продавница”/“Odam na prodavnitsa”, “I’m going to the store”). Burgess’s nadsat turns out to be little more than baby-level Russian, sometimes rejiggered slightly to fit better in the mouths of his characters, but easily understood by anyone with some experience with a Slavic language. Hell, Macedonian and Russian are not even that similar and I was able to come up with a list of words that are almost straight out of the Macedonian dictionary: starry (стари, old), nozh (нож, knife), mesto (место, place), droogs (друг, friend, companion), viddy (види, look, see), devotchka (девојка, girl), malenky (мал, little, small), gloopy (глуп, stupid), zoobies (заби, teeth), slooshy (слуши, listen), zheena (жена, woman), nochy (ноќ, night).*

My rereading of A Clockwork Orange suffered in some ways for its sudden comprehensibility. Nadsat still reads to me like an extraordinary language, one formed by an attentive and creative ear, but it’s also one that now reveals itself to be not much more than a selection of basic words from Russian. As Megan McCafferty’s Bumped proved, an unbelievable language can swiftly bring down a story, rendering an entire world false. Burgess’s use of language is far more skilled than is McCafferty’s, the slang of his teenagers utterly believable and never ringing false or ridiculous as McCafferty’s slang did.** Burgess may not form his world through his slang, as McCafferty attempted to, but he is able to use the slang to reveal that world and to mark it as a singular place in the reader’s life. Take the opening:

‘What’s it going to be then, eh?’

There was me, that is Alex, and my three droogs, that is Pete, Georgie, and Dim, Dim being really dim, and we sat in the Korova Milkbar making up our rassoodocks what to do with the evening, a flip dark chill winter bastard though dry. The Korova Milkbar was a milk-plus mesto, and you may, O my brothers, have forgotten what these mestos were like, things changing so skorry these days and everybody very quick to forget, newspapers not being read much neither. (1)

Burgess does so much right here. Foreign as the slang may be, he uses it sparsely and the reader can “translate” the slang with the aid of context. Something about Alex’s time is revealed in this passage, too, with Alex so casually providing these details to demonstrate how much the world has changed, but at the same time showing that in some ways – regardless of language or whether teenagers are meeting up for coffees (or illicit beers) or milk-plus – it has, essentially, remained the same.

Alex’s voice is unforgettable; and the quality of that voice owes itself to the slang and little else. Because for most of the novel Alex is either a thuggish teen with few notable observations or someone being acted on by other people, little more than a body for their debates, there is little to his character apart from his way of speaking. Burgess did such a perfect job with that speech, though, that A Clockwork Orange should be a study guide for authors hoping to provide their characters with a believable slang.

How much has my reading of this book changed, though, from when I first picked it up four or five years ago? Part of the reason the slang now reads so naturally to me is that it is natural; I use a lot of the words Alex uses, every day. In some ways it feels as though the novel has collapsed a bit for me because of this – it’s no longer such a foreign world as it used to be – and in some ways it feels like a fuller and richer reading experience because I am able to join in the nadsat.

What has your experience been of reading A Clockwork Orange? Does the nadsat add to or complete the world for you, or make it harder to decipher what is happening in that world? Do you think the nadsat works because it is pulled from a real language and thus reads as more “real” and consistent than could a language cobbled together by anyone other than J.R.R. Tolkien, or is that just me and the two years of Macedonian?***

* This list would have been a lot longer, but I figured: I’m tired, and I’ve made my point. If you are wondering how you pronounce the Macedonian, most of the pronunciations are similar to the nadsat. That’s why I didn’t type the Macedonian in Latinski script…also, again, because I’m lazy.

** If you are rolling your eyes over me comparing A Clockwork Orange and Bumped…I’m sorry. I’m sorry! I just can’t resist taking a few more jabs at McCafferty’s novel.

*** One more: someone, please, explain how Norton let this book be printed up with back cover copy that starts, “A vicious fifteen-year-old droog is the central character…” when “droog” means “friend” and can’t really be used to describe someone except in relation to someone else.


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I haven’t read A Clockwork Orange but this was a fascinating post all the same. Thanks!

Comment by Christy

[…] Burgess’s story is one that’s probably known to the reader through film, and despite the play with language here, it’s a pretty easy read that will nevertheless have the reader, at end, thinking, […]

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