The International Anthony Burgess Foundation

A Clockwork Orange and Nadsat

One of the most innovative aspects of A Clockwork Orange is the language Burgess’s protagonists employ. Nadsat, Russian for ‘teen’, is the invented slang in which Alex narrates the novel, his experiences described in raucous and unfamiliar prose. Much of his inspiration came from a holiday to Leningrad in 1961, which he discovered reminded him of the Manchester of his youth. It was a rare occurrence for a British citizen to travel to Russia in the 1960s at the height of the Cold War, and this is perhaps one of the reasons Burgess is often confused with spies of the period such as Anthony Blunt and Guy Burgess. Yet, the impetus for Burgess’s trip was cultural curiosity, and he hoped to produce a novel from his experience. In fact he produced two: A Clockwork Orange and Honey for the Bears (1963). Arguably, Tremor of Intent (1966) also contains some inspiration from this period.

In preparation for his trip, Burgess spent time learning the language, just as he had with the Malay language during his time in the colonial service in the 1950s. His love of language, whether the tongues of the European countries in which he lived, or plain English, pervaded everything he wrote. From the Northern simplicity of One Hand Clapping (1961) to the Elizabethan richness of Nothing Like the Sun (1964), to the linguistic innovation in novels such as Napoleon Symphony (1974) and, of course, A Clockwork Orange, Burgess’s writing takes endless pleasure in words. He writes, ‘One feels strongly (at least I do) that practitioners of literature should at least show an interest in the raw materials of their art’.

In addition to the Russian influence, Nadsat derives from a number of other sources: Romany; Cockney rhyming slang; the language of the criminal underworld; the English of Shakespeare and the Elizabethans; armed forces slang; and the Malay language familiar to Burgess.

Within this patchwork of languages, Burgess is careful to allow context to offer definitions. When we hear Alex talking of his intention to ‘tolchock some old veck in an alley and viddy him swim in his blood’, it is clear what is being said, yet often Nadsat is used as a language of opposition, something that establishes the droogs as an isolated counter-cultural group, even before their brutal behaviour is described.

Much like George Orwell with his ‘Newspeak’ in Nineteen-Eighty Four (1949), Burgess aimed to create a timeless language to depict his dystopian future, perhaps the reason why the novel has had such longevity. The language also removes the action of the novel from geographical location, and the city it is set in could stand for anywhere from Manchester to Leningrad, London to Los Angeles, or other even more distant locales.

Burgess viewed his use of Nadsat as a ‘brainwashing device’, something he writes about in You’ve Had Your Time (1990): ‘The novel was to be an exercise in linguistic programming, with the exoticisms gradually clarified by context: I would resist to the limit any publisher’s demand that a glossary be provided. A glossary would disrupt the programme and nullify the brainwashing’. The book’s editor, James Michie, had some hesitations about the density of Nadsat in the novel and stated a desire for Burgess to ‘make it gently accelerando. You can’t throw too much of it at them too quickly’. This editorial suggestion led to revisions in the first part of the novel, and is shown when Alex helps the reader through some of the tougher language. For example: ‘rooker (a hand, that is)’, ‘litso (face, that is) and ‘my three droogs, that is Pete, Georgie, and Dim’.

Despite Burgess’s insistence that there should be no glossary, there have now been many editions of the novel that include a glossary, including the exhaustive and meticulous one contained in A Clockwork Orange: The Restored Edition, published on the fiftieth anniversary of the novel in 2012.