In Search Of The Perfect Language: Anthony Burgess and Europe
In 1968, when Anthony Burgess married Liana Macellari, an Italian linguist and translator, they decided to leave England and settle abroad. They moved first of all to Malta, then to Italy, France and Monaco, with long excursions to the United States and Canada to take up occasional lecturing posts in universities, and to carry out lecture tours. ‘I had married into the Continent,’ Burgess wrote, and it seemed only right that he should make a new life in places where Italian, French and Maltese were spoken.
Burgess had travelled extensively during the period of his first marriage, and he was a natural when it came to acquiring new languages. Posted to Gibraltar in 1943, he quickly learned Spanish (deployed to good effect in two novels, A Vision of Battlements and Enderby Outside), and his later employment in Malaya in the mid-1950s required him to learn colloquial Malay in around six weeks. The Malayan Trilogy (published 1956-59) features a good deal of wordplay in Malay, Chinese, Arabic, Urdu, and the other languages of the Malay peninsula. His later experiments with learning Russian when he visited Leningrad in 1961 famously resulted in the ‘Nadsat’ language spoken by Alex and his droogs in A Clockwork Orange.
Communication between linguistic and cultural groups remained a preoccupation until the end of his life, and he wrote two non-fiction books about the study of language, Language Made Plain (1964) and A Mouthful of Air (1992). He was also very actively engaged in translation, working with his first wife to put three French novels into English in the 1960s, and translating Oedipus the King, Cyrano de Bergerac and the sonnets of Belli in the 1970s.
Invented languages were another source of interest to Burgess the linguist, and it comes as no surprise to learn that he was called in to devise a series of caveman languages for Jean-Jacques Annaud’s famous film Quest for Fire (or La Guerre du Feu), released in 1981. Apart from A Clockwork Orange, a number of his other novels feature imaginary languages. Examples include M/F, in which the inhabitants of the island of Castita speak an invented language; and Tremor of Intent, which includes words and phrases from a newly devised Slavic language.
Burgess wrote at length about imaginary languages in an article published in the Spectator on 25 November 1966. The context of the article was Britain’s ongoing attempts to join the European Common Market, which had initially been vetoed by President de Gaulle of France.
He began by considering the number of English loan-words which had entered French. ‘Nobody told the French to adopt niou loque (new look), rocanrole (rock ’n’ roll), best-seller, kidnappé and so on,’ he wrote. ‘They had to go into the language because their referents couldn’t be named more succinctly out of the native word-stock.’
He was particularly excited about the linguistic possibilities offered by German, although he was against the German habit of capitalising nouns. Nevertheless, he wrote that German ‘sets an example to english in its willingness to eschew hyphens and to make word-compounds into real words. If it can use Grundbuchamt, we ought to have ‘landregistry’, and ‘insurancebroker’ need be no more eccentric than Versicherungsmakler.
Noting these elements of interplay between European languages, he wondered how far the process could reasonably be extended. ‘The Common Market,’ he wrote, ‘will give us an opportunity to start a new wave of Europeanising English.’
He imagined Harold Wilson, the Prime Minister of the day, leading Britain into Europe with a speech to be delivered in a new single European language, which would be more or less comprehensible to all of Britain’s European partners:
He can tell the europeans that the britannic nation has emerged from a mauvaise époque in which the Lumpenproletariat, rendered torpid by la noia of the ancien régime, with its Unrealpolitik of il faut cultiver notre jardin, possessed of no viable Weltanschauung, has, nel mezzo del cammin of the Socialist renaissance, rediscovered, through Sturm und Drang and the empressement of the Zeitgeist, its élan vital and is, con brio e con amore e molto accelerando, becoming au fait with the nouvelle vague of passé chauvinistes and the verloren hoops to whom laissez-faire was the dernier cri.
Burgess’s article ends by proposing, only half-seriously, the establishment of a new pan-European lingua franca to be called ‘Marcommunish’.
No doubt all this was great fun to write, but his speculations about language were underpinned by a serious point. As he wrote in A Mouthful of Air, ‘The fact that the human race speaks many languages – most of them unintelligible – has traditionally been regarded as a curse.’ Although he retained a fondness for invented languages such as Ido and Esperanto, he argued for the revival of Latin as the solution to the European language question. ‘We do not feel embarrassed at our solecisms when trying to speak a dead tongue: Cicero is not there to rebuke us.’ Yet he acknowledged that ‘despite the grumbling of the French, English will prevail in Europe, as in the rest of the world. Even French air pilots and control-tower officers have to speak it.’
‘It is a British writer’s duty,’ Burgess wrote in 1976, ‘to get out of Britain if he can and examine the English language against the foil of other tongues.’ It was only by speaking other languages, he believed, that English literature and language could be enriched and expanded.
Anthony Burgess, ‘Here Parla Man Marcommunish’, Spectator, 25 November 1966, pp. 674-5
A Mouthful of Air: Language and Languages, Especially English (London: Hutchinson, 1992)