Nadsat and the power of slang

Posted by on February 08, 2010

© GettyThere was me, that is Sarah, sat in front of the puter in my woolly toofles, after a hard day’s rabbiting, fagged and in need of a bit of spatchka, trying to gather together my messels and make up my rassoodock as to what slovos to write for this bloggywog. And I must confess, O my brothers, that I was feeling a malenky bit poogly, viddying well that I was merely a gloopy devotchka out of my depth-wise in amongst all these linguisto-sophistos and simply did not know where to begin or what to, like, skazat…

You see, my little malchicks and ptitsas, Brother Dizraeli was right, language is the lewdies that live it and language can be divisive, O yes, and it can also be infectious. And I, Bog forgive me, have been infected to the very core of my gulliver with Nadsat.

Nadsat? What, pray, is that? Is that, like, a Russian slovo for satnav or some such cal? No, no, no my droogies, Nadsat is the slovo for teen, as in teenager, and is the name of the invented slang of the oomny raskazz A Clockwork Orange by that zammechat chelloveck Anthony Burgess. It’s a book about the vile exploits of a young prestoopnik malchick called Alex, that, like, really makes you think about the horrible, horrible world we live in, full of, like, immorality and ultra-violence.

The novel is a work of genius: dazzlingly inventive in its use of English; a magisterial, surreal, sickening, truly thought-provoking, perpetually relevant study of good, evil and free will. Consider the political climate in Britain at the moment, with all this talk of a ‘broken society’. Burgess was writing about all that dystopian cal when David Cameron was in short platties.

The sinny film is pretty amazing, too, though not pleasant, not pleasant at all. Narrated entirely in Nadsat – a bizarre combination of cockney rhyming slang, gypsy talk, anglicised Russian, biblical archaicisms and ludic schoolboy speak – it is alienating at first. That’s kind of the point. Watch the film’s opening sequence – go on, it won’t take long (2 mins) – it’s brilliant.

If you want to get a real flavour of the language have a quick smeck at this next scene. Bit of context for you: Alex – who let’s not forget is the psychopathic leader of a gang of burgling, raping, murdering teenage sadists, so not exactly boy scout material – is sat in the Korova Milkbar. The aptly-named Dim is about to make an ill-advised attempt to challenge his leader’s authority. (Worth warning you that Alex gets a bit touchy about classical music, especially Beethoven.) The language is just breathtaking…

Argument in the milkbar (2.5 mins)

It’s so creepy, isn’t it, this silly-slinky-sinister-slithering-slang. Gets under your skin.

Important to pin down exactly what we mean by slang, mind. The Macmillan Dictionary definition alludes to the fact that the term can refer either to workaday informal expressions or, as in the case of Nadsat, the deliberately obtuse lexicon of a particular social group. (In fact, it’s really more accurate to describe Nadsat as an argot, a secret language in its own right.)

I reckon that this cliquey-speakey kind of slang serves two primary functions:

1 as a weapon of social exclusion, irreverently marking out generational difference

2 as a defence mechanism, a way of protecting the group’s activities, illicit or otherwise, from the unwanted attention of authority figures

In my view, slang also satisfies a deep human need to play with, twist, stretch and remould language to express the way you see the world. And this is where I start to feel a bit uncomfortable about my love for Nadsat precisely because of the despicable, krovvy-soaked violence that it so often describes. Is Nadsat intrinsically bad? Nah, of course not. No language is intrinsically bad, or good. But if you use Nadsat, aren’t you really identifying yourself with something that is pretty dark and sinister…?

Smotting forward to viddying your messels on this and any other slangy matters.

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Comments (6)
  • Brilliant post Sarah, so intriguing that I find myself wanting to comment even though I found the film so disturbing as to be almost unwatchable, and much of your post is completely unintelligible! Strange isn’t it, how slang makes you feel like you’re on the outside of something, excluded from it, and that whatever you’ve been excluded from is somehow cool and desirable. As you say, that opening scene is all about the clique, the homies, the brotherhood – and the language reflects that. There are two interesting things here I suppose (apart from the langauge itself). First the that fact that slang is used in the ways that you describe to create a language of tribe and belonging, often by those to whom tribe is crucially important: the disenfranchised and the ghettoised (and here I mean not just those excluded by race and geography but also by age – the whole phenomenon of teen slang). Second, the fact that this exclusivity and promise of belonging draws us in, appeals to us, makes us want to join to the group that creates and uses this distinct form of language. Perhaps that’s one of the elements of genius that make The Clockwork Orange so powerful: the fact that it implicates and entices even as it repulses and horrifies. And it does that in no small part through its strange take on the English language.

    Posted by Ian on 11th February, 2010
  • ha! good read 🙂 love the movie but never stopped to think about the language too much. too simple me…

    Posted by Mat on 12th February, 2010
  • Dear Sarah,

    I am also a huge fan of ‘Clockwork Orange’. I use one of the early passages (when they are sitting in the Milk Bar, clocking the devotchkas in their gullivers) as an example of how important it is to learn vocabulary in context. Most people reading that paragraph can work out what the words mean without having to look them up. What’s fun is then going back at the end of the lesson and seeing if they remember them. They nearly always can. Why can’t students do that with more currently useful vocabulary? The power of the story element I guess, and the fact that Burgess made the words so memorable.
    Although Burgess’s prediction of ultra violence seems scarily accurate I’m not sure if his conclusion (violence is a phase young men go through and when they get older they want to get married and have babies) was quite right. Most of my girlfriends (that is ‘friends who are girls’) complain bitterly about the lack of men willing to have babies (as opposed to practice making them) with them.
    James

    Posted by James Schofield on 18th February, 2010
  • O my brothers! Thanks for the comments. So much to say here…

    @Ian
    I know what you mean about the film being unwatchable. The first time I saw it, I was thoroughly disgusted by it. The ultra-violent scenes made me feel queasy. The second and third time, I was still disturbed, but realised what a brilliantly made, intelligent, thought-provoking film it was. As for the slang being unintelligible, I’m not sure that’s the case. As James comments, it’s not impossible to work it out from the context, the positioning of the words, their inflections and how they collocate. Rassoodock could mean anything I suppose, but the phrase ‘make up my rassoodock’ in the context given gives you a fairly good clue that it probably means ‘make up my mind’. Even if you are unclear on what precisely the slang is referring to, you can see whether it’s a verb, a noun or an adjective. I agree that this kind of obtuse slang can be alienating and annoying and off-putting, but I wouldn’t say it’s unintelligible. It’s decodable. I seem to remember reading somewhere that some linguisto-sophistos conducted some kind of vocabulary comprehension test on first-time readers of the novel. They scored quite highly, I think, demonstrating that context really aids understanding of language. For non-native speakers of English, admittedly, it’s much more difficult to understand really well-developed slang. I suppose you need a pretty good knowledge of Bog Standard English as a foundation on which to base your understanding of non-standard varieties.

    As regards the appeal of slang and how it draws you in, the flip side surely is that the more popular and mainstream it becomes, the less cool it is. And it’s got to be cliquey to be cool. The fantastic thing about the Internet, linguistically speaking, is that if you’ve got a linguistic fetish, and want to be part of some kooky linguistic community it’s easy-peasy to join a group of like-minded, um… enthusiasts. See, for example, the Translate Facebook into Nadsat campaign and all the other Nadsat fan sites and groups.

    @James
    Great that you’re using the book in your classes! Yeah, I was dissatisfied with the novel’s ending too, (don’t read on if you don’t want to know the ending) not least because the little bugger shows not a shred of remorse. His intention to move on with his life, find a devotchka, settle down and have a son who may well grow up to be an ultra-violent malchick, is just depressing. As for men and babies, I know plenty of chellovecks who want kids and plenty of devotchkas who do not!

    Hmmm… just wondering, are there any other slangy argots out there… Loads probably. I quite fancy taking up Polari, just for fun.

    Oh, check this Nadsat quiz out by the way: http://www.funtrivia.com/flashquiz/index.cfm?qid=165930

    Posted by Sarah McKeown on 20th February, 2010
  • Thanks for the mention of the Translate Facebook into Nadsat Campaign! Facebook members: preglassit your droogies to the group and we will have Facebook translated into our beloved Nadsat.

    Posted by Xander Banks on 22nd February, 2010
  • Funny example of criminal slang. Griff Rhys Jones’s face is a picture.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gtskvu9CFhU
    Towards the end language gets a bit scatalogical.

    Posted by Sarah McKeown on 27th February, 2010
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