Use of nasdat in Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange “And, my brothers, it was real satisfaction to me to waltz-left two three, right two three-and carve left cheeky and right cheeky, so that like two curtains of blood seemed to pour out at the same time, one on either side of his fat filthy oily snout in the winter starlight. ” –Alex, A Clockwork Orange Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange is set in a futuristic city in a time, not too far off in the future. In this futuristic society, normal citizens have fallen into complacency and are oblivious to the growth of a violent youth culture.
Alex, the narrator and protagonist of the story, is a teenage boy who speaks in a contrived slang called nadsat. Nasdat is a contrived language that incorporates elements of Russian and Cockney English. The use of language in the novel helps illustrate and set the scene as Alex leads a small gang of peers, friends and fellow criminals – Dim, Pete, and Georgie – through the streets, robbing, beating men, raping women and committing random acts of violence.
Alex is the sole narrator of A Clockwork Orange. Every word on the page is his, and as readers, we experience his world through the scenes he describes and the experiences, suffering and pleasure he encounters. The function of nadsat in A Clockwork Orange, are many. Most immediately, the use of unusual language forces the reader to actively think about and use the language of the book. Because nasdat isn’t common-place, readers must pay attention to and force understanding of the words on the page.
The act of comprehending and understanding the language as it is written prevents readers from making judgments about the characters. In this way, nadsat insulates us from many of the harsh and violent realities in the book, allowing us to develop a rapport with Alex and ultimately grow sympathy for the character. To better understand why the language in A Clockwork Orange draws the reader to empathize with the main character, it is important to understand how nasdat was developed and also how it works as a tool to draw the reader in.
The most daunting task to most readers of this novel is the introduction of a foreign yet eerily common seeming language. A general understanding of the influence, pronunciation and meaning of many of the words in nasdat can ease the reader into a pleasurable understanding of the novel. Nasdat is heavily influenced by Russian, usually taking a word from Russian and anglicizing it, but retaining some form of the original pronunciation. For example, chelloveck means fellow or person in Nadsat as well as in Russian word, chelovyek.
The following sentence shows some of the other influences at work as well. “I read this with care, my brothers, slurping away at the old chai, cup after tass after chasha, crunching my lomticks of black toast dipped in jammiwam and eggiweg. ” Translated loosely, the sentence above shows Alex drinking many cups of tea, and eating slices of toast and jam with eggs. To dive in deeper, a general understanding of the words is necessary. Chai is the Russian word for tea, but there are also parallels with the English slang word char.
Tass is a word which is based on the French and German words for cup (tasse and Tasse) and chasha has origins in the Russian words for teacup (chashka) and a poetical word for a large cup (chasha). Lomtick reflects the Russian lomtik meaning slice. Both jammiwam and eggiweg are made-up, childish renditions of the words jam and egg. The introduction of these words will invariably cause a first time reader of A Clockwork Orange to have problems following the action of the book and may also cause frustration.
This fact distances the reader from what is happening, which helps to produce a number of effects on the reader. One of these effects is a well placed discomfort that at not being able to understand what is being said by Alex. The feeling is similar to travelling in a foreign country and not being able to understand the native language. The reader, much like the traveler doesn’t know whether what is being said is friendly, hostile, threatening or otherwise. Interestingly enough, the language is still intelligible even though it does slow the reader and force them to interpret Burgess’ intention.
The difference between using a completely foreign language and one that is even slightly understandable is that nadsat is, for the most part, a form of slang, describing things for which there is already a word in English, but in a different way. As a linguist, Burgess was all too aware that slang can date rather quickly – words like daddy-o, groovy or radical which could root a book or character in a particular time unless it was being employed deliberately for humorous effect.
By making up a new type of slang, Burgess could ensure that the book transcended the time in which it was written and is still all too relevant now, and probably will be in the future. The nasdat language also plays another important role in distinguishing who among the characters is a ‘teen’ and who is not. As Alex explains to F. Alexander; “Oh, that,” I said, “is what we call nadsat talk. All the teens use that, sir. ” Furthermore then, people who are not teens, such as Alex’s parents, P. R. Deltoid, the prison chaplain and Joe (the lodger), speak normally and do not use the nadsat.
The transformation from one characters use of nasdat is at the end of the story when Alex meets his old ‘droog’ Pete, and his wife. The contrast between the speech of Alex, who is still using the nadsat, and Pete, who is now speaking normally, coupled with Georgina’s (Pete’s wife) amusement at Alex’s speech creates a colourful picture showing the contrast between the nadsat and the eloquence of Pete’s speech. Another feature of the story is that the narration of the book is in the first person narrative, and the way in which Alex addresses the readers, quite often with the words ‘O my brothers,’ makes the story being told more personal.
His use of first person seems to center the story specifically for the reader. Therefore, it makes the reader feel like Alex is speaking directly to him/her and that they are in receipt of an amazing story which is only being told to a chosen few. This use of language is incongruous to the use of the nadsat because, although Burgess is making the reader feel part of a select group with the informal wording of the narrative and the directness of the way Alex addresses the reader, we are also left feeling out in the cold because of the unfamiliar understanding of the nadsat.
Another effect of language is that the violence in the book is partially veiled, making it seem less shocking. As Burgess himself explained; “to tolchock a chelloveck in the kishkas does not sound as bad as booting a man in the guts. ” (Cite) Covering up of the violence using artificial language works because throughout the course of the story readers have to be thinking about what words such as yarbles (testicles), britva (razor) and oozy (chain) mean. The language veil leaves Burgess free to have Alex do what he wants without the reader judging him so harshly.
By disconnecting the emotive response to the words from their meaning, nadsat creates a cushioning layer between the acts of violence and how the reader understands these acts. The forced interpretation causes a delay in the mind of the reader as he/she stops to figure out what the “replaced” word means to the story. Burgess’ smokescreen use of the language was intentional in order to shield the reader from the extreme violence and cause him/her to build a rapport with the main character, further building empathy. Works Cited Burgess, Anthony. A Clockwork Orange. New York. W. W. Norton & Company, 1986. Print
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