by Jana Záhoráková
Many novelists resort to creating dialects and languages to enrich the worlds that they make up. Probably the most famous instance of this was J.R.R. Tolkien with his detailed languages and whole cultures in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and more recently George R. R. Martin in Game of Thrones. It adds another dimension to the characters and their history. This article, however, concentrates on British novelists who do not create a new language, but rather envision the world in the future and invent ways in which present-day English might develop. They usually choose dystopian futures and with said use of the English language highlight the impact of totalitarian would-be eras. The novels discussed below are George Orwell’s 1984, Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange and David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas.
All of these books were so popular that they were turned into major motion pictures with some of them completely disregarding the aspect of the language change, which is not as easy to capture in a movie as it is in a book. 1984 has been filmed twice so far: once in 1956 directed by Michael Anderson and then again in 1984 directed by Michael Radford. However, as Richard Grenier put it in his review of the 1984 version, Orwell’s biggest strength‒ his essay writing skills‒ simply do not transform into the movie genre (Grenier). Since the biggest space given to Newspeak is in the essay after the end of the novel itself, it is clear that the movie adaptation could not depict the language in a deeper way. A Clockwork Orange was only filmed once in 1971, but the Stanley Kubrick directed piece became a cult classic despite the fact that it filmed a shortened version of the novel released in the USA which omits the main protagonist’s change and acceptance of normal lifestyle without the ultra-violence of his youth. Although it uses some of the Nadsat slang, especially in Alex’ narration, the application of the terms is limited by the media as it lacks the advantage of the printed page, which a reader can look at and re-read for as much as it takes them to understand the words. As opposed to the previous two films, Cloud Atlas was made into a movie quite recently‒ in 2012. In both future storylines, the language changes are more represented through the spellings which sometimes do, but most of the time do not, alter the pronunciation and therefore were not utilised on screen. All three writers had their own reasons and ways in creating their version of English of the days to come to enrich their dystopian futures and most of them will be addressed below. Unfortunately, the movies usually did not make an extensive use of this resource.
George Orwell’s 1984 and Newspeak
“It’s a beautiful thing, the destruction of words” (Orwell 28)
The language of the future was so important to Orwell, that as well as occasionally using it in his novel, he dedicates a whole chapter to it, or “Appendix” as he calls it (Orwell 175). In this chapter he explains the grammar as well as the vocabulary of his invented language. The main trait of Newspeak is that it attempts to simplify the language in order to limit the way people think for the sake of easy control of their thoughts. The main political idea behind it is to make politically unwanted ideas impossible to even think about because there would be no words left to describe them. Maxime Krongauz stresses how this aspect or goal could be related with the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis of linguistic relativity, which states that the structure of the language one speaks determines the way one thinks about life (Krongauz 46). However, Krongauz is quick to also explain that at the time when Orwell was writing the novel, this theory would probably not have been very popular (Krongauz 46). The novel differentiates between Oldspeak, which is the standard English people are used to speaking now and in Orwell’s version of the year 1984, and Newspeak, which is the new form of language made-up and dictated by the dystopian government. According to Syme, whom Winston watch-fully calls a friend, Oldspeak should become obsolete and completely replaced by Newspeak by 2050 which is only thirty years from our reality.
Luckily for all of us, Orwell’s dystopian vision of the future did not come true and we are free to use whichever kind of language, slang or dialect we choose. However, Krongauz makes similarities between the principles of Newspeak and the highly bureaucratic speeches of the former leaders of the Soviet Union where the Russian translation of the word Newspeak “novoiaz” started a life of its own and is often referred to by people who do not even know the novel itself (Krongauz 38). Nonetheless, contrary to the aims of Newspeak, which had its primary focus on making it so easy to speak as to not use the brain at all, the idea for the main purpose for Newspeak was that a person soaked in the ideas of the propaganda would be able to respond to any words in a staccato fashion reminding one of the sound of the machine gun. This is why the new words invented specifically for Newspeak purposes were often very short. However, the real language of the Soviets was often incomprehensible (Krongauz 41). So, it would appear that an actual realisation of Newspeak would be harder to come by.
In his dissection of Newspeak at the end of the novel, Orwell explains that on the lexical level, Newspeak has three categories of words: the A vocabulary entails all the words one needs to describe day-to-day life experiences, the B vocabulary is loaded with manipulative propaganda, and the C vocabulary supplements words needed for technical and scientific purposes (Orwell 175). As for the grammar, it is highly simplified: essentially all the rules become regular, so the plural form “man” is “mans”, the past participle form “to think” is “thinked” and “better” and “best” was to become “gooder” and “goodest” (Orwell 176). Apart from that, in order to curtail the number of words, regular ways of creating new words while by the same token discarding old ones was implemented: for example, the word “bad” would not be necessary because it would be replaced by “ungood” (Orwell 175). Very little irregularities were to be kept. However, in reality, it is the words that are being used the most that become irregular through this very usage so (for example the verb “be” in English is inflected even though English is an analytic language), any attempt at getting rid of irregularities is barely possible.
What inspired Orwell to come up with such a thing as Newspeak? Jean-Jacques Courtine traces two possible precursors: Cablese and Basic English (Courtine 71). Courtine describes Cablese as “a verbal shorthand” used by journalists and therefore most probably known to Orwell (Courtine 71). This type of communication is merely used to jot down quick ideas and is not suitable for longer philosophical treatises. According to Orwell, this could be the very reason why leaders of the totalitarian empires would be interested in its usage. Basic English “is an international language experiment, imagined by C. K. Ogden” and it belongs to the category of minimal languages derived from natural languages by simplification (Courtine 71). Courtine explains that Orwell had actually been an outspoken advocate of this form of English and only later came to essentially satirise it in his novel 1984 (Courtine 72).
According to Howard Fink, the last source of inspiration supplying the totalitarian undertones was von Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom which analyses how totalitarian systems manipulate language and its expression in order to manipulate their populace (Fink 155). Fink claims that Orwell uses all of his sources in order to parody the misuse of science to control the people and the way they think about the world (Fink 155). The relationship between the thinking and talking is put into focus in Orwell’s work in that the way the authorities are making up language changes in order to control the minds of the citizens via the structure of the language they force them to speak and write in.
Orwell described his made-up language in such a detailed why that he left no one guessing about just how important it was for him. He wanted to unveil the way totalities attempt to imprison the minds of their citizens and the creation of Newspeak helped him to achieve this goal in a very neat fashion. He was inspired by several language projects mentioned above to invent a new and extremely straightforward way of speaking and thinking. It is simple on the first glance, but complex on deeper study.
Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange and Nadsat
“This must be a real horrorshow film if you’re so keen on my viddying it.” (Burgess 38).
The language invented by Anthony Burgess for his young protagonist, Alex, in the novel A Clockwork Orange is a kind of a parody of youth slang gone so far that the parents of the teenagers cannot comprehend or speak it. This is shown by various authority figures (doctors, parents) dismissing it as does doctor Branom, when he states: “Odd bits of old rhyming slang,” […] “A bit of gipsy talk, too. But most of the roots are Slav. Propaganda. Subliminal penetration.” (Burgess 43-44). This is a comment on Alex’s use of the vernacular during the process of the Ludovico technique. Interestingly, Sean McQueen points out in his book that one of Alex’s former friends, Dim, whom Alex meets after his transformation and who is now a policeman, cannot remember the good old times when he was part of Alex’s crew and he can only manage to say this about the former language he used to speak every day: “Not to speak like that. Not no more, droogie” (Burgess 56).
Burgess was both a writer and a linguist. Kevin Windle even called him “an uncommonly gifted” linguist, and because of his interest in Russian, he was able to create this language with an ease others would have struggled with (Windle 164). According to Burgess himself, he chose to invent his own dialect because the way young people spoke in the 60s “might have a lavender smell by the time the manuscript got to the printers” (quoted in Windle 183). However, the new language also attributed to another factor in the novel: according to Burgess himself, the short adaptation that the reader is forced into in order to learn how to understand Alex’s monologues is a form of brainwashing (Burgess in Vincent and Clarke 247). This is probably part of why Burgess was so much against any kind of glossaries of Nadsat (Vincent and Clarke 150). Despite his wishes, the US edition of his book contained a list of 241 Nadsat words compiled by Stanley Hyman with their equivalents in contemporary English to help readers accommodate to the made-up language (Vincent and Clarke 150).
The name of the language, Nadsat, is, as are many of the phrases, derived from Russian word for teen (Vincent and Clark 248). McQueen traces the roots of Nadsat to “German, Latin, Dutch, regional Slavic, Gypsy, French and Arabic words, Cockney rhyming slang, and some invented words and expressions” (McQueen 36). Words like “viddy” from Russian “videť” meaning “to see” in English, “slooshy” from Russian “slyšať” meaning “to hear” in English. Burgess, or rather Alex, inflects these verbs according to English grammar so we get words like “viddied”, “viddying”, “slooshied” and “slooshying”. Windle points out one more element that enriches the fabric of Burgess’ made up language: archaisms (Windle 170). Alex uses phrases like “What giveth” or “What dost thou in mind” (Burgess 38, 61). And there are also shortenings of words. For example, the Russian word for a man or human “čelovek” is sometimes used in full and somewhat anglicised “chelloveck” and sometimes shortened into the term “veck”. Similarly, as with the verbs the nouns are pluralised according to English grammar. So, we get plurals like “vecks”, “veshches” from Russian “vešči” meaning “things”, “malchiks” from Russian “maľčiki” meaning “boys” and “nozhes” from Russian “noži” meaning “knives”.
Nadsat makes for an interesting case of translation. Burgess himself has said that “The Russians, of course, would have no difficulty at all; they would merely have to replace my Slavonic loan-words with English” (Burgess in Windle 165). Windle studies two different translations into Russian: one by Sinel’shchikov who took this advice to heart and used it and another by Boshniak who completely rejects this method. In order to make some of the words stand out in Boshniak’s translation, he used Latin script instead of Cyrillic for the Russian terms to foreground their difference (Windle 165-166). Windle points out that the Russian culture has absorbed more English words than the other way around so the readers can easily translate Nadsat which should not be the case (Windle 167). As for the Czech translation, the one by Šenkyřík follows Burgess’ instruction, replacing Slavic words with their English counterparts. Thus, Alex’s “droogs” become “frendíci”, “making up our rassoodocks” becomes “decidovali se”, “peet milk” becomes “drinkovat mlíko”, “deng” or money becomes “many” and the aforementioned “veck” becomes “hjumaník”.
Why invent a whole new language? As I mentioned earlier, Burgess wanted the youth speech used in the novel to last longer and stay fresh which is why he did not just use 60s slang in the novel. However, as McQueen points out, the book “is a meditation on control over language, expression and thought” (McQueen 31). The way Alex narrates the story with all the Russian slang words is an expression of his free self. Alex strives to differentiate himself from his parents and adults in general. He despises the bourgeoisie and rebels against it by acting out in violent ways. When describing the usual crews hanging around in his favourite bar he excludes “the bourgeois, never them” (Burgess 11). What better way to rebel against the bourgeoise and its consumerism than applying pieces of the language of the communist block to describe it and confront its babbitry¹.
It seems that Burgess got the idea of code-switching right. However, instead of Russian being the source language for the switch, it is English that is used all over the world by people who cannot really speak it but know some terms of everyday use as well as vocabulary from technological and scientific fields. Nowadays, to find a person who does not speak a word of English would be an ordeal.
The main reason why Burgess invented his own dialect for his futuristic novel in his own words was that he wanted it to feel fresh and keep it that way for decades which he achieved. The reason why he decided to get inspired by Russian so much was probably because at the height of the Cold War it was the most dangerous influence on English possible in the eyes of the concerned parents.
David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas and the dialects of the future
“three days up’n’three more down, an’dingos’n’Kona’n’Sonmi knows what on the way” (Mitchell 283)
David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas is a novel published in 2004, and later turned into a movie in 2012 by the Wachowski sisters, who are famous for their Matrix Trilogy. Whereas the directors decided to narrate the film as a mosaic of different stories, the novel had a structure that was, according to Mitchell, reminiscent of a Russian doll: the reader is first presented to the first half of the five stories, then the last narrative is told in full and then the novel continues with the second parts of the five stories (Mitchell iii). In the novel, the idea of what the author himself has called “transmigrating souls” represented by the birth mark that each of the main protagonists in every story share is symbolised by the fact that the actors are recycled throughout the stories, playing different roles or rather different re-imaginations of their characters (Mitchell iii). The whole novel covers several decades, centuries even from the mid-nineteen century in the first story to the not specified distant future in the sixth narrative. Both the fifth and the sixth story take place in the future and use futuristic dialects that will be discussed below.
The fifth story takes place in a futuristic Korea now called Nea So Copros and it consists of an interview between a so called Archivist and Sonmi 451, a “fabricant” or a clone specifically created to work in a fast food restaurant for twelve years and then be rewarded by being freed to live a life of their own on an island called Xultation (Mitchell 189). This specific Sonmi, however, is made aware of the hypocrisy and unfairness of this whole process by an underground anti-government organisation called the Union who shows her that in reality after their twelve years of hard work, the fabricants are slaughtered and recycled into Soap which is a sort of food for the younger fabricants. In light of this discovery, Sonmi writes a kind of manifesto called Declarations to be adhered to after the Union members trigger a revolution. However, shortly afterwards, the Unionists including Sonmi are captured and put on trial. After the trial, the interview with the Archivist starts and it is recorded into a so-called orison. The whole point of the interview, according to the Archivist, is to tell the story from Sonmi’s point of view. Sonmi concludes the interview, surprising her interviewer by asserting that she wrote the Declarations for another generation and that she is glad that because of the much-publicised trial, they will be spread throughout the country.
Since this fifth story takes place in a relatively near future, the dialect that Sonmi and the Archivist use only has minor cosmetic alterations to the way English is spoken today. There are some special new words describing the way the fabricants live: “freshfaced” for the newly arrived fabricants in the restaurant, “hygiener” for the place where they wash themselves, “Soap” with a capital S for the sort of food they do not eat but imbibe (the fabricants cannot eat normal food because they get sick from it), the ingredients of “Soap” are called “amnesiads” because they make the fabricants forget everything they might have learned during the day, keeping them constantly unaware of their repetitive lifestyles as well as “deadens curiosity“ (Mitchell 189-191). There are also new words regarding the lifestyles of the so-called purebloods like “dewdrugs” which are drugs that keep the purebloods from appearing old and “facescaping” which are the operations that perform the same thing (Mitchell 193, 202).
Some spelling is simplified: “sycophantic” becomes “sycofantic” and “frightened” becomes “fritened”, “light” become “lite”, “night” becomes “nite” etc. in Sonmi’s words. A device used a lot in this narrative is the shortening of words by excluding the intial e in words where it is followed by x (Mitchell 194-202). For example, “exec” becomes “xec” etc (Mitchell 217). Many words in the story are transformed in this manner: “xecution”, “xplains”, “xactly”, “xploded”, “xpression” any many many more (Mitchell 189-201). Interestingly, the Archivist, who is a pureblood and not a fabricant, at one point in the British edition uses the whole world “experience” where Sonmi would just say “xperience” (Mitchell 193). This could possibly mark the difference between the clones and the humans in the way they speak, however, in the rest of the interview, the Archivist uses the shortened version as well and this freak appearance is not printed in the American edition, so it is probably just a sign of an error in editing.
The next strategy that creates a lot of words in this chapter is turning brand names and proper nouns into common nouns. For example, the word “sony” written without the capitalised initial letter signifies a device probably similar to modern day tablet, while “handsony” stands for a mobile phone (Mitchell 204, 202). Interestingly, there is a scene towards the end of her tale where Sonmi refers to the phone as “fone” using the same strategy referred to earlier by replacing “ph” with “f” (Mitchell 354). This deviation appears in both the British and the American editions, so it is possible to explain it by suggesting that this time she is referring to a landline rather than a cell phone. Similarly, Sonmi mostly refers to the cars as “fords” and later also “suzukis” but on page 350 she also uses the word “auto” for no apparent reason (Mitchell 209, 236, 350). A cigarette is called “a marlboro”, coffee “a starbuck”, a clock “a rolex”, pictures “kodaks” and movies are called “disneys” (Mitchell 212-351). The word “judasing” also appears in the easily derived meaning of betraying someone. Sonmi also refers to people betraying her as “judases” (Mitchell 363).
The story at the centre of the novel takes place in a more distant future and the language reflects that. The narrative is told by Zachry who remembers his childhood in Hawaii, or Ha-Why as the novel writes it, where he grew up in a peaceful community that was constantly threatened by a wilder tribe of savages called Kona. His society is semi-civilised and worships Sonmi from the previous story as their only God. Zachry is a goat herder in a time where his people live shorter, simpler life after a kind of apocalypse they only refer to as “the Fall” and believe that Sonmi leads their souls to come back as new babies in their precious valley (Mitchell 255). There is also a more civilised race of the so-called “Prescients” who still have and use the technology of the pre-Fall era, but they live somewhere else in a place that is kept a mystery for the Valley people (Mitchell 258). “The Prescients” speak the same language as Zachry, but it is made clear that they can also speak other languages that the people from the valley would not understand.
One very prevalent aspect of Zachry’s dialect is that he shortens words even more than Sonmi did: except becomes “cept”, confess “fess”, afraid “’fraid”, though “tho’” and and of are shortened to “an’” and “o’” (Mitchell 249-252). The suffix -ing becomes “-in’” in all verbs like “muffin’”, “rottin’” and “barterin’” (Mitchell 249-259). Words like precious, special, selfish and delicious are shortened at the end and turned to “presh”, “spesh”, “selfy” and “delish”, while words like about and enough are clipped at the beginning and become “’bout” and “’nuff” (Mitchell 253-262). Still other words are interrupted in the middle of the word: “b’hind”, “dis’peared”, “vic’tries” (Mitchell 250-258). Most notably one becomes just “un’”, something changes to “sumthin’” and whole to “hole” (Mitchell 256-322).
Another common feature in this dialect is regular inflection in most verbs: “knowed”, “thinked”, “telled”, “speaked”, “shooked” and also in some adjective gradation, for example “littler” (Mitchell 251-310). Zachry also has a tendency to create adjectives with suffixes -wise and even more often -some. Thus, words like “horrorsome”, “whoasome”, “hungersome”, “friendsome”, “politesome” as well as “slywise”, “suddenwise” and many others are made up (Mitchell 250-273). These two suffixes are indeed very productive in the story. Another productive feature of the language is compounds of two and sometimes even three words joined together with an and shortened into an n: “micked’n’biffed’n’loved”, “shock’n’horrorsome”, “up’n’down”, “fire’n’grinds”, “unlucky’n’lucky”, “runty’n’weedy”, “plummet’n’sink” and many many more (Mitchell 251-262).
Lastly, there are words and phrases that are new inventions entirely like the diseases plaguing Zachry’s people like “redscab” and “mukelung” (Mitchell 264, 264). Then there are words like “brekker” for breakfast, “cogg” for guess, “yarn” for a story and “babbit” for a baby (Mitchell 256-290). Zachry’s speech is also enriched with his frequent exclamations of the positive “yay” and negative “nay” as well as several dingo related curse words: “dingoshat”, “dingos’n’ravens,”, “furyin’ dingo bitch in her eyes” and prayers to Sonmi: “I vow on Sonmi”, “I thanked Sonmi” and “for Sonmi’s sake. (Mitchell 250-304).
Regarding all the different stories in the novel it is important to highlight that they all have their own autonomous way of expressing themselves, their own style and language, yet they have something in common and are the manifestations of the same struggle. The reason why Mitchell made up some language changes in the future narratives as well as simulated an older way of speaking in the first story was to distinguish the stories from each other as much as possible in order to stress how different stories come to the same end.
All of the four languages in these three novels are derived from present-day English and the reader can, therefore, understand most of what is written and even deduce the meanings of the words that would be impossible to guess at without the context. However, all of the authors took very different approaches in creating their future dialects: Orwell only uses snippets of Newspeak in the text itself which he later describes in an “appendix”, Burgess opts for a profound inspiration form the Russian language at a time when the Russians seemed the greatest threat possible for the Western culture and Mitchell decides to implement strategies that are very popular even nowadays‒ for example shortening of words‒ as well as some other which are not as fashionable these day‒ for example regularisation of inflections. The authors all had their reasons in creating these languages, which are discussed above, but in all the cases, their decision to create them added another layer of authenticity to the characters and cultures in their stories.
1 A Babbitt is a narrow-minded, self-satisfied person with an unthinking attachment to middle-class values and materialism. (“Babbittry”)
1984. Directed by Michael Anderson, Holiday Film Productions Ltd.,
1984. Directed by Michael Radford, Virgin Films, 1984.
A Clockwork Orange. Directed by Stanley Kubrick, Polaris Productions, 1971.
Burgess, Anthony. A Clockwork Orange. W.W. Norton, 1996.
Cloud Atlas. Directed by Lana and Lilly Wachowski and Tom Tykwer, Cloud Atlas Production, 2012.
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