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Nadsat

Nadsat is a constructed set of slang invented by the linguist and novelist Anthony Burgess.

Description

Nadsat is a teen language spoken by Alex and his 'droogs' in the futuristic world of A Clockwork Orange. It is not a written language: the sense that we have of the novel is of a transcription of speech, rather than writing. Nadsat is basically English, with some transliterated words from Russian. It also contains some Cockney influences, some words of unclear origin, and some words that Burgess invented.

Nadsat is in fact not so much a language as a register. Alex is capable of speaking 'properly' when he wants to, and besides, what he says is intelligible to an English speaker. Nadsat is really a lexicon of 'extra' words which Alex uses to describe the world as he sees it:

  • 'britva' = knife (Russian)
  • 'cutter' = money (invented?)
  • 'horrorshow' = good (Russian khorosho, "good")
  • 'starry ptitsa' = old woman (Russian, "old bird")
  • 'in-out-in-out' = sex, rape (invented)
  • 'devotchka' = woman (Russian, "little girl")

Nadsat words are all concrete or semi-abstract: to discuss philosophy Alex would have to shift into normal English. The fact that a teen language has no abstract words is perhaps Burgess' reflection on the shallowness of the juvenile delinquent's thought process.

Function of Nadsat

Alex's use of Nadsat mirrors what happens in real life - children and teenagers invent secret languages for talking amongst themselves (e.g. on mobile phones). That Alex uses a different, unfamiliar language to talk to others of his age reinforces the social apartheid between the young and the old. It reflects a completely different attitude to life.

Nadsat has the additional function of 'censoring' the graphic descriptions of Alex's crimes. Words that we have strong emotional reactions to in English - 'rape', 'murder' - are neutralised by being replaced with words that are unfamiliar: unfamiliar words obviously have no connotational baggage, so we simply take them at face value. This diverts us from the depravity of Alex's behaviour, and directs us into seeing Alex in a more sympathetic light.

C.f. Newspeak, the state-doctored language of George Orwell's 1984, for another example of language used to neuter meaning.

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