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Recently, I started reading "A Clockwork Orange" in English. A feature of the book that jumped out at me was that a lot of words used by the main character are adapted from Russian.

Since I am a native Russian speaker, I have no trouble understanding the words and so the reading goes smoothly for me. However, it got me thinking: the author probably had a specific purpose in mind, since the words replacements occur frequently and it must have been too much work for this feature to be just a gimmick.

Hence, my questions:

  • How does reading the book feel for non-Russian speakers?
  • What did Burgess want to tell the reader with this?

An interesting point to note is that in the version of the book translated to Russian, the replaced words are written using the Latin script.

  • The first time I read the book, I had no idea that these words were of Russian origin. I must have checked the glossary quite a bit, but I don't remember it being annoying. – Jos Apr 1 at 12:24
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For myself, as an English speaker with only a smattering of Russian from a foreign exchange trip, I did a lot of checking the glossary in the back at first (obviously, I got an edition which included said glossary), but eventually started just trying to figure it out from context, which worked well enough.

As regards Burgess's motivation, it was a combination of his fascination with language, a desire to avoid the novel being dated by picking a particular era's slang, and use of language to show a counter-culture, as seen in this article:

Much like George Orwell with his ‘Newspeak’ in Nineteen-Eighty Four (1949), Burgess aimed to create a timeless language to depict his dystopian future, perhaps the reason why the novel has had such longevity. The language also removes the action of the novel from geographical location, and the city it is set in could stand for anywhere from Manchester to Leningrad, London to Los Angeles, or other even more distant locales.

Burgess viewed his use of Nadsat as a ‘brainwashing device’, something he writes about in You’ve Had Your Time (1990): ‘The novel was to be an exercise in linguistic programming, with the exoticisms gradually clarified by context: I would resist to the limit any publisher’s demand that a glossary be provided. A glossary would disrupt the programme and nullify the brainwashing’. The book’s editor, James Michie, had some hesitations about the density of Nadsat in the novel and stated a desire for Burgess to ‘make it gently accelerando. You can’t throw too much of it at them too quickly’. This editorial suggestion led to revisions in the first part of the novel, and is shown when Alex helps the reader through some of the tougher language. For example: ‘rooker (a hand, that is)’, ‘litso (face, that is) and ‘my three droogs, that is Pete, Georgie, and Dim’.

  • Interesting. Part of the reason why I asked the question is that I thought that for a reader without any experience with the Russian language it can be quite annoying to check the glossary. I have to say that even with the revision, Nadsat is used quite densely. Did Burgess try to make a point with the linguistic programming or was it something of an experiment for him? – Egor Tamarin Mar 28 at 15:43
  • @EgorTamarin A lot of fantasy novels have glossaries to explain the invented words used to flesh out an imaginary world. If you're used to reading that type of book, it wouldn't be too annoying to keep checking glossaries. – Rand al'Thor Apr 2 at 14:17

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