In our Craft Lessons and Writing Prompts series we take a quick look at a craft element and pair it with a writing exercise. It’s a great way to learn and inspire yourself. Writing exercises are wonderful for generating new material and working outside your comfort zone. Today we’re examining the use of language through Anthony Burgess’ famous work, A Clockwork Orange.
“I didn’t think; I experimented.” – Anthony Burgess
A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess is a major experimental literary work. For the time it was considered rebellious and new, and in this novel Burgess did things with language that were entirely unexpected. Of course we’re referring to the Nadsat language, invented by Burgess, and which the protagonist Alex and his friends use throughout the book. Perhaps the best way to describe why what Burgess did in the 60s is so significant to contemporary literature and experimental writing can be summed up in this quote from Guardian writer Andrew Kaufman:
“Inventing new words is one of the most rebellious things you can do. We all live under a set of prescribed social assumptions, which are embedded into our words. If you want to think outside your social conditioning, you will need a new word to do it. Every word is a suitcase, into which we pack an idea, and then hand it to someone else. No suitcase: no handoff. Our society is changing, fast, and we need new words to describe it.”
Burgess’ contributions in A Clockwork Orange are perhaps more social than entirely literary, but his use of language sparked a debate about the evolution of words and how we can use them in our stories.
Burgess was an educated linguist and he studied many languages including Russian, English, Cockney rhyming slang, and the King James Bible to develop Nadsat. This is significant context because a) it is super interesting and b) it shows how an experiment was born from studying a form. He understood language so he knew how to change it. Here are a few interesting examples of Nadsat’s etymology: Cutter = money (cutter rhymes with bread and butter, which is often used as an expression of income or… money.) Charlie = Chaplain (Chaplain and Chaplin, as in Charlie Chaplin, are homophones, so he uses Charlie Chaplin as a synonym for Chaplain but shortens it to Charlie.)
Experimental Language Exercise:
With new words being adopted by the Oxford Dictionary each year, it is interesting to look at words for phrases or situations that we don’t yet have. Each of the words below is from a foreign language, and describes a situation, scene, or person that English does not have a word for. Pick a word from this list, develop a definition for it, and write a scene where it is used either directly or described by the context of the story. When you’re finished, click the link below for the real definitions of the words provided. For example the word Sankocha (which is not our list) is meant to reflect “The feeling of embarrassment due to receiving an inordinately and perhaps inappropriately large or extravagant gift or favor, that makes you feel obliged to return the favor when you can’t.”
Tartle — Prozvonit — Cafune — Tingo — Duende — Fernweh — Komorebi — Pochemuchka — Bakku-shan — Gattara — Utepils — Culaccino — Kyoikumama — Age-otori
Click here for the word definitions list and feel free to share your writing in the comments below!