Thursday, 1 October 2009

Gleaned Genius (Pt 3)

It takes a writer of immense daring and immeasurable talent to create an entirely new language within their work. Especially one with its own complex etymology and sophisticated phonological system, which both resonates clearly in English, and is employed to a significantly devastating effect in the text.

Obvious examples include
Anthony Burgess’s dystopian classic A Clockwork Orange, with its remarkable nadsat dialect. Burgess purloined 200 words from Russian, twisting the roots and phonemes into clever English mock-ups. The most remarkable achievement in this novel was how Burgess – despite presenting the reader with a seemingly impenetrable code – was able to make his language come alive in a disturbingly hilarious and effectively distorting manner. Burgess chose euphonically pleasing words to juxtapose a sense of childishness with detached violence, creating the iconic patois of a degenerative urban nightmare.

Other examples include
Will Self’s recent masterpiece The Book of Dave where the characters speak a hilarious cross between Mockney and Nordic, though the centre of this book lies with beleaguered cabbie Dave – the archetypal misanthrope-cum-doom monger.

The question is – when it is appropriate to cultivate our own private language in a text, and to what purpose?

The greatest examples in popular 20th century literature, which include, among others,
1984 or Riddley Walker, are set in a hypothetical future, usually after a nuclear fallout or a general fallout between power-crazed blokes. Other times we might use this technique would be when communing with a child, someone with an illness, an alien, or someone from Dundee. However, to write in an invented language and to sustain this for the duration of a book, is truly outrageous/outstanding. Depending on your patience.

I think most writers construct their own private language. Each use of a common noun or adjective can take on a different meaning within the surrounding everglade of their prose. Not merely words denoting emotions or altered states, but words unique to their interior mental landscape. With JG Ballard certain words reappear in his novels – mechanised, pelvic, semen – emphasising the forensic distance in the Ballardian world: a perpetual concrete hangover.

There is no real need to construct our own words/languages, unless we are cursed with literary vision. I sometimes merge words, since I find squeezing two nouns together can make for a diffuse contrast, or because it amuses me to put ‘bum’ and ‘flan’ together.

It is equally satisfying to coin our own neologisms or expressions to make our fictional topographies a more varied and enlightening place to roam. Provided these inventions make perfect sense within the context of the story or, even better – prove crucial in the context – making the language your bitch is to be applauded.

Learn it, love it, warp it.


  1. I have invented a language.

    It is a deliberate jumble of sounds, emphasis, tone and speed. It's purpose is to destroy communication.
    I use it when confronted by Jehovah's Witnesses or Time Share sellers.

    To them it sounds familiar but non-specific.
    I convince them both that it is genuine and that it is useless to attempt to talk to me.

    My children also love it.

    With those languages created by authors, I am quite content provided that they are neither disruptive nor force me into a 'teach yourself' course. (That just seems a little too Klingon geeky to me).

    I feel the same way about authors that feel compelled to intersperse their English language books with frequent non-translated segments of several other languages. Yes, it may be best expressed in French, and yes there may be no direct English translation, but I'm damned if I am going to learn (in depth) five languages to read your book.

  2. Yes, good point! I was thinking how frustrating it is in Dostoevsky's "Devils" when there are blocks of untranslated French, merely since to put the translations in footnotes would be exhausting.

    Your language intrigues me. Does it have a name? Can I use it to talk to unpleasant commoners like builders, cabbies, and so forth?

  3. I fully release my language under the collective common rights concept, to be used in any way you see fit.

    To name it would be to disable it.

    It is totally inconsistent.

    I can supply useful hints, such as utilisig hand movements and shoulder shrugging, occasionally repeating the last few sounds in an argumentative or querulous way, and showing increasing frustration at the recipient's inability to understand.

    I got the basic ideas by attending zoology lectures, having not previously read the text books, and listening in dumbfound awe.

  4. I forgot the other basic rule - none of the words you use shoud have had any previous existance in any part of the world.

  5. What a copout. I want grammar tables, phonology graphs and etymology charts! Whatever they are.

  6. And I want a diamond as big as the Ritz.