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.