Today we welcome Desiree Villena for a guest post.
5 Books That Manipulate the English Language
The scattering of words and phrases in fictional languages is not an unusual concept in fiction. Fantasy worlds, such as Tolkien’s Middle Earth and George R.R. Martin’s The Known World, are so fully realized that they not only come with their own history, topography, and mythology, but their own languages too. And I’m not just talking about the odd memorised Game of Thrones quote; I’m talking 4000 word Dothraki lexicons and university courses in Elvish.
Languages are an exceptional way of capturing the soul of the culture that spawned them — which is why fantasy authors aren’t the only ones to have dabbled in lexical invention. The limited vocabulary and sinister staccato rhythm of ‘Newspeak’ was used in Orwell’s cult classic 1984 to show how the totalitarian state kept original thought at bay. Meanwhile, Roald Dahl used the ‘frothbuggling’ (silly) but ‘hopscotchy’ (cheerful) language he called ‘Gobblefunk’ to make his exuberant world even more playful.
But what about books that go a step further? Those written entirely in a constructed language or dialect? Though they can initially be a little daunting, these books take the immersive experience of reading to a whole new level. So if you’re up for the challenge, they’re not to be missed!
1. A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess
Burgess’ dystopian novel is narrated by Alex — a nightmarish teen who thinks and talks in Nadstat. If you’ve never heard of Nadstat, don’t worry, you haven’t fallen behind the times; Burgess constructed it himself by amalgamating Romany, Cockney rhyming slang, and a Russian-English hybrid lingo. Along with white cricket codpieces and dark eye make-up, Nadstat is part of the performance of a violent youth subculture.
For readers, this street-slang acts like a screen, blurring our understanding of the brutal ‘ultraviolence’ they commit. If the words for blade, guts, and scream weren’t shrouded in Nadstat, we’d have to abandon the book within chapters to throw up or find a priest. Instead, a kind of rapport develops.
At first glance, Alex’s narrative may seem incomprehensible, but with a little bit of context, the meaning soon becomes clear. I bet you can figure this sentence out pretty easily (though the squeamish may not want to): “to tolchock some old veck in an alley and viddy him swim in his blood.” If you’re still having trouble, you can check out this dictionary. Before long you’ll be slipping Nadstat into conversation; though don’t let that lead to tolchocking old vecks in alleys!
2. The Wake by Paul Kingsnorth
Paul Kingsnorth doesn’t get on with historical novels written in contemporary language. To travel back in time, he argues, you need to speak the language of the era. You can debate the truth of this among yourselves; but whether or not you agree, The Wake is not to be missed.
It’s composed in what Kingsnorth calls a ‘ghost language’ — a language that aims to reflect a historical setting. In this case, England during the wake of the Norman conquest. As Alex points out in this post, the English language has changed a lot: to reproduce a version of Old English, Kingsnorth had to scrap any words that came over with the French and reintroduce words of Anglo-Saxon origin. The result can be a little disorienting:
“aefry ember of hope gan lic the embers of a fyr brocen in the daegs beginnan brocen by men other than us. hope falls harder when the end is cwic hope falls harder when in the daegs before the storm the stillness of the age was writen in the songs of men”
However, if you persevere (and maybe sound the words out loud), the language will soon come naturally, and you’ll be rewarded with a gripping story.
3. Riddley Walker by Russell Hoban
The language of Hoban’s dystopian novel, though it’s set in the distant future, is uncannily similar to that of Kingsnorth’s distant past. Riddley Walker imagines a world 2,000 years after nuclear war has obliterated civilisation as we know it. Living in a nuclear wasteland, humanity is more or less transported back to the Iron Age, where the language is as broken as the landscape.
Our narrator is 12-year-old Riddley Walker, who lives in Kent, ‘Inland’ (England). However, it’s not just the regional accent and Riddley’s awkward pre-teen slang that shapes the dialect in which the novel is written — it is also injected with Hoban’s invented post-apocalyptic vernacular. Here’s a little taster: “Every 1 knows about Bad Time and what come after. Bad Time 1st and bad times after. Not many come thru it a live.”
Though that sentence may look like a text message with one too many typos, as the story unfolds, you’ll realize just how important this language is to Hoban’s vision.
4. Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh
Unlike the other books on this list, Trainspotting isn’t written in a language constructed by the author. Welsh’s novel follows in a noble line of literature (including Wuthering Heights and several works by James Kelman) composed partially in Scots’ dialect — but Welsh takes things one step further.
If you’ve seen the cult movie starring pre-Obi Wan Ewan McGregor, then you might recognize the name Mark “Rent Boy” Renton. Alongside other drug-addled junkies living in Edinburgh’s inhospitable outskirts, Mark narrates Trainspotting in a thick Scottish dialect. The novel is written phonetically, so it can end up looking a little opaque:
“Ah sit frozen for a moment. But only a moment. Ah fall off the pan, ma knees splashing oantae the pishy flair. My jeans crumple tae the deck and greedily absorb the urine, but ah hardly notice. Ah roll up ma shirt sleeve and hesitate only briefly, glancing at ma scabby and occasionally weeping track marks, before plunging ma hands and forearms intae the brown water.”
But, if you start by reading it aloud, it’s much easier to understand; not to mention, you’ll instantly nail an Edinburgh accent.
5. The Policeman’s Beard is Half-Constructed
This collection of prose and poetry is written in a language that is essentially alien. In 1984, William Chamberlain and Thomas Etter created a computer program called raconteur (Racter for short) to answer the question: what kind of language would a machine, with no knowledge of the human experience, come up with?
I suppose getting a computer to do all the work is one way to deal with writer’s block. And honestly, the results could give Anne Carson a run for her money:
|BILL. I love a child. |
MARCELA. Children are fortunately captivating.
BILL. Yet my love is excellent.
MARCELLA. My love is spooky yet we must have a child, a spooky child.
BILL. Do you follow me?
MARCELLA. Children come from love or desire. We must have love to possess children or a child.
BILL. Do we have love?
MARCELLA. We possess desire, angry desire. But this furious desire may murder a child. It may be killing babies someday.
BILL. Anyway let’s have a child.
MARCELLA. My expectation is children.
BILL. They will whisper of our love.
MARCELLA. And our perpetual, enrapturing, valuable fantasy.
Influenced by technology and the merging of cultures, language is constantly shifting. Maybe one day we’ll all be talking ‘Textspeak’, or regional dialects will die out completely, leaving some standardised form of language. The possibilities are endless. Which is why novels like these, that explore the evolution of language and the effect it has on a consciousness, are so uniquely fascinating. Granted, they aren’t for everyone — some people will simply conclude that these books are in serious need of a professional editor. But, if you have the patience to scramble through a rough few pages, then they’re not to be missed!