The Cryptic Language Of ‘A Clockwork Orange’ (And How Russian Can Help You Understand It)

Have you always wanted to know what Alex and his droogs are saying in ‘A Clockwork Orange’?
A scene from Clockwork Orange to represent the language from a clockwork orange

Russian is the language of Pushkin, Dostoevsky and Tolstoy. It’s spoken by nearly 180 million people worldwide and its perception as an international language of espionage makes you feel like a character from a James Bond movie. But here’s another cool reason why you should learn Russian: it can help you understand Nadsat, the cryptic language from A Clockwork Orange.

If you’ve ever tried to decipher their secret dialect only to throw your hands in the air and resort to the incomplete glossary at the back of the book, then you may want to learn more about how this language was created.

Future-proofing a fictional language

As the brainchild of keen linguist Anthony Burgess, A Clockwork Orange was always going to be about language to some degree. The dystopian, futuristic landscape that Burgess created for his most famous novel was made only more apocalyptic by the obscure, fictional slang that Alex and his droogs spoke.

As a polyglot — he spoke a number of Western European languages as well as Malay, Chinese, Russian, Hebrew and Japanese — Burgess knew that using the slang of his time would only make his characters’ speech sound outdated in years to come. That’s when he decided to largely base his Nadsat vocabulary on Russian and other linguistic elements, such as rhyming slang, compound words and archaism thus creating a unique dialect. In the words of his own characters, Alex spoke a type of “Slav, mixed with bits of old rhyming slang and a bit of gypsy talk too.”

“Veck” (Человек) — Man; Human

Take the word Nadsat itself. It is the English transliteration of надцать, the suffix you add to numbers from 1 to 9 to make eleven to nineteen. It is the rough equivalent of “teen” in English and possibly the best name for a teen speak.

Benet Vincent and Jim Clarke are lecturers from Coventry University and members of a research project that studies the use of Nadsat in A Clockwork Orange. Together with other academics from Coventry, Birmingham and Heriot Watt Universities, they are looking at how Nadsat can be translated into other languages. Their blog Ponying the Slovos is a wealth of information and features a full list of Nadsat words.

So, how close to Russian is Nadsat anyway and can you really understand it if you speak Russian?

“Gulliver” (Голова) — Head

Take for example this short extract from the first page of the book.

“Our pockets were full of deng, so there was no real need from the point of view of crasting any more pretty polly to tolchock some old veck in an alley and viddy him swim in his blood while we counted the takings and divided by four, nor to do the ultra-violent on some shivering starry grey-haired ptitsa in a shop and go smecking off with the till’s guts.”

In the sentence above, there are nine Nadsat terms, eight of which derive from Russian.

Deng comes from деньги (money). Crasting derives from красть (to steal). Pretty polly rhymes with lolly and so it also means money (in rhyming slang, of course, not in Russian). Tolchock comes from толчок and it means “push,” here “hit” (but in vulgar slang can also mean “toilet”). Veck derives from the second half of человек for “human”, here “man.” Viddy comes from видеть and it means to see or watch someone. Starry comes from старый (old). Ptitsa derives from птица (bird) and in this case means “woman,” and smecking comes from смех (laughter).

“Viddy” (Видеть) — See; Watch

And so, if you happened to speak Russian the above sentence would now read: “Our pockets were full of money, so there was no real need from the point of view of stealing any more money to hit some old man in an alley and watch him swim in his blood while we counted the takings and divided by four, nor to do the ultra–violent on some shivering old grey-haired bird in a shop and go laughing off with the till’s guts.”

With the help of the Burgess Foundation and bespoke corpus linguistic software, Benet Vincent and his team of researchers were able to access a computer-readable version of the text and extract a list of keywords to analyze the language from A Clockwork Orange. The top 10 most frequently used words in the book are shown below, and nine of them are of Russian origin.

Nadsat Word Russian Origin Translation
VECK Человек man; human
VIDDY Видеть see; watch
DIM a character’s name
HORRORSHOW Хорошо well; okay; good
MALENKY Маленький small; little
VIDDIED Видеть saw; watched
GOLOSS Голос voice
GLAZZIES Глаза eyes
GULLIVER Голова head
LITSO Лицо face
“Horrorshow” (Хорошо) — Well; Okay; Good

The list goes on with hundreds of Nadsat words, the majority of which are of Russian origin. Finally, if you were still wondering what moloko, devotchka and droog mean, they too come from Russian: молоко (milk), девочка (girl ) and друг (friend).

Who would have guessed that Russian could open up a door to the twisted world of an alternate sci-fi reality? Pretty horrorshow, isn’t it my droogs?

Illustrations by Noam Weiner
Header Photo by Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc

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