Into the Seventies and at the midway point of the series on Burgess’s invented languages over at Ponying the Slovos.
What did people speak before Indo-European languages developed?
How many invented languages can you fit into a small novella that’s mostly poems?
I’ve attempted to answer those questions there.
Bonus: if you ever wondered what 19th century Romanescu dialect sonnets sound like when translated into Mid-Ulster Hiberno-English, I got your back there too.
Into what, I hear you ask? Into the actual dialect of the North of Ireland. You may have heard tell of Ulster-Scots. It too is an invented language, created (and not the first either nor the last) for political reasons. One day I’ll tell that tale too.
Cardiff even has an entire square dedicated to Roald Dahl.
But Manchester to date has not recognised its greatest author. Manchester City Council has launched a new consultation exercise on the future of statues and monuments in the city. You can see the questionnaire by clicking here.
There is an opportunity to propose new subjects for monuments. Perhaps you might consider filling it in and proposing that they rectify their egregious lack of an Anthony Burgess statue?
The third part of the series on Anthony Burgess’s invented languages is now live over at Ponying the Slovos, featuring what just might be Burgess’s most significant novel, the weird, wonderful and intensely Structuralist riddle that is M/F.
In my book on Anthony Burgess, I pay M/F a lot of attention, because I think it’s a very misunderstood novel and also one that is extremely important in Burgess’s own development as a writer. It’s a novel about riddles, based largely on Claude Levi-Strauss’s Structuralist thinking, especially as applied to early myth such as Oedipus.
It’s also a novel about what meaning actually means, and how we look for it in vain and what it is that generates it for us.
And, as this article on PtS details, it’s a novel which, like A Clockwork Orange, features its own invented language.
Why the title M/F? Apparently an actor said to Burgess that someone should update Sophocles’s Oedipos Tyrannos with the title “Motherfucker.” Alas, that title wasn’t possible at the time of publication, but the truncated version actually facilitates other interesting dynamics from the novel, such as male/female and the protagonist’s own name, Miles Faber, the soldier-maker.
While researching my forthcoming book on Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange, I came across mention of Molodoy, a shortlived Sheffield punk band of quasi-fascist tendencies whose schtick was that they appeared in full droog regalia on stage.
Molodoy is the Nadsat term for young, though it is barely used in the novel. Burgess did however use it extensively in one of his many revisits to the world of Alex, when he conducted an interview with his own creation entitled “A Malenky Govoreet about the Molodoy” in 1987, which can be found in the 2012 Corrected Edition of the novel as edited by Professor Andrew Biswell, or online here for now.
Judging by the information in this article on Dangerous Minds, the band Molodoy sound like they were right charmers. Some members later went on to form the disturbingly named Dachau Choir. Anyhow, their cover of ‘Tomorrow Belongs To Me’ does strike one as a note of sour and deranged genius.
Molodoy were far from the only band to derive inspiration from Burgess’s novel. In fact a large host of musical artists have either named themselves after aspects of the novel, or else written songs inspired by it.
But for Burgess, we might never have had Moloko, Moloko Knives, The Devotchkas, The Droogs, Campag Vellocet or Korova (which refers to both a band and a record label). And of the ten fictional bands mentioned within the work, at least five have had their names appropriated by real-life groups: Heaven 17, Johnny Zhivago, The Humpers, The Sparks and The Legend.
The ongoing project to map Anthony Burgess’s OTHER invented languages continues over at Ponying the Slovos.
In the latest segment, we look at Burgess’s often overlooked dystopia, The Wanting Seed, written around the same time as A Clockwork Orange, as well as his superb novel on Shakespeare’s love-life, Nothing Like The Sun, and the second volume of his perennially popular Enderby series, which features a variant of Strine, the lingo of Straya.
I’m the co-director of the Ponying the Slovos project which looks at invented languages in translation, predominantly focusing on Nadsat, the teen slang of Alex in Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange.
But Burgess didn’t just invent one language for his fiction. In fact, like Tolkien before him, he invented quite a few. So we thought late last year it was time to take a look at the others, and try to explain how they function and what they’re made of.
There will, as you might have surmised, be seven more to follow. If the languages of aliens, stone age man, Jesus Christ, William Shakespeare, the streets of 19th century Rome, Australia, Sicily or Medieval Latin blasphemers is of interest, it’s a series which may intrigue you.
Do you remember the time that the manager of the Rolling Stones parodied A Clockwork Orange on their album sleevenotes, and ended up being mentioned in the House of Lords after a complaint from Bournemouth Society for the Blind?
Or the time after that, when the Rolling Stones tried to appear as the droogs in a movie of the novel, and ended up petitioning the screenwriter for the roles? You know, the time when the Beatles signed the petition because they were going to do the soundtrack?
Anthony Burgess’s 1964 novel Nothing Like The Sun is a literary tour-de-force, inventing not only the details of the notoriously shadowy Shakespeare’s life, but also recreating Elizabethan prose in a contemporary novel form in which to do so. It is rightfully regarded as one of Burgess’s finest novels.
However, some aspects do tend to confuse some readers. The fact that the novel is technically a nested narrative, Shakespeare’s story as told by an ever more drunken lecturer to his students in Malaysia, is often overlooked by readers, for example. Others struggle with the conclusion of the novel, in which the dying Shakespeare’s last thoughts merge with those of the lecturer, who is falling drunkenly asleep. This is effectively a very obscure list of apparently random elements, and gives the effect of a strange delirium, which was clearly intended by the author.
I once sought to elucidate meaning from this notoriously opaque passage, and managed to do so with some success. What follows below has not previously been published, though it has been of assistance to me and to a number of scholars and translators of Burgess in the past. In the hope it might continue to be of use to others, and that it might even be possible to complete the references, I offer it below:
The allegedly ‘aleatory’ process by which Burgess created the dying delirium of the syphilitic Shakespeare in Nothing Like The Sun is, on surface reading, quite random. Burgess’s typically obtuse choice of adjective (in this case, a musical term implying progression by chance) suggests that the phrases chosen were identified seemingly in a randomised fashion. In his autobiography, Burgess detailed how he generated it:
A magazine called Choice said that the epilogue, ‘Shakespeare’s dying delirium, is writing of the highest order.’ Not quite so, really. I had taught myself the trick of contriving a satisfying coda by what, in music, is termed aleatory means: I flicked through the dictionary and took whatever words leaped from the page. I did this again at the end of my Napoleon novel: the effect is surrealist, oceanic and easily achieved.1
There is, undeniably, an element of induced randomness in the flood of words that conclude Nothing Like The Sun. But unlike the conclusion of Napoleon Symphony, where the chosen phrases (including bellowing gnus, nematode worms and Bengal) appear to have little to do with the subject matter of the novel, there is a significant element of relevance in Burgess’s chosen list of phrases in Nothing Like The Sun. It is worth noting that for Kingdom of the Wicked, Burgess’s tale of the first century of the Christian church, he resurrected the effect but not the random element. Instead, the reader encounters an alphabetic progression of Roman names, all of whom are destined to be destroyed in Pompeii by the eruption of Vesuvius.
If the list in Napoleon Symphony is, as it seems, genuinely random while the list in Kingdom of the Wicked is obviously carefully constructed to an order, the list that makes up Will’s deathbed delirium lies somewhere in between. Many of the phrases chosen have resonance in the plot of the novel that precede them. It is not possible to take Burgess entirely at his word when he says that he gleaned them all simply by flicking through a dictionary. Even the most comprehensive encyclopedia is unlikely to contain all the elements Burgess includes in his conclusion. It features forgotten nautical novels of the nineteenth century, thrillers from the early twentieth century, B-movies and quotations from obscure Jacobean drama. The only encyclopedia likely to encompass such diverse and remote elements is Burgess’s own mind himself.
It is likely that he did proceed with a certain element of randomness in the choice of phrases he included. A psychoanalytical approach, which I am not qualified to attempt, might even possibly glean why he chose those and not others. However, it is clear is that many of the phrases were carefully included to reinforce the thesis of the novel as presented by its lecturer-narrator, ‘Mr Burgess’ – that Shakespeare had a child by a Malay prostitute and his lineage lived on in the East, though he paid for it by contracting syphilis. Here is the passage in full:
Oaklings, footsticks, cinques, moxibustion, the Maccabees, the Lydian mode (soft, effeminate), the snow-goose or whitebrant, rose-windows, government, the conflagration of citadel and senate-house, Bucephalus, the Antilegomena, Simnel Sunday, the torrid zone, Wapping, my lord’s top-boots, the shoeflower, prostitute boys, dittany, face-ague, cosmic cinefaction, the Antipodes, the Gate of Bab, Fidessa, Rattlin the Reefer, Taliesin, the dead head in alchemy, the bar, dungeons, skylarks, the wind, Thaumast, the dark eyes of London, the fellowship of the frog, Gesta Regum Anglorum, Myrddhin, faithful dealing, A Girle Worth Gold, viticulture, the Queen that’s dead (bee, meadow, chess, Bench, regnant), imposts of arches, pollards, sea-fox and sea-hog and sea-health, the sigmoid curve, cardinals, touchability.2
The biggest clue that Burgess carefully chose the elements that make up this section is that so many of these phrases relate to Malaysia. The shoeflower, for example, sounds suitably Elizabethan, but in fact it is not native to Europe. Also known as Chinese Hibiscus, it is however, the national symbol of Malaysia. Close examination of the rest of the list produces many similar revelations. In fact, the vast majority of the phrases used by Burgess in this passage fall into one of five categories; they either relate to Malaysia, to Shakespeare and the Elizabethan era, to love, to sailing or they are obscure British cultural products of the early twentieth century which Burgess himself (or, indeed, his lecturer avatar) might have encountered.
At this point in the novel, the lecturer-narrator ‘Mr Burgess’ is falling into a drunken stupor, having apparently imbibed three bottles of indigenous rice spirit donated to him by his students at the outset of the lecture. He begins to associate himself with Shakespeare, and claims, just prior to this ‘aleatoric’ passage, to be descended from the bard. “He sent his blood out there,” says the sleepy ‘Mr Burgess’. “I am of his blood.”3
His drunken dreaming merges with Shakespeare’s dying delirium and the flood of images that results is the product of both minds. There are the references to Shakespeare’s era, such as ‘A Girle Worth Gold’, which is the subtitle to The Fair Maid of the West, a 1630 comedy in two parts by Thomas Heywood,4 and then there are the references to Burgess’s own era, such as The Fellowship of the Frog, which is a 1923 thriller in which a secret society of criminals commit robberies across London, and which was made in 1960 into a German-backed B-movie. Then there are the images which span both minds, both eras. The “conflagration of the citadel and senate-house”, for example, is a reference to the burning of Troy in the Aeneid, which would no doubt be familiar to both Shakespeare and Burgess, even in his ‘Mr Burgess’ lecturer-avatar guise. Taliesin the poet, Myrddin the mystic, the Maccabees, the Antilegomena (the books excluded from the Bible) and even Bucephalus, Alexander the Great’s horse, all can be considered elements of the cultural sphere with which both Shakespeare (or Will) and Burgess (or ‘Mr Burgess’) were familiar.
Most of the remaining phrases refer either to the East, or love, or to nautical elements or else to crossovers between the five categories. Perhaps these nautical references should be understood as the passage of Shakespeare’s blood line to the East. Equally, we might think of it as the subconscious mind of ‘Mr Burgess’, who sailed to the East where he is delivering his lecture, just as the real Anthony Burgess sailed there, conflating his thesis with the seasick-type nausea of his own drunkenness.
The sailing references are the most obvious. Three terms in a row evoke the sea overtly, and the wind is also mentioned. But there is also Wapping, which is in London’s docklands and was the location where pirates and other seafaring criminals were executed in the Elizabethan era. Rattlin the Reefer is a nineteenth century nautical adventure novel written by Edward Howard and edited by his better known author friend Frederick Marryat. Skylarks are not only birds, but also practical jokes played at sea, the etymology of the term ‘larking around.’ A sea-hog is a porpoise, and sea-health likely simply means the opposite of sea-sickness.
The Shakespearean, or Elizabethan, references are also easy to acknowledge. ‘Footsticks’ were used to delineate a page in the printing industry. The ‘Lydian mode’ is a rising musical scale which slightly differed in Renaissance times. ‘Rose-windows’, then as now, are found in Gothic churches. ‘Faithful dealing’ refers to the spying of Christopher Marlowe, about whom the Privy Council wrote to Cambridge University in 1587 to praise his “faithful dealing” so that he would not be sent down for non-attendance. The ‘Queen that’s dead’ is possibly Mary of Scots or even Elizabeth I, but more likely it is a phrase gleaned from When You See Me, You Know Me, a 1605 Jacobean play by minor playwright Samuel Rowley which is thought to have been a source for Shakespeare’s Henry VIII.5Prostitute boys was a derogatory but not always inaccurate term for the young male actors who played female roles in the Elizabethan theatre.
Similarly, the anachronistic Burgess-era references are relatively simple to spot because they cluster around the early twentieth century in terms of their dates. In addition to The Fellowship of the Frog, there is the ‘dark eyes of London’, which is the title of a horror B-movie starring Bela Lugosi from 1940. Another film released that same year, coincidentally the year in which Burgess was writing his undergraduate thesis on Christopher Marlowe in the shadow of the blitz, was entitled Torrid Zone 6, a phrase which is also clearly a reference to the Tropics. The sea-fox was a World War II era British floatplane used until 1943, also clearly a nautical reference.
Terms relating to Malaysia and the East abound. Moxibustion, for example, is a Chinese medical remedy involving burning mugwort on the skin, which is common among Chinese communities in South-East Asia. Cardinals are obviously senior Catholic clerics, but they may also be birds, specifically a type of bunting found in the Tropics, or, to take a nautical meaning, points of the compass. There are many famous Gates of Bab (meaning door in Arabic) scattered throughout the Muslim world, from Cairo and Morocco to Syria and Yemen. There is likely at least one in Muslim Malaysia too. In the sense that the entrance to any mosque is a gate of bab, there are many, then and now. The Antipodes are the furthest point on Earth away from one’s present position; in Shakespeare’s time, with Australasia yet to be discovered by James Cook, that meant the East Indies, which had, from 1605, been occupied by the Dutch. Fidessa, an old-fashioned Dutch name meaning loyalty, may also be a reference to this period as well as an invocation of fidelity.
The phrases relating to love and lust are the most obscure. Dittany of Crete is a hermaphroditic plant which historically symbolised love, and young men would risk their lives climbing cliffs to harvest it. The plant was believed to be an aphrodisiac, but was also used to heal wounds and to induce menstruation. Snow geese are permanently monogamous, meaning that they mate for life. Face-ague is a somewhat antiquated term for a form of neuralgia which causes convulsive twitching of the face muscles, a known and occasional symptom of syphilis in any of its three stages. Touchability is, simply, the ability to touch, something denied to a syphilitic.
Some of the remaining phrases Burgess used do not fall into any of the categories I have identified, but nevertheless they clearly refer to the plot of the novel that precedes them. Thaumast is an English ‘learned man’ defeated in a challenge by Panurge after they dispute “in signs” over “insoluble problems, both in magic, alchymy, the cabala, geomancy, astrology and philosophy”7 in Rabelais’s Gargantua and Pantagruel, which though written before Shakespeare’s birth was not translated into English until Thomas Urquhart’s version a century later. Taliesin is the early Welsh poet who sang as bard to three kings in the sixth century. Likewise, Gesta Regum Anglorum (the deeds of the kings of England) is the title of William of Malmesbury’s history of the Dark Ages. All of these might be taken as oblique references to Shakespeare or his works, or again as part of the common cultural heritage shared by Will and Mr Burgess.
It is likely that the remaining phrases are similarly allusive. It is possible, though improbable, that they are as random as the list which concludes Napoleon Symphony. While music is present in Nothing Like The Sun, it was not written, as Napoleon Symphony was, to prioritise the musical structure. Burgess was at liberty to subvert literary meaning for integrity to his musical structure in the later novel. In Nothing Like The Sun, he did not permit himself the same freedom to evade meaning in favour of form.
There is sufficient cohesive patterning in the terms of this literary delirium to prove Burgess’s point, made in M/F, that even a denial of structure transpires to be simply a different form of taxonomic structure. Despite his claims to the contrary, there is little randomness (or aleatoricism) in the phrases Burgess used for Will’s dying delirium. Even if we take Burgess at his word in relation to his method for creating this passage, it must be assumed that he was subconsciously drawn to phrases which evoked elements of his novel. However, the sheer unlikelihood of any dictionary or encyclopedia containing all these varied references tends to suggest that, in fact, the majority if not the whole were carefully chosen.
The list evokes not only the Shakespearean era but also the Burgessian one, and furthermore, it hints at the very thesis of the novel; that Will’s lust for a Dark Lady from the East infected him with syphilis but his love for her also bore him a son who sailed back to the Antipodes to sustain the Shakespearean bloodline there.
1You’ve Had Your Time, Anthony Burgess, Heinemann, London, 1990, p. 80.
2Nothing Like The Sun, Anthony Burgess, Heinemann, London, 1964, p. 234.
3Nothing Like The Sun, Anthony Burgess, Heinemann, London, 1964, p. 234.
4 The play features a heroine, Bess, who rises from lowly origins as a barmaid in Plymouth to pirate upon the Spanish and engage in a series of picaresque adventures in Morocco and Italy. The first part is considered representative of Elizabethan era drama, but the second, in which the feisty heroine becomes much more passive and the actors engage in verbal battles of honour, looks forward to the mannered dramas of the Caroline age. In this aspect, it is often considered as an example of the transition from the drama of Shakespeare’s era and the stylised comedies that followed later.
5 In the section of the play where this line occurs, Lord Brandon is briefing Cardinal Wolsley on the mental state of the King. The full quotation runs: “His grace hath taken such an inward grief / With sad remembrance of the queen that’s dead, / That much his highness wrongs his state and person.”
6 The movie was a James Cagney vehicle, in which he is hired by his former enemy as an enforcer to put down revolutionaries who threaten his banana crop in Honduras.
7The Works of Francis Rabelais translated from the French in Four Volumes, François Rabelais, London, 1807, Vol. II, p. 147.
This one’s the third of four now, and does the heavy lifting, addressing the linguistic structure of Riddleyspeak and navigating through some of the earlier critical perspectives on Hoban’s language invention.
To make up for that, the last one, out in a week or so, is all about Riddley’s legacy – Iain M. Banks’ non-Culture SF, Will Self’s post-apocalypse and Tina Turner’s wig, in other words. Don’t forget to tune in.
So, after a summer hiatus, there’s a new post on the Ponying the Slovos blog, the first of three looking at Russell Hoban’s post-apocalyptic novel Riddley Walker on the occasion of its 40th anniversary.
Hoban’s novel, like A Clockwork Orange, deals with dystopia by distorting the language, the very means of communication between author and reader. A broken world is revealed piecemeal via broken English.
Can we talk about Riddleyspeak as a language in itself? It’s obviously derivative of English and is supposed to be that English which has evolved over 2000 years following a civilisational collapse. In that regard, by its own premises, it fails. A mere 13 centuries after Anglo-Saxon and Caedmon’s hymn, English is entirely unrecognisable compared to its forebear tongue, whereas Riddley Walker’s English is mostly comprehensible to us on first sight.
Perhaps that is nit-picking, since books are written to be understood and read.