Breaking down Nadsat into categories

As stated in the previous post, we have been attempting to establish what happens when an invented art language is translated, and what that can tell us about translation strategies.

But to do that, it is important firstly to define what we mean by invented art language. The one we chose is not a fully-fledged functioning language, like Tolkien’s Elvish, Dothraki, or Klingon. As these are fully functioning languages, with their own grammars and lexicons, it follows that they also have, to an extent, what might be termed an invented culture from which they (fictionally or in fact) stem.

In the case of Tolkien’s inventions, they arose as linguistic creations firstly, a product of what he called his ‘secret vice’ of language building. In order to justify their existence and creation, he invented a mythos and world within which to situate them. In the case of Klingon and Dothraki, their initial emergence, as just a few alien-sounding phrases, in Star Trek and George R.R. Martin’s The Song of Ice and Fire respectively, later inspired groups of fans to crowdsource those languages into creation. In all of these instances, a rich seedbed of invented culture was generated alongside the linguistic creation.

In Anthony Burgess’s infamous novella A Clockwork Orange, however, the invented language component is not a fully-functioning language so much as a cant – an in-group secret slang. As such, it is built upon an existing framework of English. This allowed Burgess to avoid the comprehensional strategies required for audiences to make sense of Elvish or Klingon (translation in subtitles was often used for the latter) but equally required him to generate an invented language which could be comprehended quickly while still being somewhat alien.

This is partly explained within the novel, when one of Alex’s doctors describes his Nadsat speech as “Odd bits of old rhyming slang … A bit of gypsy talk, too. But most of the roots are Slav. Propaganda. Subliminal penetration.” This means that the bulk of Alex’s speech is based on English, often mutated in various ways, accompanied by a Russified lexicon and some existing slang components. As a key this allowed us to begin categorising the differing elements of Nadsat.

Following analysis, we ended up identifying seven broad categories which all appeared to function either morphologically or semantically or in terms of creative invention in different ways. These are as follows (click on links to see full lists with glosses and notes):

  1. ‘Core’ Nadsat – a predominantly Russified lexis, which has attracted the bulk of critical and linguistic attention by previous academics.
  2. Creative Morphology – a category containing terms derived from English in various manners not generally permitted within English.
  3. Compounds – wherein Burgess has constructed within Nadsat compound terms along similar lines to how such compounds are constructed in other languages like German, but not how such is done in English.
  4. Archaisms – a category accounting for the curious and evocative pseudo-Elizabethan tone and lexis often utilised by Alex when speaking Nadsat.
  5. Rhyming slang – which accounts not only for terms Burgess borrowed from existing rhyming slang, often obtained via Eric Partridge’s famed dictionary of slang, but also rhyming slang of Burgess’s own invention.
  6. Truncations – a category of predominantly English words which Burgess truncates without loss of overt meaning to transform them into Nadsat usage.
  7. Babytalk – a category of terms, or rather a creative methodology of linguistic construction, in which Alex’s childlike repetition of certain syllables within words to render them Nadsat is accounted for.

In forthcoming posts, we will explain each category in turn.

What is Nadsat and what does it do?

Nadsat is, of course, the invented language which forms the heart and identity of Anthony Burgess’s famous novella, A Clockwork Orange.

It is also the object of study of the team of linguists and literary historians behind this blog.

For the past two years, we have been examining Nadsat with the intention of working out what it is made of, how it functions, and whether it can be translated. On the surface, this may seem like an odd thing to do. The method in the madness is that, because Nadsat is an invented language, it lacks an accretion of culture, and therefore poses especial challenges to translators.

Not every invented language functions in this way, of course. Constructed languages like Esperanto or Volapuk were created with the express intention of displacing or augmenting existing languages, and in addition to being built with the capacity to be translated in mind, they have also developed their own linguistic cultures over time. Similar can be argued about art-languages like Klingon or Dothraki, which have seen real-world linguistic cultures spring up around their study by fans. More complete and developed art-languages, like Tolkien’s Elvish, were invented to express invented cultures, and again bring a cultural component to the translator to work with.

But, to borrow Halliday’s term, Burgess’s Nadsat is an ANTI-LANGUAGE. On one level, it is not intended to be understood, as it is an in-group slang of Alex and his droogs. On another, it has to be understandable, otherwise it functions as mere gibberish for the reader. We have been exploring Burgess’s strategies for making Nadsat comprehensible to readers, and also examining how translators have tackled the difficult task of rendering Burgess’s invention into other base languages than English.

To do this, we have been developing a PARALLEL TRANSLATION CORPUS, to allow us to study these translations side-by-side. The first results from this study, by Dr Sofia Malamatidou of the University of Birmingham, can be read here.

It is entitled “Creativity in translation through the lens of contact linguistics: a multilingual corpus of A Clockwork Orange“. We expect to have more outputs, examining what Nadsat is made of and how it works, as well as how translators in other languages, including Polish and German, have dealt with this task, in future papers. Additionally, we intend to use this blog to disseminate our preliminary work in categorising Nadsat, so that others can examine not only our work but also come to an understanding of how Nadsat functions in different base languages.

In the bleak midwinter

It is with a heavy heart that we note the death of Richard Adams, author of the seminal Watership Down, with its wonderful act of imagination, the invention of a Lapine language.

As one critic noted, Watership Down “is much more like A Clockwork Orange: a book so confidently lodged in an alternative universe with its own rules and conventions that it even has its own language.”

As interest in ecologically informed literature continues to grow, Richard Adams’s achievements are likely to swell similarly in stature over time.

Invented Languages on ‘The One Show’ tomorrow, 22nd July.

We were consulted today by BBC’s ‘The One Show’, the midday magazine programme, which will be doing a slot on invented languages on tomorrow’s show.

This relates to the release of the new ‘BFG’ movie, based on the book by Roald Dahl, in which the titular friendly giant speaks in his own language, ‘Gobblefunk’, entirely invented by Dahl.

There is a brief Gobblefunk dictionary here, but viewers of tomorrow’s programme will no doubt get to see an exclusive excerpt of the BFG speaking, taken straight from the new film.

Regrettably, this programme will be for domestic UK viewers only.

Inventing languages, Inventing Communities

We’ll be speaking about the Ponying the Slovos conference, and our plans for the future tomorrow at Coventry University at 12.25pm in the Engineering building, EC1-03.

You’ll need to register to attend at, or follow the hashtag at #CUcbf.

Once the presentation is over, it should be available on the Coventry University website in the future, and we’re hoping to make an announcement about the project’s future shortly.

Please get in touch with us at if you want to know more.

How do you order a pizza in Dothraki?

We thought we’d share the symposium press release here on the blog too.




Researchers from three continents will gather in Coventry later this month to discuss invented languages.

Scholars from as far afield as India, Italy and the United States will convene at Coventry University on the 18th March to debate the curious process of translating invented languages.

With an estimated 5,000 existing natural languages on the planet, the idea of creating new ones can seem alien (and indeed, one of the main sources of invented languages historically has been Science Fiction.) However, amateur linguists have for centuries attempted to invent their own languages, sometimes with the intention of ‘perfecting’ natural languages, other times with the aim of simplifying them for learners, and occasionally just for the sheer fun of creating a way of communicating differently.

Evert since J.R.R. Tolkien invented a whole imaginary world to justify his compulsive creation of languages like Elvish, as seen in the Lord of the Rings movies, writers have been at the forefront of language creation. In some instances, as with George Orwell’s Newspeak from 1984, these languages have been created to convey the dangers of allowing political ideologies to control communication.

A team of researchers based at Coventry University and the University of Birmingham have now come together to examine what happens when an invented language is translated. Using Nadsat, the teen slang from Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange, they hope to discover what happens during the translation process.

“The great thing about A Clockwork Orange is that it is a classic which has been translated more than fifty times,” explained Dr Jim Clarke who is heading up the research.

“Each time a translator encounters Anthony Burgess’s original novel, they are forced to make crucial decisions about how to translate all these words and ideas from a slang which has never actually existed,” he added.

“This helps us build up a picture of how translation actually happens. By comparing as many translations as possible using cutting edge linguistics techniques, we can see what happens when languages clash with each other.”

At the Ponying the Slovos symposium later this month (the title comes from Nadsat, and means ‘Understanding the Words’), experts in the area of language invention, corpus linguistics and translation studies will gather to discuss not only Nadsat, but also Tolkien’s invented languages, Klingon from Star Trek, Na’vi from the movie Avatar, Orwell’s Newspeak and Dothraki, the language of the fierce horse lords from hit TV series A Game of Thrones.

“Some of these languages have a surprisingly large number of speakers,” said Dr Clarke. “More than 300,000 people own the Klingon dictionary, which suggests that this alien language may have almost as many speakers as Welsh.”


* “Fichas anhaan hadaen anni ki nhizosi.” It literally translates as “Bring me my food by raven.”

Announcing our Keynote Speakers

We are really excited to announce that we have not one but two amazing keynote speakers at the Ponying the Slovos conference next month.

Professor Andrew Biswell of Manchester Metropolitan University, a world authority on Anthony Burgess who authored A Clockwork Orange, will deliver a keynote lecture situating Nadsat in the context of Burgess’s oeuvre.

Additionally, Dr Marion Winters, who is Senior Lecturer in Translation Studies and German at Heriot-Watt University, will deliver a keynote lecture on corpus-based translation studies, focusing on parallel corpora  and translator style and creativity.

If you’d like to hear these eminent scholars, as well as a full day of fascinating papers from researchers from three continents, covering a fascinating range of topics relating to translation and invented languages, register (for free!) today to attend the symposium at

Call for papers closing, booking page open

The booking page is now LIVE for the Ponying the Slovos conference!
If you want to attend, please go to and register. There is no charge for attending the symposium, which will include refreshments throughout the day, but if you want to attend the informal dinner afterwards, there will be a cost of £20 or so for a three course meal in a delightful local establishment.
Those who hope to speak at the event are asked to submit an abstract ASAP!