Unlock the meaning in nadsat

30th April 2004 at 01:00
Jane Christopher describes how including a cult novel in extra reading has given her A-level students a sense of confidence

A Clockwork Orange is a text I have been teaching to a fast-track A-level group outside of curriculum time. I started this last year, while teaching a particularly able group of 14 Year 11 students English literature AS-level. I was struck by how enthusiastic they were, literally soaking up information, reading books I mentioned in passing and always wanting more knowledge. They are now in Year 12 studying for A2, while a new group of Year 11s has been studying with me outside of school. I chose AClockwork Orange because after reading George Orwell's 1984, both groups showed an interest in the manipulation of society and language. Other extra-reading texts have included Othello, Paradise Lost Book 1 and Death of a Salesman.

I could write a book about the impact this has had - particularly on Year 12s - about celebrating being intelligent, feeling special, having the confidence that comes from apparent freedom from contraints and the enjoyment of challenge. One student asked me whether it was wrong to look forward to writing coursework. They are even talking about what we will do next year when they do A2-levelI they don't want to stop.

Manipulation and control are at the heart of A Clockwork Orange and part of its context. Anthony Burgess wanted to comment on the changes he saw taking place in Britain. He wrote the first draft in 1960, after returning from Malaya and Brunei, when he was diagnosed with a brain tumour and told he only had a year to live. During this time, he wrote five and a half novels, working under a self-imposed discipline of 2,000 words per day.

A Clockwork Orange was the half novel. Having survived the year's notice, Burgess came back to it, determined to complete the visionary book. He was interested in the cultural changes taking place around him: the advent of coffee shops, the influence of pop music and the emerging power of teenage gangs.

He determined to focus on a time in the 1970s when teenage violence was a recognised social problem, forcing the government to turn to techniques of negative reinforcement (brainwashing).

In 1961, he went on holiday to Russia, when it occurred to him to create a language that would be a mixture of Russian and English, like a Red Square meets Shakespeare and Mods rhyming slang. He called it nadsat: Burgess's Russianised English argot was to be used by teenagers - a phonetically enjoyable dialect, perhaps the neologism of the future, much like Orwell's Newspeak in 1984. With words like horrowshow (good), slovos (words), rot (mouth), zoobies (teeth), cancers (cigarettes), gulliver (head), guttiwuts (stomach) and pretty polly (money) - you can begin to see the different types of language that Burgess has drawn upon.

Perhaps the most ironic is the word Bog for God, where the repetition of the consonant Gg can still be heard. The status of being a proper noun is preserved, but contempt is created through the meaning and associations we have with the word "bog", only increased through such an apparent relationship with the original term.

Even the name of the narrator is significant in terms of its derivation:

"a-lex" means without, or outside of, the law. This provides a useful insight into Burgess's success. He subverts what we already know. He makes us refer to what we know to be the truth and questions it, practising the technique on us - we become Pavlov's dogs.

Take an example from early in the book. Alex and his droogs (fellow gang members) tease, rape and attack a couple in their home. This happens in chapter 2 when Alex is only 15 years old but, importantly, at a point for the reader when nadsat is still relatively new. I read this passage with my students and what we found resulted in a very interesting discussion. It was not the nadsat use that was shocking or seemed to be reflecting the violence taking place, it was the use of Standard English. There seemed to be a number of reasons for this, reasons Burgess presumably intended to intellectually engage the audience in such a way that Alex could not be too alien.

First, the reader is a passive participant, not taking part in the rape.

But, when they come across phrases in Standard English and realise what is actually taking place, they feel shock, but not enough to stop reading, because they are then waiting for the next piece of Standard English - our shared language - as though completing a puzzle.

Not astrophysics this. But what is frightening is the fact that the reader also becomes aware, and not at any specific place, that they have understood the nadsat. We looked through and tried to identify the exact place - but could not. Impact? We relate to Alex; we understand his language; he is not alien. You can see why Burgess was so furious when the original American edition carried a glossary. As a group, we discussed in detail the impact this would have on the reader and how it would change your whole relationship with the book, most especially with Alex. With a glossary, you don't trust your own understanding of words in their context.

Using it would reinforce a belief that Alex speaks in another language - a rebellious teenage Esperanto - rather than an exiting culmination of a distortion of different languages, word meanings, slang and historicism.

Alex refers to his friends as "O my brothers" and dresses in apparel that would place him comfortably in court during the time of Shakespeare and Marlowe.

I watched Conspiracy recently, a film where Nazi officials met to determine the fate of the Jews. They referred to it as "cleansing". This is an example of extremist euphemism - Orwell's vision of "thought police".

Alex's cure in the book is "reclamation treatment", which involves being drugged, having his eyelids taped open, Beethoven playing (the music he loves to daydream violence to) and being made to watch violent scenes over and over again. He then begins to associate violence with being sick. The wonderful irony of this is that he cannot even contemplate suicide. He goes to the library in search of ways to kill himself but cannot stomach the violence. He turns to the Bible for solace and comfort but is sick at the violence he finds there.

There is much here to consider. An A-level language teacher can have a field day looking at nadsat in the context of the history of our language and current concern that text messaging renders teenagers incapable of spelling, while emailing renders them incapable of stringing sentences together.

Teachers of history, politics and general studies have plenty of material here to look at the way we respond to violence. We had some soul-searching discussion in terms of finding Alex an attractive character (are we inherently attracted to violence?) and what the implications of that meant, looking at parenting and the way Alex is treated by the police, and the end: Alex is reformed. But what of all the Alexs to come?

Jane Christopher is deputy headteacher at Droitwich Spa High School, Droitwich, Worcestershire

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