What is Nadsat in “A Clockwork Orange,” and What Is It Derived From?


While Stanley Kubrick’s film adaptation of A Clockwork Orange (1971) does feature the complex language of the demoralized youths of future England, it only gives us a portion of the Anglo-Russian hybrid that Anthony Burgess constructed for his novel of the same name, originally published in 1962.

In the film as well as the novel, Nadsat is a fictional argot, or secret language, used by the Nadsat, who are members of a teen counterculture similar to the conflicting British subcultures, the mods and rockers. Their ongoing feud throughout the mid-1960s and 1970’s was infamously portrayed in The Who’s rock opera, Quadraphenia (1973). Nadsat’s name also appropriately comes from the Russian suffix equivalent of ‘teen.’

While Victor Hugo (The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, Les Miserables) was one of the first to extensively research the previously described jargon, Anthony Burgess was a notable linguist in his own right, having lectured on phonetics, the study of the sound of human speech, at the University of Birmingham and published two books on the subject: Language Made Plain (1964) and A Mouthful of Air (1994).

Nadsat is also a register; a variety of languages. While mostly comprised of English and Russian, it also contains influences from Cockney rhyming slang, an English dialect prevalent in the East End of London, the King James Bible, the Germanic languages, some random words of unknown origins, and even terms that Burgess invented himself. Some notable examples from the film include, cutter or pretty polly, for money, and viddy, for see.

Set in a dilapidated version of England, an odd mixture of capitalism and communism has occurred. There appears to be a major lack of identity in the crime ridden society, as all these different influences have come together to create their own degenerate culture and language. Even Alex, who is portrayed by Malcolm McDowell in the film version, disapproves of some of the societies aspects, particularly the loud, industrial pop music. He personally prefers the symphonies of the classical composer Ludwig van Beethoven. But while Alex and his fellow droogs (friends) see themselves as rebels, they are actually playing into the increasingly authoritarian governments game to keep their population living in fear, in order to give them a single, unifying thread.

In order for this political, social, and economic hybrid to have occurred, a massive migration of Eastern European and perhaps even Central Asian influence had to have moved westward. As both the novel and film adaptation were released when the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact were at the height of their power, this was a very relevant issue, and to this very day, continues to be a hot-button issue as immigration to Western Europe increases.

But while the blending of these two drastically different languages may seem confined to Burgess’ dystopian tale, since 2000 the term “Runglish” has increased in popularity and has become a name for one of the languages spoken aboard the International Space Station, which was launched on November 20, 1998.

Although not as widespread as other pidgins, a grammatically simplified form of a language, used for communication between people not sharing a common language, Runglish is spoken in a number of English-Russian communities, most notably the Russian-speaking community of Brighton Beach in Brooklyn, New York. Located in the southern portion of the New York City borough of Brooklyn, along the Coney Island peninsula, this ocean-side neighborhood is known for it’s high population of Russian-speaking immigrants.