Another English

From Shakespeare to Martin Amis, writers have always been inventive with language. But some authors take it a step beyond and throw out the rules of English altogether, crafting a dialect which is only spoken by their characters.
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From Shakespeare to Martin Amis, writers have always been inventive with language. But some authors take it a step beyond and throw out the rules of English altogether, crafting a dialect which is only spoken by their characters.

There are various reasons to do this. Sometimes the author is trying to convey the flavor of an archaic version of English, or of a Creole which isn't (in its real form) comprehensible to Standard English speakers. Sometimes the dialect is that of an imaginary future, so English has naturally evolved over time. But of course many authors write novels in these settings without resorting to invented dialects. So underlying all this is a simple wish to devise one's own patois, and this is always implicitly driven by aesthetic considerations. The language of the future/past is poeticized and musical, infused with wordplay. It fills the foreign landscape of the book with a gorgeous, otherworldly light.

You'd think such books would be a specialized taste. But all of the books on the list below were commercially successful. Many were bestsellers. They're described as "cult" novels not only for their strangeness, but for the cult-like adoration they inspire in many readers -- often readers who were skeptical on first opening the book.

A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess

Quote: 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.

Come for the hyper-inventiveness, stay for the hyper-violence. Burgess's tale of a sociopathic gang member of the future - who also happens to worship Beethoven -- is beloved by both horror fans and lit-crit types.

Riddley Walker by Russell Hoban

Quote: Wel I cant say for cern no mor if I had any of them things in my mynd befor she tol me but ever since then it seams like they all ways ben there. Seams like I ben all ways thinking on that thing in us what thinks us but it dont think like us. Our woal life is a idear we dint think of nor we dont know what it is.

In the aftermath of a nuclear war, post-civilized Britons hunt boar, fight packs of wild dogs, and have turned Punch and Judy shows into a religious ritual. The language (based on actual Southern English dialect) is mesmerizingly powerful.

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

Quote: I watched clouds awobbly from the floor o' that kayak. Souls cross ages like clouds cross skies, an' tho' a cloud's shape nor hue nor size don't stay the same, it's still a cloud an' so is a soul. Who can say where the cloud's blowed from or who the soul'll be 'morrow? Only Somni the east an' the west an' the compass an' the atlas, yay, only the atlas o' clouds.

Cloud Atlas consists of eleven loosely-linked sections, scattered through past and future history. Here the invented dialect is confined to the sixth (and central) section, Sloosha's Crossin an' Ev'rythin' After. Mitchell gives his post-apocalyptic hunter-gatherers a language which feels faintly Riddley-Walkerish despite the fact that they live in Hawai'i.

The Book of Dave by Will Self

Quote: Sal Brudi ul B up ve duff soon enuff bi wunnuvose ugli öl shitters... No, he best forget it, forget her - and get up to the wallows. Whatever might happen in the next few days, this tariff he had graft to do, important graft.

The title's Book of Dave is the angry rant of a mentally ill taxi driver, which he has printed on metal and buried in his ex-wife's garden. It becomes the basis of a future misogynistic religion. The book alternates between Dave's life and a future society whose culture is based on his psychotic ravings. Bring a working knowledge of Cockney slang.

Beasts of No Nation by Uzodimna Iweala

Quote: I am seeing soldier with black face and big white smile. I am seeing bullet making my father to dance everywhere with his arm raising high to the sky like he is praising God.

Written from the point of view of a child soldier in one of West Africa's catastrophic wars. Iweala explained: "[The narrator's] language is a construct, loosely based on Pidgin English, inspired by voices of ordinary Nigerians." The simple grammar and blazing imagery bring both the innocence and brutality of the world to unforgettable life.

Sozaboy by Ken Saro-Wiwa

Quote: And I was thinking how I was prouding before to go to soza and call myself Sozaboy. But now if anybody say anything about war or even fight, I will just run and run and run and run and run. Believe me yours sincerely.

Ken Saro-Wiwa is best known in the West as an activist who was executed for his brave opposition to the military dictatorship that ruled Nigeria in the 90s. But he was an equally fearless and brilliant writer; his Sozaboy (subtitled "A Novel In Rotten English" is a scabrously comical take on the child soldier story.

The Wake by Paul Kingsnorth

Quote: loc it is well cnawan there is those wolde be tellan lies and those with only them selfs in mynd. there is those now who specs of us and what we done but who cnawan triewe no man cnawan triewe but i and what i tell i will tell as i sceolde and all that will be telt will be all the triewth.

It's common for writers of historical novels to use a faintly antiquated tone, with a "thou" or a "prithee" thrown in for period flavor. But, in The Wake, Kingsnorth goes farther. His narrator, a guerilla leader of the resistance to the Norman invasion of Britain, writes in "a shadow tongue... intended to convey the feeling" of Old English." Rejected by traditional publishers, the book was published through the crowd-funded Unbound site... then roundly vindicated by being longlisted for the Man Booker and winning the Gordon Burn Prize.

Pigtopia by Kitty Fitzgerald

Quote: Mam says my head is bulky as a hog's on account of Dad was pig. She says my brain is like mush, like pigslops, on that purpose.

"He was a a no-good swine, a pig of the highest order," she shouts when whiskey has her.

Here the dialect is the native tongue of only one person; a boy born horribly disfigured, and raised in isolation by his abusive mother; his only companions are the local pigs. Given this grim premise, the book is surprisingly uplifting, due to the preternatual wisdom and goodness of the handicapped boy/man/pig, who strikes up a life-altering friendship with a troubled teenaged girl.

Everything Is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer

Quote: My legal name is Alexander Perchov. But all of my many friends dub me Alex, because that is a more flaccid-to-utter version of my legal name. Mother dubs me Alexi-stop-spleening-me!, because I am always spleening her. If you want to know why I am always spleening her, it is because I am always elsewhere with friends, and disseminating so much currency, and performing so many things that can spleen a mother.

Foer's richly comical idiolect is the result of a young Ukrainian man teaching himself English without any input from a native speaker. The book alternates between Alex's feast of malapropisms and third-person flashbacks to a magical realist narrative about a Ukrainian Jewish town in the days leading up to the Holocaust. Eventually, the two stories meet in a poignant climax.

Finnegan's Wake by James Joyce

Quote: What then agentlike brought about that tragoady thundersday this municipal sin business? Our cubehouse still rocks as earwitness to the thunder of his arafatas but we hear also through successive ages that shebby choruysh of unkalified muzzlenimiissilehims that would blackguardize the whitestone ever hurtleturtled out of heaven.

Joyce's final novel, written in a mash-up of more than a dozen different languages, is notoriously impenetrable. For the dedicated Joycean, the book is fascinating for its prolific beauty, its multilingual puns, and the sheer pleasure of intellectual conquest. Still, it defeated no less a reader than Jorge Luis Borges; in his review, he suspected that even critics who lauded it "share my essential bewilderment and my useless and partial glances at the text."

Sandra Newman is the author of The Country of Ice Cream Star.

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