Anthony Burgess - Linguistics

Linguistics

"Burgess's linguistic training," wrote Raymond Chapman and Tom McArthur in The Oxford Companion to the English Language, "is shown in dialogue enriched by distinctive pronunciations and the niceties of register." During his years in Malaya, and after he had mastered Jawi, the Arabic script adapted for Malay, Burgess taught himself the Persian language, after which he produced a translation of Eliot's The Waste Land into Persian (unpublished). He worked on an anthology of the best of English literature translated into Malay, which failed to achieve publication. Burgess's published translations include Cyrano de Bergerac, Oedipus the King and Carmen.

Burgess's interest in language was reflected in the invented, Anglo-Russian teen slang of A Clockwork Orange (Nadsat), and in the movie Quest for Fire (1981), for which he invented a prehistoric language (Ulam) for the characters. His interest is reflected in his characters. In The Doctor is Sick, Dr Edwin Spindrift is a lecturer in linguistics who escapes from a hospital ward which is peopled, as the critic Saul Maloff put it in a review, with "brain cases who happily exemplify varieties of English speech." Burgess, who had lectured on phonetics at the University of Birmingham in the late 1940s, investigates the field of linguistics in Language Made Plain and A Mouthful of Air.

The depth of Burgess's multilingual proficiency came under discussion in Roger Lewis's 2002 biography. Lewis claimed that during production in Malaysia of the BBC documentary A Kind of Failure (1982), Burgess's supposedly fluent Malay was unable to be understood by waitresses at a restaurant where they were filming. It was claimed that the documentary's director deliberately kept these moments intact in the film in order to expose Burgess's linguistic pretensions. A letter from David Wallace that appeared in the magazine of the London Independent on Sunday newspaper on 25 November 2002 shed light on the affair. Wallace's letter read, in part: "... the tale was inaccurate. It tells of Burgess, the great linguist, "bellowing Malay at a succession of Malayan waitresses" but "unable to make himself understood". The source of this tale was a 20-year-old BBC documentary ... that the director left the scene in, in order to poke fun at the great author. Not so, and I can be sure, as I was that director ... The story as seen on television made it clear that Burgess knew that these waitresses were not Malay. It was a Chinese restaurant and Burgess's point was that the ethnic Chinese had little time for the government-enforced national language, Bahasa Malaysia . Burgess may well have had an accent, but he did speak the language; it was the girls in question who did not." Lewis may not have been fully aware of the fact that a quarter of Malaysia's population is made up of Hokkien- and Cantonese-speaking Chinese. However, Malay had been installed as the National Language with the passing of the Language Act of 1967. By 1982 all national primary and secondary schools in Malaysia would have been teaching with Bahasa Melayu as a base language (see Harold Crouch, Government and Society in Malaysia, Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1996).

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