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When native speakers read "A Clockwork Orange", and sees "Moloko", "Devotchka", or "Kartoffel" how do they understand the meaning "moloko = milk", "Devotchka = girl", "Kartoffel = potato" ?

In "A Clockwork Orange" available 192 russian words!


Maybe Anthony Burgess did a linguistic experiment?

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    It's ages since I read the book, but I imagine it becomes clear from the context. – S Conroy Sep 25 '18 at 16:17
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    None of these words have cognates in English, so if they’re understood it’s by context. Or Sparknotes. – Laurel Sep 25 '18 at 16:18
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    The paperback edition of the book I got many years ago had a glossary in the back for the unusual vocabulary. – GEdgar Sep 25 '18 at 17:54
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    I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because it is not about the English language. It should probably be migrated to literature. – Mari-Lou A Sep 25 '18 at 18:03
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    They understand them by looking them up or asking someone who speaks Russian, obviously. It is off topic. – Lambie Sep 25 '18 at 18:11
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Context.

It's left pretty obvious for the most part - the writer handles it well and credits his reader with some sense, letting them work it out for themselves - gradually, in some instances.

Looking at the first few lines:

What's it going to be then, eh?

There was me, that is Alex, and my three droogs, that is Pete, Georgie, and Dim, Dim being really dim, and we sat in the Korova Milkbar making up our rassoodocks what to do with the evening, a flip dark chill winter bastard though dry.

Droogs and rassodocks explain themselves in the context, more or less.

Rassoodock must mean 'mind' - making up our minds is the most obvious way to complete the sentence in a meaningful way.

Droog is less sure - at first glance it could be 'friend,' 'boy,' or anything of that sort - but we have enough to proceed, and the meaning can be clarified as we go along. (This is not at all dissimilar to how children pick up words.)

It's worth noting, too, that not all Burgess's Nadsat is Russian in origin, or even Slavic: ultraviolence or cutter (money), for instance. The reader is expected to figure out those as well (in the same manner that anyone who has read this far but had not previously encountered the word Nadsat would now have a very good idea of what it means, without ever having explicitly been told).

As to Burgess's specific motivation for creating and employing Nadsat, Wikipedia says:

Burgess, a polyglot who loved language in all its forms, was aware that linguistic slang was of a constantly changing nature. Burgess knew that if he used modes of speech that were contemporarily in use, the novel would very quickly become dated. His use of Nadsat was essentially pragmatic; he needed his narrator to have a unique voice that would remain ageless while reinforcing Alex's indifference to his society's norms, and to suggest that youth subculture existed independently of the rest of society.

And it worked - Nadsat has helped put A Clockwork Orange and its setting outside any specific time. I don't doubt that's part of the book's enduring appeal, which is the primary reason why we are discussing it even now.

The little chunks of Russian and all the aberrant speech of Alex and his droogs are by no means unique as a literary device, either - fantasy and sci-fi authors often establish an idiom of this kind, for reasons of style, to stress the alien not-here-and-now-ness of the setting or to introduce necessary vocabulary for new concepts, with the wholesale creation of complete languages with their own writing systems, such as Klingon and Elvish, lying at the extreme end of this phenomenon.


Edit:

User GEdgar noted in the comments above that there was a glossary in the paperback edition he read. I don't remember one in the imprint I read, although I could very well be wrong. Nonetheless, this has a direct bearing on the correct answer if how readers actually understand the Russian vocabulary is simply, 'They look up the words in the back of the book.'

But, at least for some readers, GEdgar perhaps among them, this is definitely part of the answer.

Wikipedia states:

In the first edition of the book, no key was provided, and the reader was left to interpret the meaning from the context.

This is a frustratingly less-than-complete answer (and I wasn't reading a first edition!)

Looking at the introduction to the Penguin Modern Classics edition, written by Blake Morrison, and available to read through Amazon's 'Look Inside' feature:

The old American edition of A Clockwork Orange carried a glossary of nadsat words. Burgess did not approve of this: in a novel which takes brainwashing as its subject, he intended his own form of brainwashing, which was to force readers to use a Russian dictionary.

We can at least now see that not all imprints carried a glossary, and that there may be a British/American split on this.

I feel Blake Morrison is being a little flippant when he suggests that Burgess wanted his readers to use a Russian dictionary, as he immediately goes on to say:

Though reading the novel requires some puzzle-solving, the meaning of a nadsat word is often clear from the context, or from Burgess's own glosses: a paragraph about the pleasures of deng obligingly ends: 'But, as they say, money isn't everything.'

So the answer to how readers understand Nadsat is: context, sometimes a glossary at the back of the book, and these days, most likely, by looking them up on the net when they encounter one they struggle with.

(For the curious, the text of the Nadsat glossary from the first American edition can be found here.)

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    Droogs in English also sounds a bit like 'stooges', which I imagine isn't coincidental. If he'd written 'friends' it would have been pretty innocuous. I imagine, too, that the Russian language base for the bad guy slang is very connected to its being written during the cold war. – S Conroy Sep 25 '18 at 16:29
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    I'm with you on the droogs and stooges; I'd never have remembered but I'm sure that's what I'd have had in mind when first reading it, not really knowing anything about it. It fits too well to be a coincidence. And giving a Russian flavour to English in a Cold War context more than suggests Russian hegemony rather than American - and, thus, some alternative world (probably darker). The jury's still out on what the milk's all about, though! – tmgr Sep 25 '18 at 17:48
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    My theory about the milk thing: the "milk bars" are exploiting some sort of loophole in the law. Maybe it's hard to get a license for a regular bar, but not for a milk bar, even if you put exotic drugs in the milk. – Mike Baranczak Sep 26 '18 at 3:05
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    Don't forget that Alex is in his mid-teens, which goes along with @MikeBaranczak's suggestion of exploiting loopholes; Alex couldn't be served alcoholic beverages in a regular pub. – user888379 Sep 26 '18 at 12:28
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When he was writing 'A Clockwork Orange', Anthony Burgess who, on top of being an author was a linguist, employed a fake 'future-slang' language called "Nadsat". This language was largely based in Russian, which Burgess stated was because of a trip he had taken to Russia in the midst of the Cold War. Of course, it's not just based on Russian. Other language components include Cockney rhyming slang, the Malay language (which Burgess had learned previously in anticipation of a trip to Indonesia), and Elizabethan English. As to understanding, Burgess was careful to include context clues through which a native English speaker might understand the meaning of a character's speech. I for one had some trouble understanding these words on a first read through, but I found that if I spent some time trying to understand the context in which they were used, I was usually able to settle on some meaning which made sense to me. Also, full confession, I looked some of them up. I would imagine that my experience is not far removed from the average reader's.

Further Reading:

A great write-up about Nadsat and its inspiration: https://www.anthonyburgess.org/a-clockwork-orange/a-clockwork-orange-and-nadsat/

This website includes a segment of Burgess' autobiography in which he discusses Nadsat: http://accidentalrussophile.blogspot.com/2006/03/anthony-burgess-clockwork-orange-and.html

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    Small point: Burgess spent many years teaching in Malaya and spoke several dialects. – Al Maki Sep 26 '18 at 15:49
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The new terms in 'A Clockwork Orange' were intended to be

  1. entirely new to English readers, and
  2. mostly understandable from context and repetition.

If these new terms weren't perfectly definable from context, at least some sense could be made. The great majority of English speakers have no knowledge of Russian or other sources for the words.

When I first read this work, for school, I had absolutely no idea what these words meant. I found the glossary that was added to later editions, counter to the author's intentions, to be necessary. Just one weird new word in a sentence makes everything revolve around that single word, trying to discover what is meant and forcing all sorts of meanings, which barely stick to the word.

Nowadays, with some recognition ability in Russian, I can see the source for some of the words and if I were to read the work today would make total sense if a bit out of place. eg malchick/devotchka = мальчик/девочка almost exact transliteration, dobby/doma = добрий/дом -> dobree/dom.

There is only one word out of the list thatbecame an actual English word of its own right outside of reference to the novel and is naturally used by English speakers (in informal contexts) and that is :

horrorshow

which is a reanalysis in English of the Russian word for 'good' ('хорошо' sounds like khorosho). It is supposed to mean 'excellent' (really good), as given in the online slang dictionary, but is usually used more literally as a synonym for 'clusterfuck' = 'where things are going horribly wrong.

None of the others have caught on. 'Droog' is not uncommon but almost intentionally with reference to the novel. 'Horrorshow' is used by the general public without knowledge of its origin.

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  • In the sociological realm, I'm sill confused about 'milk bar'. Is that an actual thing they do in England? Was the concept in the book patterned after real life but modified to the book's purpose? Do they serve soy or almond milk? I'm so curious. – Mitch Sep 26 '18 at 17:04

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