Definition and Examples of Anti-Language

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

Clockwork Orange
In "A Clockwork Orange," the gang members speak Nadsat, an anti-language invented by the author. (Getty Images)

Anti-language is a minority dialect or method of communicating within a minority speech community that excludes members of the main speech community.

The term antilanguage was coined by British linguist M.A.K. Halliday ("Anti-Languages," American Anthropologist, 1976).

Examples and Observations

"Anti-languages may be understood as extreme versions of social dialects. They tend to arise among subcultures and groups that occupy a marginal or precarious position in society, especially where central activities of the group place them outside the law. . . .

"Anti-languages are basically created by a process of relexicalization--the substitution of new words for old. The grammar of the parent language may be preserved, but a distinctive vocabulary develops, particularly--but not solely--in activities and areas that are central to the subculture and that help to set it off most sharply from the established society."
(Martin Montgomery, An Introduction to Language and Society. Routledge, 1986)

"The ideological function and sociolinguistic status of Black English is reminiscent of (though not identical to) an anti-language (Halliday, 1976). This is a linguistic system that reinforces group solidarity and excludes the Other. It is speech characteristic of a group which is in but not of a society. As an anti-language, BE emerges as a counter-ideology; it is the language of rebellion and the symbolic expression of solidarity among the oppressed."
(Geneva Smitherman, Talkin That Talk: Language, Culture, and Education in African America. Routledge, 2000)

"Long after they learn to behave as adults expect them to, children continue to investigate the boundaries of sense and nonsense. Anti-language flourishes in the society of children as 'an unself-conscious culture' (Opie, 1959)."
(Margaret Meek, "Play and Paradox," in Language And Learning, ed. by G. Wells and J. Nicholls. Routledge, 1985)

Nadsat: Anti-Language in A Clockwork Orange

"[T]here is something at once delightful and horrible, dogged and elusive in A Clockwork Orange [by Anthony Burgess] . . .. There is something about the novel so frightening that it demanded a new language and something so immanent in the message of the novel that it refused to be separated from the language. . . .

"The novel's tempo, and its overwhelming linguistic accomplishment is to a great degree based upon the language Nadsat, coined for the book: the language of the droogs and of the night. It is the jargon of rape, plunder, and murder veiled in unfamiliarity, and as such it works highly successfully. . . . The novel makes a fleeting reference to the origins of the language. 'Odd bits of old rhyming slang . . . a bit of gipsy talk, too. But most of the roots are Slav. Propaganda. Sublimation penetration' (p. 115)."
(Esther Petix, "Linguistics, Mechanics, and Metaphysics: Anthony Burgess's A Clockwork Orange (1962)." Old Lines, New Forces: Essays on the Contemporary British Novel, 1960-1970, ed. by Robert K. Morris. Associated University Presses, 1976)

"Nadsat is derived from Russian, British, and Cockney rhyming slang. Burgess said that elements of the language were inspired by the Edwardian Strutters, British teenagers in the late 1950s who carried out violent attacks on innocent people. Rhyming slang is characteristic of London's East End, where speakers substitute random rhyming words for others: for example, 'nasty' becomes 'Cornish pasty'; 'key' becomes 'Bruce Lee'; and so on." (Stephen D. Rogers, The Dictionary of Made-Up Languages. Adams Media, 2011)

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Nordquist, Richard. "Definition and Examples of Anti-Language." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, Nordquist, Richard. (2020, August 26). Definition and Examples of Anti-Language. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Definition and Examples of Anti-Language." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 6, 2023).