James Joyce


One of my ‘nerdiest’ passions is for conlangs, short for ‘constructed languages.’  Examples of these include Klingon and the various tongues in Tolkien’s books.  These are often created by creative linguists or people with an advanced knowledge of languages, although countless laypeople create them for fun.

Related to this concept are what might be called condialects. There are, in a number of works of fiction, intricately crafted varieties of English that are entirely made up.  Many of the most famous examples of these appear in popular or renowned works of literature and film.  Here are a few examples.

1.) Yoda from Star Wars.  Creating Yoda’s distinctive idiolect mustn’t have been very complicated.  It was simply a matter of changing the typical word order of English, which is normally Subject-Verb-Object to Object-Subject-Verb.  A very simple trick this is.

Interestingly, Yoda at times treats modal and auxiliary verbs as separate from the main verb.  For example, in one line, Yoda says,  find your planet you will,’ splitting the verb phrase ‘you will find.’  So he seems to have a solid grasp of the finer points of English   morphology, but somehow misses some basic structural rules.  A flaw with Yoda-speak, perhaps. Then again, why is anybody in Star Wars speaking English in the first place?

2.) Finnegan’s Wake by James Joyce. Many Joyce scholars classify this as a language, but this classic of Irish literature is arguably in some kind of English, albeit of a very strange type.  Here’s a sample, from the first few pages:

Bygmester Finnegan, of the Stuttering Hand, freemen’s maurer, lived in the broadest way immarginable in his rushlit toofarback for messuages before joshuan judges had given us numbers or Helviticus committed deuteronomy…

I don’t have a PhD in Joyce Studies, so I can’t delve too deeply into how the work should be classified from a linguistic standpoint.  Also, I admittedly haven’t read it (sorry).  The novel is written in strange blend of poetic language, with bits of Norwegian, Biblical allusions, and Hiberno-English thrown in.  Again, I’m not quite sure if you could classify it a ‘dialect,’ but it’s at least worth an honorable mention here.

3.) A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess. The language in this novel is the most unambiguously a condialect, and created by a trained linguist, to boot.  Set in a horrifying futuristic Britain, the protagonist speaks a Cockney-ish dialect that has a number of Russian-derived slang words, such as ‘droog’ (meaning ‘mate’), which derives from Russian druk and ‘devotchka,’ meaning girl.

One of my favorite aspects of the book is that Burgess creates a number of words that lie in between Russian and English.  Take ‘lubbilubbing,’ for example, which means fornicating.  The word apparently derives from Russian lyublyu, meaning ‘love,’ but is also believable as an entirely English neologism.

4.) Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Saffran Foer.  A large chunk of this novel is narrated by a Ukrainian English-learner named Alexander Perchov, hence this charmingly error-ridded beginning to the book:

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.

Foer’s detractors complained that too much of the book read like an elaborate misuse of the thesaurus function on MS Word. But there is a certain skill to employing just the right wrong word. (Using ‘facile’ in the above sentence instead of ‘flaccid’ wouldn’t have the same comic punch). It’s a lot less linguistically complex than what Burgess did, but much more of an achievement than critics give it credit for.

5.) Room by Emma Donoghue.  Like most entries on this list, it is highly debatable whether  this Irish writer’s harrowing novel about abduction is written in a ‘dialect,’ but it definitely has its own syntactic and grammatical oddities.  Donoghue conveys the story through the voice of a five-year-old boy, which normally might disqualify it as an example of condialecting.  However, this particular child lives in a tiny room with his mother: both are prisoner of a psychopath who has contructed an inescapable cell, although the boy doesn’t realize this until well into the book.

This results in an odd mother-child language that goes beyond mere child-speech. Objects are referred to as if they were almost people, sans article: ‘Room,’ ‘Skylight,’ ‘Lamp.’  With this comes an interesting system of genders (‘Plant’ and ‘Refrigerator’ are female, while ‘Watch’ and ‘Jeep’ are male).  The sun is referrered to as ‘God,’ pills are ‘killers’ (presumable a shortened version of ‘painkillers’), and television stations are ‘planets.’  The book examines what happens to a child’s mind when it’s cut off from the world, including a child’s language.

Those are a few examples I can think of off the top of my head.  Any other renowned condialects?



About Ben

Ben T. Smith launched his dialect fascination while working in theatre. He has worked as an actor, playwright, director, critic and dialect coach. Other passions include linguistics, urban development, philosophy and film.
This entry was posted in Miscellaneous Accents and Dialects and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to Con-Dialects

  1. IVV says:

    1984’s Newspeak, perchance?

  2. Peter S. says:

    How about Amitav Ghosh’s Sea of Poppies; does that count? Much of it is written in what purports to be an 1838 Indian/English pidgin, which I suspect may have been partially reconstructed and partially invented.

  3. QoB says:

    The various speech groups in Neal Stephenson’s Anathem.

    • QoB says:

      e.g.: the “avout” are monk-like philosophers living in isolation, a word probably a mash-up between “devout” and “avowed”; particularly renowned members of the avout have the title “Saunt” (saint+savant) etc. etc.

  4. Tom V says:

    Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker is another example, set in post-apocalyptic Kent.

  5. Charles Sullivan says:

    How about Lord Buckley? How can anyone’s natural dialect be a strange cross between the jazz hip and a bad British accent?

    • gaelsano says:

      I don’t hear a bad British accent, I hear traces of the West Indies, which is admittedly more in the England/Wales/South Africa/Australia/New Zealand/India/Hong Kong camp as opposed to the Canada/America/Ireland/Philippines camp.

      (Scotland’s rhotic and has obvious links to Canadian English, but in the modern context uses a lot of the diaphonemes that RP would use for words like tomato. I don’t know where to place it.)

      • Charles Sullivan says:

        This one doesn’t have the British accent, I’m afraid, although some of his stuff moves back and forth between a British sounding accent and hip jazz dialect.

  6. gaelsano says:

    How about most racist stereotypes that have come out of Hollywood?

    We smoke ’em peace pipe.

    The place of yelling water (waterfall)

    One day, many moons ago, Bear talk to Eagle. Bear say “Eagle, we ……

    I’m sure many Americans (especially if born before 1960) can impersonate the “red man.” Disney’s Peter Pan wasn’t the first nor the last (Irony quotations marks, by the way).

    It’s hard to draw lines, however, between foreign accents, exaggerated foreign accents, woefully inaccurate foreign accents, and grammatical/vocabulary error from L1, made-up mistakes from L1.

    A French character saying “Ze cake is good” accurate or not, is an accent issue.

    A French character saying “The cake, she is the most delicious of all foods” might be an accurate portrayal of L1 interfering with syntax.

    I would say that the depictions of Native Americans whether patronizing with the noble savage who is practically half-animal or virulently racist with tomahawk-chucking, invariably use a con-dialect. Filled with kennings (ironically like Old English) and without articles, spoken in short sentences, showing deliberate breaking of syllables within morphemes, and being overly reliant on the present tense.

    Unintentionally, we also have the common American conception of Cockney.

    ‘Ello guv’na!
    Shh! Be all Kwoy-et like.
    Give us a kiss, love

    A mangled mixture of various non-RP accents of South England, emphasizing all the wrong things and missing out on features like l-vocalization, were/was, th/f/v, rhyming slang. You can see it especially in films that take place in Victorian Britain. Chimney-sweeping street urchins.

    Any others?

  7. JuiceLoose says:

    Pygmy by Chuck Palahniuk.

  8. ASG says:

    Though the book had its flaws, I’d cautiously recommend Will Self’s The Book of Dave, which is set in a postapocalyptic world where “arpee” (“RP”, except not) is the language of the elite and “mokni” (“cockney”, except not) is the language of the rabble.

    The premise: in the present day, a misogynist jerk of a cab driver writes a diary in which he spews forth his hatred for his ex-wife; hundreds of years later, the survivors of some unexplained disaster find this diary and treat it as a sacred text. The lingo of the London cabbie is transformed into a highly specialized religious vocabulary. I no longer remember all the details, but for example “fliar” (“flyer”) is the word for heretic (since the cab driver hated going to the airport), “fare” is the word for soul, and “rearvu” (“rearview”) is a word for omniscience or something. “Whereto?” becomes a general greeting.

    It’s a weird, difficult, crazily ambitious book, and sometimes it’s infuriating. But I think you might dig the language experiments even if you don’t love everything about it. A sample:

    — Mum! she snorted. Mum! Eye tellya, boy, vat vare iz ve diffrunz Btween U chavs an reel folk. Tym, munny, distunz. She pointed at the dial: Daves tym — nó Rs. Daves munny — nó yaws, Daves distunz — iz root 2 Nù Lundun! Then she rounded on Böm: Djoo bleev in Dave, ven, Böm? she spat out.
    — Enuff, the teach replied.
    — Djoo bleev in iz cummagayn, djoo bleev in iz mirrakulz, djoo bleev in Nù Lundun?
    — Yeah, enuff. Carl had never seen Böm so tongue-tied.
    — So ow cum ve Dryva sez U 2 iz fliars? Djoo bleev, boy?

    The whole book isn’t written like this, thank goodness (half of it is set in Dave’s own time).

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