Η γλώσσα μου, η ψυχή μου
“My language, my soul”
– Οdysseas Elytis

The ‘Ulam Dictionary’

The languages invented by the novelist Anthony Burgess for Jean-Jacques Annaud’s 1981 film Quest for Fire are not as well-known as they deserve to be. One reason for this is because the film contains no subtitles. Another reason is that much of the work did not survive into the final cut of the film. The story is set in Palaeolithic Europe (80,000 years ago), depicting the struggle to control fire by early humans.
The Burgess archives in Texas and Manchester document the creation of ‘Ulam’, the language spoken in the movie. The commission was to recreate Proto-Indo-European (known as PIE), the ancient ancestor of modern European languages, which does not survive in a written form.
Burgess was asked to devise around sixty words, but the final version of Ulam runs to more than 160 words. He was excited by the opportunity to develop a complex language, and delivered more than he was paid for.
Burgess used books he had studied as an undergraduate at Manchester University in the 1930s. He relied on the account of the evolution of Indo-European languages by Otto Jespersen in Growth and Structure of the English Language (1930). Burgess also consulted his collection of ‘Teach Yourself’ language books. His wide-ranging study of modern languages included Dutch, Gaelic, Greek, Hungarian, Icelandic, Persian, Portuguese, Spanish and Turkish.
When it came to constructing the ‘new’ languages for Quest for Fire, drawing on these linguistic roots, Burgess combined elements from Indian, Armenian, Hellenic, Albanian, Italic, Balto-Slavic, Celtic and Germanic languages. He paid attention to Sanskrit – as the oldest surviving language of the Indo-European group.
Looking at the word for ‘father’ in various modern languages, he found ‘vater’ in German and Dutch, ‘pater’ in Latin, ‘pitar’ in Sanskrit and ‘faðir’ in Old Norse. Working from these examples, he concluded that the Indo-European word for father ‘must have begun with a lip-sound, and there must have been a terminal r-sound.’ Following these principles, Burgess decided that the Ulam word for ‘foot’ would be ‘powd’ (as in the French ‘pied’ or ‘pedes’ in Latin). Water would be ‘aga’, with the same word used for ‘river.’ ‘Dondra’, derived from the Greek ‘dendron’, is the Ulam word for ‘tree’. Fire itself is ‘atra’, related to the English word ‘hearth’.
The gestures to accompany spoken words were developed with anthropologist Desmond Morris, author of The Naked Ape and Bodytalk: The Meaning of Human Gestures. Mild aggression is a repetition of ‘Tka, tka, tka,’ with a side-to-side motion. Moderate aggression involves the word ‘Dga, dga, dga’, with increased body movement. The most violent form of aggression is communicated with ‘Arr’, ‘Ang’ and ‘Arm’, the voice coming from the chest, the lips pulled back to expose the teeth, and a dominant stance.

Viddy well

Back in 1962, Burgess invented another language, Nadsat, for his novel A Clockwork Orange. It’s a mix of modified Slavic words, rhyming slang and derived Russian. For instance, droog (друг) = friend; moloko (молоко) = milk; gulliver (голова) = head; horrorshow (хорошо) = good.
The language is explained by a doctor in the book as, “odd bits of old rhyming slang, a bit of gypsy talk, too. But most of the roots are Slav propaganda. Subliminal penetration.”
Some words are not derived from anything: “the old in-out” means sexual intercourse. Cutter means “money”, because “cutter” rhymes with “bread-and-butter”. This rhyming slang is intended to be impenetrable to outsiders (especially eavesdropping policemen). Additionally, slang like appypolly loggy (“apology”) derive from school-boy slang.

James Neophytou

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