A Mouthful of Air

Readers of Anthony Burgess’ fiction, savoring the Russian-influenced slang of A CLOCKWORK ORANGE or the Shakespearean English of NOTHING LIKE THE SUN, have long known him as a writer who is both unusually knowledgeable and insatiably curious about language. In 1964, Burgess published a layman’s introduction to linguistics, LANGUAGE MADE PLAIN; a revised edition followed. Much of that work is incorporated in A MOUTHFUL OF AIR. (In his autobiography, Burgess acknowledges the professional writer’s need to get the maximum mileage from his material. He follows that principle here while still giving good weight.)

Burgess tells us that “The book is pedagogical in intent: it unashamedly tries to teach.” This is a useful fiction, intermittently sustained. What we get is a loosely organized book full of facts, anecdotes, and opinions about language. It is a bravura performance; much of the fun comes from Burgess’ relish in playing the role of polymath to the hilt. “We ought to plunge into Cymric poetry as soon as we can,” Burgess advises. “There is a wholly untranslatable charm in lyrics like the following, which is worthwhile to learn by heart.” This injunction introduces a Welsh quatrain, the first line of which is “Ffarwel i blwyf Llangower” (farewell to the parish of Llangower).

Some chapters are more engaging than others. The short chapter on artificial languages (which also considers, far too briefly, the spread of English as a world language) is a token treatment; better to leave it out altogether or do it right. The chapter on American English is also disappointing. On the other hand, the chapter on Malay is fascinating (Burgess taught in Malaysia for several years during the 1950’s), as is the discussion of literature from a linguistic viewpoint. The text is supplemented by numerous figures and tables; there are no notes or bibliography.