A Mouthful of Air: Language, Languages-- Especially English

by Anthony Burgess

Hardcover, 1992




New York : W. Morrow, c1992.


Yeats once wrote of a poem, saying he had made it out of a mouthful of air. Burgess advances this point by presenting a fascinating survey of language--how it operates, and how it will develop in the future--that ranges from Shakespearean pronunciation to the place of English in the world family of languages.

User reviews

LibraryThing member thorold
P.G. Wodehouse usually starts his Uncle Fred stories off with a stooge character (an Egg, a Bean, or a Crumpet) saying "I don't know if you happen to know what the word 'excesses' means, but these are what Pongo's Uncle Fred, when in London, invariably commits." This is essentially the frame of mind in which one approaches any book by Anthony Burgess: Sometimes he goes too far in the opening sentence, sometimes it's buried more deeply in the text, but you know that sooner or later you will be exposed to linguistic excesses of one sort or another.

Here we have a whole book devoted to the subject of language, so there should be plenty of scope for fireworks, but Burgess is unusually hesitant in lighting the blue touch-paper. He seems rather too preoccupied with getting into the persona of the pompous, arrogant Oxbridge professor of linguistics he wants us to imagine as narrator of the book: evidently, even at this late stage in his life, he still had a chip on his shoulder about being a colonial schoolmaster with a Manchester BA. Only occasionally do we get the authentic voice of Burgess-the-novelist penetrating through the dry undergrowth of phonetic symbols and vowel-shifts. When he gets going — as he does, for instance, in the wonderful brief history of literary English he packs into twenty pages near the end of the book, or in his little rhapsodies on our favourite English swearwords — he's brilliant, performing death-defying acrobatics with language without batting an eyelid. But when he's dull, he's very, very dull.

If you want a quick introduction to linguistics, or to English in particular, this probably isn't the best book to go for: someone like Simeon Potter or David Burchfield will take you through the same material in half the time with far less fuss, and be easier to refer back to. Burgess doesn't even include a basic bibliography. On the other hand, if you enjoy Burgess's kind of opinionated idiosyncrasy and are prepared to skip a few pages of the Great Vowel Shift here and there, this can be an entertaining book to dip into.
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LibraryThing member kencf0618
An erudite favorite, particularly for the mnemonic of all of the vowel-sounds of English.
LibraryThing member annbury
A wide-ranging book about language and linguistics for the non-specialist reader. It covers many topics, including the physical production of speech, an overview of the development of linguistic theory, and a great deal on the English language. Despite the sometimes technical subject matter, the book is so engagingly written that it is a real pleasure to read.… (more)
LibraryThing member jtho
I originally bought this book for a Linguistics class at university - but it was optional, and I didn't read a page of it. Years later, I picked it back up and I loved it. It doesn't read like a textbook. Anthony Burgess's love of the language is so apparent that a potentially dry subject is instead incredibly captivating. The book is packed full of examples, easy-to-understand analogies, and amazing facts that will make you say "Ooh" out loud.… (more)



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