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.
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.