A MOUTHFUL OF AIR By Anthony Burgess (Stoddart, 347 pages, $28.95)
In his new book about language, A Mouthful of Air, novelist Anthony Burgess tells the story of how he once talked with the Argentine author Jorge Luis Borges at a cocktail party. Because Borges wished to avoid the eavesdropping of Argentine spies, the two writers spoke entirely, if haltingly, in Old English—a dense and difficult tongue that has not been used by anybody except scholars for several hundred years. The playful, half-boastful note of that anecdote reflects the idiosyncratic charm of A Mouthful of Air.
For all the objective facts and information that the book conveys, it is really a highly personal account of Burgess’s love affair with languages in general and with English in particular (he speaks or at least reads most of the Romance languages, as well as Arabic, Malay, Latin and ancient Greek, and at age 76, the irrepressible autodidact has just taken up Japanese).
Burgess has written more than 30 novels (among them, A Clockwork Orange, Inside Mr.
Enderby, Any Old Iron) that pay more than usual attention to the way words sound. His interest in the aural qualities of language produced, in A Clockwork Orange, a futuristic slang spoken by the teenage thugs of his story, full of Russian-based words including “droog” and “nadsat.” Burgess also helped invent the primitive language grunted out by the prehistoric characters in the 1982 film Quest for Fire. In both of those projects he exhibited a musician’s sensitivity to language (Burgess is also a talented orchestral composer) as a subtle manipulation of the breath by mouth and vocal cords. Not surprisingly, he makes the same emphasis in A Mouthful of Air, a book written partly to combat the visual bias of a civilization that tends—unjustly, Burgess maintains—to think of language as a series of written signs. “Men and women spoke long before they learned how to write,” he remarks. “The signs we inscribe or print
should bow down to the sounds we utter.” At various points, Burgess urges his readers to feel inside their mouths with their fingers and to read slowly out loud, like six year olds, to experience the subtle differences between what the author calls “the buzzes and hisses and bangs of speech.” His detailed exposition of such elements of language as plosives (consonants pronounced by holding back air, then suddenly releasing it) and fricatives (consonants made by rubbing the airstream between the lips or vocal cords) may seem pedantic to some. But Burgess interrupts the relentless march of facts with sprightly anecdotes, although it is not always clear whether he is illustrating anything or simply providing comic relief. His section on phonetics begins with a fascinating detour into the dubbing and subtitling of films, a field where even a small mistake can lead to amus-
ing results. Burgess claims he once saw an American war movie in which the question ‘Tanks?” was translated in the French subtitle as “Merci.”
Burgess emphasizes that languages are living phenomena that must always escape the attempts of scholars and dictionary makers to codify them in some pure or proper form. That is hardly a new insight, but few writers have illustrated with such freshness how words are in constant evolution and over time will often change their forms, pro-
nunciations and meanings. A villain, Burgess points out, was once merely someone who lived on a farm or villa in late Roman times. But gradually, as social conditions changed, the word came to describe a serf and, finally (probably reflecting snobbery and fear of the poor among the ruling classes), a bad man. Such changes, which capture history in microcosm, also suggest to Burgess the potential within languages. In one sense, he argues, languages are made up of new words waiting to be born. Writing about English’s Latin roots, he coins the word “muricidal” meaning “mouse-killing.” ‘The word may not be in the dictionary,” Burgess states, “but it is a true English word for all that.”
Much of A Mouthful of Air concentrates on the world’s most successful international language, English: its history, its regional dialects and its adaptability, which allows it to absorb about 450 new words a year. Burgess is particularly fascinating on the differences between British and North American English. He claims that in pronunciation, the latter is often closer to Elizabethan speech—news that may upset those New World Shakespearean actors still laboring to imitate the more “proper” English of middle-class London. Burgess
also draws a distinction between American and Canadian accents (based on a complicated speech pattern called the Canadian Diphthong Rule), although he says that the distinction does not follow the border exactly. Clearly, he has never crossed the bridge from Fort Erie, Ont., into Buffalo.
A Mouthful of Air can be exhausting for anyone who cares less about language than Burgess does. And yet, if it is impossible to absorb all the information it so enthusiastically offers, the book fulfils its central purpose splendidly. It breaks language out of the dull cocoon where it is taken for granted and reveals its complex, ever-changing beauty. A Mouthful of Air makes it impossible to listen to the chatter of human beings in quite the same way again.
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