A Mouthful of Air: Language, Languages...Especially English 1st Edition

7 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0688119355
ISBN-10: 0688119352
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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Burgess, who invented a teenspeak for the gangs in his novel A Clockwork Orange, infects readers with his love of words in a delightful, wittily urbane romp through the world's languages, in particular "volatile and hospitable" English. This is several books in one: a painless primer on linguistics; a survey of tongues from Albanian to Welsh (spoken by King Arthur, a Romanized Celt); the story of alphabets and of language's evolution from prehistoric Indo-European to words like quark ; an exploration of how English became rich and flexible as Old English was transformed into what is spoken and written today. Chapters cover slang and taboo words, great dictionary makers, poetry, the Bible, film dubbing, how Shakespeare spoke his lines. Burgess also offers tips for learning foreign languages and suggestions for secondary-school English teachers. A Mouthful incorporates much of Language Made Plain , published some 30 years ago, but it contains a wealth of new material.
Copyright 1993 Reed Business Information, Inc.

From Library Journal

Burgess has written a fascinating study of language. His wide knowledge of languages, music, and literature and his ability to explain the most difficult concepts make this an engrossing book. In the first section, Burgess discusses languages in general, paying special attention to grammar and phonetics. The second section is devoted to the English language. Burgess's discussion of the Celtic languages and Shakespeare's pronunciation are excellent brief summaries, and his understanding of grammar and phonetics is the key to his explanations of the change and development of English. He compares various languages and shows the differences and similarities of structure and content. Demonstrating a sound historic knowledge of English, he explains many of the difficultaspects of the language while providing interesting comments about Creole languages, slang, black English, and language education. Highly recommended. Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 4/15/93.
- Gene Shaw, NYPL
Copyright 1993 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 416 pages
  • Publisher: William Morrow & Co; 1st edition (August 1993)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0688119352
  • ISBN-13: 978-0688119355
  • Product Dimensions: 1.2 x 6.8 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.7 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (7 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #742,429 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Anthony Burgess (25th February 1917-22nd November 1993) was one of the UK's leading academics and most respected literary figures. A prolific author, during his writing career Burgess found success as a novelist, critic, composer, playwright, screenwriter, travel writer, essayist, poet and librettist, as well as working as a translator, broadcaster, linguist and educationalist. His fiction also includes NOTHING LIKE THE SUN, a recreation of Shakespeare's love-life, but he is perhaps most famous for the complex and controversial novel A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, exploring the nature of evil. Born in Manchester, he spent time living in Southeast Asia, the USA and Mediterranean Europe as well as in England, until his death in 1993.

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13 of 13 people found the following review helpful By J. Ott VINE VOICE on June 27, 2005
Format: Paperback
This is the ultimate book for someone like me, an amateur linguist and lover of literature. While Burgess covers some territory with which I am intimately familiar (and makes some minor factual errors), I can't but recommend the book whole-heartedly.

Aimed at British readers (noticeable only in the sections on phonology, or the production of sounds), Burgess gives a crash course on linguistics and language in a tone that is at once entertaining and informative, bookish without being pedantic. He argues persuasively for the teaching of the IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet) in schools and, near the end of the book, even ventures into how the study of the components of langugae can inform the reading of modern poetry and prose.

While it will help for a reader to be familiar with some basics of linguistics (phonology more than syntax, morphology or grammar), it is not required. I couldn't help wishing, as I read the book, that it had been my introduction to the subject. After learning about how speech sounds are produced by the lips, teeth and tongue, and learning about how they are categorized scientifically and recorded in various alphabets, Burgess plunges us into perhaps the greatest linguistic development of the last two centuries, the reconstruction of Proto-Indo-European, the language from which sprang Greek, Latin, Russian, Sanskrit, German, English, Spanish, French, Swedish, Persian and so many others. The miracle of being able to find instant cognates in other languages once you know a few simple rules of sound changes is superbly demonstrated by Burgess here.

Burgess also discusses two non-Indo-European languages, each in its own individual chapter: Malay & Japanese.
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9 of 10 people found the following review helpful By Al Kihano on January 20, 2000
Format: Hardcover
This book, an expansion of Burgess' earlier _Language Made Plain_, is a fabulous way to learn how language works -- how we make sounds, how words change through the years, how languages differ from each other. Burgess' book on language is in many ways a curious sort of literary autobiography, as so much of his writing has been wordplay of one sort or another. As always, his writing is lively and lucid.
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2 of 3 people found the following review helpful By Daniel Myers VINE VOICE on June 4, 2011
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This book, as one might well expect of Burgess, is very erudite, but it displays a linguistic erudition that is presented in such a higgledy-piggledy, all-over-the-place fashion that, at times, it overcomes the reader with a sense of linguistic vertigo. Further, the insistence of Burgess on the use of the IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet) in explicating speech sounds leads to inscrutability. Nobody I know was taught or has learnt phonics using the IPA, and the only people to whom it would be of practical use are professional comparative philologists or perhaps professional translators for radio or television learning a language new to them, who must quickly interpret the spoken word - rather than the written - of a language into the spoken word of another tongue almost instantaneously for mass consumption. These are the negatives.

The positives are that anybody fascinated by language will inevitably find parts of the book, by turns, exquisitely fascinating. Here are a few of mine own quite idiosyncratic favourites:

Burgess quickly dismisses, rightly so, what I have always termed the "etymological fallacy" beloved of some pedants. This is the idea that, for example, the word "nice" because it derives from the Latin "nescire" -"to not know, be ignorant" really MEANS this in some profound, occult sense in modern usage. It is utter rubbish, of course, but one hears it all too often from showboating soi-disant pedants. Here is Burgess' take on it:

"Etymology, one may say now, has nothing to do with the synchronic meaning of a word. "Silly" is derived from the Old English saelig -"happy, blessed, holy" - but this etymology does not help with a definition of present meaning.
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Format: Hardcover
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.
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