A MOUTHFUL OF AIR
Language, Languages...Especially English
Burgess has demonstrated his passion for language in his fiction, his essays and reviews, and his multivolumed autobiography (You've Had Your Time, 1991, etc.)--but now, at age 76, he explains it, sharing in this personable yet encyclopedic survey his intimate and extensive knowledge of the "miracle" of it. The author--whose pedagogic career began with teaching illiterate WW I British soldiers to read--argues convincingly that we should all study linguistics, an often dry field that he animates here through rich imagination and vivid style. The title, from a Yeats poem, suggests an ironic dimension, but the material, far from tongue-in-cheek, includes a history of linguistics from Saussure to Chomsky; a consideration of the parts of speech and grammar in several languages; as well as discussions of the physiology of speech ("the buzzes, hisses, and bangs"), the history of the alphabet, and peculiarities of spelling and punctuation. Burgess pauses to consider meaning, context, semantics, and the value of learning many languages, ancient as well as modern, before moving on to an epic survey of families of languages and how they developed and are related, as well as a history of English itself, which he finds "volatile," "hospitable," and "maternal." He introduces Russian and Japanese, savoring the prospect of learning them, and tours English dialects--from the "Received Thespian" of Shakespeare to dialects of America, Australia, South Africa, Scotland, and "closed" groups (feminists, blacks, gays). Slang and euphemism, the ambiguities and instability of language, and the consensual nature of dictionary definitions also come under his gaze. If the role of literature, as Burgess says, is to challenge the commonplace uses of words--to use language inventively and to exploit it aesthetically--then this remarkable book is a rare contribution to the literature of language: a love affair explained and shared.