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A Mouthful of Air: Language and Languages, Especially English [Englisch] [Taschenbuch]

Anthony Burgess

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September 1993
A survey of the English language, how it operates now, how it reached its present situation and how it will develop in the future. Burgess writes on Shakespeare's pronunciation, on English newly-generated abroad, on low-life language and on the place of English in the world family of languages.


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Die hilfreichsten Kundenrezensionen auf (beta) 4.3 von 5 Sternen  7 Rezensionen
11 von 11 Kunden fanden die folgende Rezension hilfreich
5.0 von 5 Sternen A Mouthful of Wonderful 27. Juni 2005
Von J. Ott - Veröffentlicht auf
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. His knowledge of Malay, formed by his longtime residence in Indonesia, is very deep and he was able to give a great deal of interesting information to a Malay layman like me. His Japanese chapter is from the perspective of an outsider with limited knowledge, and I found it less informative but still interesting.

Finally, Burgess turns his cannons on the canon of English literature, and its medium, the English language. His jaunt through the very tortured history of English is extremely well done. This is the sort of non-fiction writing that manages to put you at the calm center of a whirlwind of historical and literary events. I compare it, not lightly, with the essays of Jorge Luis Borges in its lucidity and magisterial effect.

Like Borges, Burgess writes about the metaphysics of translation and the essentiality of reading poetry in its native tongue. Where the two great writer-scholars differ is on the subject of James Joyce, regarding whom Burgess manages to slip in a very convincing apology. Burgess' explication of a passage from FINNEGAN'S WAKE is no doubt a preview from his book length treatment of the same subject in RE JOYCE.

Fan of Burgess' fictions, especially A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, will find much of interest in this book, which gives up his secrets of language manipulation so lightly and with such goodwill. Burgess, told he had a terminal illness, was motivated to be quite prolific as a writer, and there are arguments to be made for which of his books are worth reading first. Not having read them all, I will not speculate that this is among them.

All I can say is that, for readers like myself who have an abiding interest in language and literature, time reading this book is time well-spent.
9 von 10 Kunden fanden die folgende Rezension hilfreich
4.0 von 5 Sternen great intro to the study of language 20. Januar 2000
Von Al Kihano - Veröffentlicht auf
Format:Gebundene Ausgabe
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.
2 von 3 Kunden fanden die folgende Rezension hilfreich
4.0 von 5 Sternen A Linguistic Cyclone 5. Juni 2011
Von Daniel Myers - Veröffentlicht auf
Format:Gebundene Ausgabe|Von Amazon bestätigter Kauf
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."

He neatly sums us the appropriateness, nay supreme importance, of ambiguity in poetry:

"It is, indeed, only with the poet or the imaginative prose writer that language functions smoothly. Ambiguity ceases to be a vice; its deliberate exploitation becomes a source of aesthetic excitement."

He cogently makes the case for learning "dead" languages which, as a lover of Euripides in the Ancient Greek, I found spot-on:

"For the final argument for learning the ancient languages is one of the most compelling for approaching the modern ones - namely, that certain literary pleasures are unavailable in translation."

And, finally, in this age of the image over the word, he adduces the importance of the emotional power of language as its main asset:

"Language is far better fitted to the description of the emotional impact of a sunset than to that of a precise visual experience."

Other lovers of language will find their own favourite gems within this whirlwind tour, just, you know, hold on to your chapeau.
4.0 von 5 Sternen Excellent Non-Technical Introduction to Linguistics Plus 18. Dezember 2013
Von Anne Mills - Veröffentlicht auf
Format:Gebundene Ausgabe
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.
3 von 5 Kunden fanden die folgende Rezension hilfreich
4.0 von 5 Sternen An Englishman Writes About English 4. Oktober 2005
Von Smallchief - Veröffentlicht auf
Format:Gebundene Ausgabe
This is the same Anthony Burgess who writes novels. He was a teacher of English before he became a professional writer and thus he brings credentials to this book about language and linguistics.

"Mouthful of Air" is written for British readers and Americans may find some of the discussions of British pronunciation a bit esoteric and mysterious. Being a sloppy-voweled American I didn't really comprehend the subtle differences the author perceives in pronunciation of the words "marry merry Mary," for example. They sound the same to me. Thus, his technical discussions of vowel differences did not resonate in differing vibrations to my inner ear. I would likewise question the author's opinion that the phonetic alphabet should be required learning in school. That would be about as useful as reinstituting Latin as a required course.

Burgess divides his book into two parts. Part one deals with technical aspects of language. For example, he titles one graphic, "Chart of Consonants According to their Organs of Articulation." The consonants are then divided into stop plosives, nasals, laterals, fricatives, glides, and affricates. Whew! I don't think I would want to be in an English class with Burgess as a teacher. Amongst discussion of affricates and fricatives, however, are some interesting chapters on the development of the Indo-European tongues and brief chapters on Malay and Japanese to show how they differ from Indo-European languages.

Part two is about English -- mostly British English, but also American, Australian, and Scottish. He briefly examines dialects, literature, "low life" language, and the influence of the Bible on language. A minority of people will find his technical discussions instructive. The author defines his objective as pedagogic and the reader should expect some hard sledding if he wishes to comprehend every last word in this book. However, I suspect that the majority of us will skip blithely over words like "alveolar" and enjoy the rest of the book -- which is informative and fascinating.

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