- Verlag: Quill (Oktober 1994)
- Sprache: Englisch
- ISBN-10: 068813789X
- ISBN-13: 978-0688137892
- Größe und/oder Gewicht: 2,5 x 15,2 x 22,9 cm
- Durchschnittliche Kundenbewertung: Schreiben Sie die erste Bewertung
- Amazon Bestseller-Rang: Nr. 2.644.242 in Fremdsprachige Bücher (Siehe Top 100 in Fremdsprachige Bücher)
A Mouthful of Air: Language, Languages...Especially English (Englisch) Taschenbuch – Oktober 1994
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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.
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.
Burgess delves whole-hog into human language, both spoken and written, and forensically examines how people talk, how the speech organs function, how speech has evolved, how and why writing came to be developed, the effect writing had on speech (and vice versa), and proffers structural synopses of various different languages (with a focus on English).
To call this book a linguistic primer would be to short-change it.
Certain passages that utilize the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA), with its unique notation and recondite symbols, are a bit eye-glazing. But I, for one, who was never truly conscious about velars, plosives, fricatives, and the like, found Burgess's explication of these concepts and their meaning to be revelatory.
Most people can drive the car, i.e. speak and write. Burgess demonstrates how the car is built. He reveals the hidden linkages, the obscure history, the steps on the ladder that have brought us to where we are today.
For the linguistical layman, this book is as much detail as you'll ever need...and it is written in a style that, while at times unavoidably pedantic, is not meant to challenge the reader unduly to finish it.