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Anthony Burgess's A Mouthful of Air - An Overview

A comprehensive assessment of Burgess's outstanding language book, which includes excerpts, a chapter outline and reviews.

[h]Anthony Burgess? ?{A Mouthful of Air}? as a linguistic textbook[/h]

For the past six months or so, I have been teaching English as a foreign language to German businessmen and women. The problems with learning a foreign language, any foreign language, are two-fold: aside from understanding how the foreign language relates to one?s own language, where it differs and where it is similar, one needs to also learn to correct pronunciation in order to make oneself understood. Simply acquiring a reasonable base of vocabulary is not enough. I have made enormous progress with my students, bringing them from a very rudimentary level of half-forgotten school English to the stage where they could understand and talk about complicated scientific reports, such as one of my students, a Ph.D. who is a medical researcher and must conduct complex experiments. A few months ago, she has come to me with almost no English base, and by using the following materials only: a blank notebook, the English-English dictionary of synonyms and antonyms by Penguin, and Burgess? {A Mouthful of Air} she is now able to understand and explain English-language scientific journal articles.

What is so special about Burgess's book that it teaches us not only how to understand our own language better but also how to learn another one with ease, any other one I might add? That Burgess was one of the most significant linguists of the 20th century goes without saying. However, because of his background as a teacher, he also had the great gift of bringing his knowledge across in a way that is easily understood by the student.

Linguistics is often considered a dry subject by prospective students and one they develop a conscious or subconscious aversion to. Needless to say, once an aversion has developed, learning becomes difficult. Burgess overcomes this by bringing linguistics alive in a ?fun? way. Take an excerpt from Chapter 5, for instance, titled ?the buzzes and hisses and bangs? and referring to producing consonants. This is a direct quote, on page 41 of the paperback:

?We must now forget about the lips and consider what happens when the tongue-tip is pressed against the teeth-ridge or alveolus. We hold back the air and, on releasing the tongue, emit the sound /t/ if the vocal cords are not vibrating and the sound /d/ if they are.?

It is rather fun to stand before the mirror, place your tongue and lips accordingly and try the matter out. Language is like driving a car: you do it, but you never think consciously of the processes involved in doing it. Burgess brings these processes to mind and for any reader or student with even a base-level of curiosity, this will suffice to bring the dry world of linguistics alive.

This type of approach is found throughout the book. Burgess addresses the reader personally and, literally, takes him by the hand and into the world of linguistics. In the process, linguistics becomes fun and, hence, easy to learn.

Another approach, one that is rather unique to Burgess but very valid, is the idea of understanding the changes of a given language over time, linguistic drift, by looking at the changes in its literature. Owing to Burgess? own enthusiasm for literature, this enthusiasm is catching as he takes the reader from old to middle to modern English, introduces him to the fascinating works of Chaucer and Shakespeare and, before he knows it, the student has learned all about how English language has changed over time. Burgess achieves this effect by quoting from his own favorite passages of important works from old, middle and modern English. If one is not moved by the idea of studying linguistics, one cannot fail to be moved by the timeless words he quotes from the works of the old masters and hence, in a roundabout way, come to love linguistics as well.

When it comes to understanding how English relates to other languages, Burgess goes one step further than many other linguists do. He looks at all the major languages, and then some, before comparing them all to one another in easy-to-understand terms.

Thus, {A Mouthful of Air} is useful not only to anyone studying the English language, be they writers, students or those teachers concerned to relating its principles to others, but it is also of extreme use to English native speakers preparing to study a foreign language and seeking to acquire a reasonable degree of proficiency in it.

As a humble writer of literary fiction, I am often in the predicament that my characters are speakers of foreign languages I am not acquainted with. What is a writer to do if his character speaks a language he doesn't? True, one could resort to a dictionary and try to make some sense of the individual words therein, hoping to string them together into some reasonably intelligible phrases. But then, what happens if I want a character to say ? I am going to the bathroom? in Malay, for instance, and the dictionary only tells me the word for bathroom, to go, and I? How do I put it into a sentence? I could rake my brains forever, then give it a go, and the end result is likely to be useless. Anyone with even a rudimentary understanding of Malay is likely to die laughing.

I have another option open to me: I can find a speaker of that language, and hope that he will help me. It may be a long process to locate someone suitable, and once I do so, I will have no guarantee that he tells me the truth. It is not the best option.
Since my characters tend to usually speak Japanese or Russian, both of them languages which are foreign to me but were familiar to Burgess and are being used in ?{Mouthful of Air}?, I have found it most useful to have a copy of that book at hand whenever I write a novel. The result? One of my most recent novels, Rivers of Silence, contains an encounter between the female protagonist with a Japanese tourist in the Munich Central Train Station. The Japanese man speaks not a word of English and so my character must communicate a complicated story about a man in need of an umbrella. I, the author, am ignorant of Japanese. What was I to do?

Luckily, there was {A Mouthful of Air} at hand. Using no other resources and sparing my sushi man from having to give me Japanese lessons along with fulfilling my usual orders of sake rolls, I referred to the chapter on Japanese (Chapter 18, Page 174 ff), gained a rudimentary understanding of that language?s essence and wrote this, which I understand is pretty good Japanese for a non-Japanese speaker:

{At last, it was one of the Japanese who, more or less of his own free will, reacted positively to the mention of an umbrella. Nervously scratching her eyebrows, she had descended upon the last man in the commercial travel group, brusquely ruffling up first the sleeve of his expensive fine green suit and then her brain, for near-forgotten Japanese language skills, once she had asked him, anata wa eigo ga dekimasu ka? and his vigorous head-shaking had indicated him to be ignorant of the English language. The hapless man had tried to hurry past her, doing everything to escape her tyrannical need for an umbrella, but her firm lips suggested determination as did her iron grip on his coat sleeve. Finally, in desperation, she came up with "kiss me, please", something that made the Japanese man click his heels, look at her oddly and stop at once. It was rather fun, actually, because in the next instant a purple light seemed to flash through her brain and she found a better opening: Ikaga desu ka? - How are you? - to which the Japanese man politely replied Genki desu. This was her chance, as good a chance as she could have wished for. The other Japanese drew their cameras and click click started photographing their friend who had been the subject of a come-on by a Latina madwoman, in the midst of Munich Central Station, but she made a brave all-out effort and latched on to the Genki desu. This was facilitated by the fact that the Japanese response to "how are you", roughly translated, means not "I am fine" but "I am in good health". The Japanese man looked on with genuine concern as she launched into a long tirade about a certain bagged man of undetermined origin, who was in anything but good health, sitting all by himself somewhere out there in the Hofgarten, in the pouring rain. "Nichiyo desu, today is Sunday, she began, and: it is raining Ame ga futte imasu .....".
Throughout the story, she dramatically kept throwing in words like shi - death - and samui - cold ? until it all made sense to the Japanese and he understood that a man was about to die out there, from being chilled to the bone for his lack of an umbrella.

It all ended with the Japanese man bowing politely and stating "So iu hanashi o kiita koto ga arimasen" - I have never heard such a story. He was clearly impressed that she wished for the bagged man a fate of good health. Kindly, he even stated it was a shame he had not been able to meet this interesting bagged man himself - Kare to hanasanakatta koto ga zannen desu - and promised to do everything in his power to see that the bagged man got an umbrella.

No sooner had she closed the door on his advances, "Kohii ippai ikgaka desu ka?"- how about a cup of coffee? - than he said Gomen nasai - forgive me - and kindly directed her to a small store, at the far corner of the station. There, she muttered a quick arigato, bid the Japanese man farewell and found, hidden behind a hot-dog joint, an umbrella-store where a polite young woman sold her for seven Marks fifty a fine German black umbrella. She paid and left, storing her purchase away in her bag as she cunningly walked back toward the Marienplatz, ignoring brisk commentaries by the Japanese travel group.}

Task accomplished, Japanese character successfully constructed!

So, to sum up, who should own a copy of {A Mouthful of Air}?


- writer or reader of English literature
- teacher of English or English literature, teaching at whatever level
- ? one proposing to learn a foreign language
- linguistic teacher or student
- musician, to understand the relation between spoken word and music

It is impossible to give a comprehensive overview of this book's value to anyone belonging to the above groups without providing a brief breakdown of its contents, so here it is:

[h][b]A brief breakdown of {Mouthful of Air}, with chapter excerpts:[/b][/h]


Excerpt: The behaviour of language is what this book is about. It is intended to be an easy approach to the elimination of linguistic ignorance. This ignorance does not primarily apply to language as a foreign substance but, very much primarily, to the language that you and I speak. Namely, English, American or British. To know how English works is to know how language works. And vice versa.

[b]Part 1 Language and Languages[/b]

[b]1 Signals in the Dark[/b]

Excerpt: No society, whether human or animal, can exist without communication. Thoughts, desires, appetites, orders have to be conveyed from one brain to another, and they cannot easily be conveyed directly. Only with telepathy do we find mind speaking straight to mind
Without the intermediacy of signs, and this technique is still odd enough to seem a television trick or a property of science fiction. The vast majority of sentient beings ? men, women, cats, dogs, bees, horses ? have to rely on signals, symbols of what they feel and think and want, and these signals can assume a vast number of forms.

[b]2. The Science of Language[/b]

Excerpt: If we step back and look at the complexity of the language we ourselves use, it seems rather astonishing that we have been able to learn it all with, comparatively, so little fuss. Add two or three or more foreign languages to our endowment and the astonishment is greater still. For a language seems to contain an infinitude of structures, and one can go through life, apparently, without repeating oneself unduly.

[b]3. Sounds That We See[/b]

Excerpt: In the next chapter we shall embark on an amateur study of phonetics. Before we get down to it, it may be enlightening to consider how a knowledge of what the mouth does when it produces speech may have an artistic and commercial purpose quite removed from disinterested scientific observation.

[b]4. The Things We Speak With[/b]

Excerpt: For the moment, take it that the sign /k/ stands for the sound you already know or think you know. But pronounce the three words ?cool?, ?kill? and ?keel? and you will discover that the three /k/ sounds are alike but not identical. They are all recognizably /k/, but for ?cool?, the sound is made further back in the mouth than for the /k/ of the other words. And the /k/ of ?keel? is nearer the teeth than the one in ?kill?. Similarly, take the vowel /I/ which occurs five times in the word ?incivility?. The sound seems to get progressively lower in pitch, but our recognition of the /I/ is not impaired. It appears that we have a general class of /k/ or /I/, which can be divided into constituent members. We can thus speak of the /k/ or /I/ phoneme and refer to the constituent members as allophones.

[b]5. The Buzzes and Hisses and Bangs[/b]

Excerpt: All these consonants we have glanced at are fairly straightforward in the way they are articulated and the way they jet out the air from mouth or nose. The l-sound is rather more mysterious. Primarily, it is made by stopping mouth-air with the tip of the tongue against the teeth-ridge and allowing the air to sneak out along one or both sides of the tongue. This side element bids us term /l/ a lateral consonant. Sometimes, because the air-stream can be divided into two separate side-currents, it is called also a divided consonant.

[b]6. Flutings[/b]

Excerpt: There are people around who do not believe that the vocal cords are used to produce voiced sounds; they hand the task of sonorous vibration over to the sinuses. The devotees of sinus tone production liken the human voice to a flute, whereas the vibration of the membranes in the larynx puts others in mind of the reedy tone of the oboe.

[b]7. Putting Sounds On the Road[/b]

Excerpt: Finally, we must remember that all sounds of all languages are available to us. A phonemic system is not circumscribed by racial blood or isolated by a national flag.

[b]8. The Ear Becomes the Eye[/b]

Excerpt: Let us make the fullest possible use of the International Phonetic Alphabet as an auxiliary, both in our schools and in our classes for foreigners; if we wish to show what the phonemes in English are, here at least is a scientific way of doing so.

[b]9. The Word[/b]

Excerpt: For the moment ? but only for the moment ? it will be safe to assume that we all know what is meant by the word ?word?. I may even consider that my typing fingers know it, defining a word ? rather whimsically ? as what comes between two spaces. The Greeks saw the word or ?logos? as the minimal unit of speech; to them, too, the atom (atomos means indivisible) was the minimal unit of matter. If atoms have proved to be divisible into protons, electrons and neutrons, how can words be divided?

[b]10. The Sentence[/b]

Excerpt: Some of us are not even too happy with the assumptions about the ?well-formed? sentence?, which have come in with Noam Chomsky. Any such sentence in English must have a noun-phrase (NP) and a verb-phrase (VP), or, as used to be said, a subject and a predicate, on the order of ?Dad drinks? or ?Mum nags?. But many complete statements do not obey this rule. ?Fire!? ? ?Away!? ? ?Help!? ? are totally intelligible.

[b]11. Should We Learn Foreign Languages?[/b]

Excerpt: Our purpose in what follows is to ease the task of language-learning for the average adult.


Your next task gets closer to the heart of the language, the reality under the alphabetic cover. I refer to pronunciation, and I would emphasise that nothing is more important than to acquire a set of foreign phonemes that shall be acceptable to your hosts. It is so important that it is better to know twenty words with a perfect accent than twenty thousand with the sorry apology that contents most Anglophones.

[b]12. Language as a Family Affair[/b]

Excerpt: In the late eighteenth century European scholars began to look at Sanskrit ? that ancient language of India ? and, in the nineteenth century, a dim notion of Indo-European structure was gained from the examination of its conjugations and declensions. Here is the present tense of the verb ?to be? in Sanskrit and some of its sister languages:

Old English Gothic Latin Greek Sanskrit

Eom (am) im sum eimi asmi
Eart (art) is es ei asi
Is (is) ist est esti asti
Sindon (are) sijum sumus esmen smas
Sindon (are) sijuth estis este stha
Sindon (are) sind sunt eisi santi

[b]13. The Tongue of the British[/b]

Excerpt: The English call themselves British, but the true British are the Welsh, speakers of p-Celtic. Those Ancient Britons who fought the Romans and were at length subdued, who fought the invading Anglo-Saxons and were driven into the hills of Wales, are called ?Welsh? by the English. The word means ?foreign?. It is the English who are the true foreigners.

[b]14. The Teutons[/b]

Excerpt: One further point to be made out of the German vocabulary is that it years to be ?pure?; it hates to borrow from other languages. Where English, for instance, is only too ready to make its scientific terms out of Greek elements ? ?oxygen?, ?hydrogen?, ?nitrogen? ? German produces home-made words like ?Sauerstoff?, ?Wasserstoff? and ?Stickstoff?.

[b]15. Daughters of Latin[/b]

Excerpt: It is interesting to see how English has dived into the Latin stream: it has dived into it both naked and wearing the clothes of Old French. For instance, the word ?count? (the verb, not the aristocratic title) comes from the French ?compter?, or its earlier form, and ?compter? comes from Latin ?computatore?,

[b]16. The Russians Are Coming[/b]

Excerpt: The bulk of the Russian vocabulary is pure Slavonic, but a vast number of loan-words (from Latin, German, French, even English) helps our learning task:

Abort ? abortion, miscarriage
Abstraktniy ? abstract
Absurd ? absurdity
Ambitsyia ? ambition

[b]17. Malay[/b]

Excerpt: Malay has certain words which cannot be assigned to any Western category. A good example is ?pun?, literally untranslatable. It is an emphasising word, a word that ?lights up? the semanteme that goes before. ?Itu pun? means ?that also?, ?sakali pun? is something like ?yet? (?sakali? means literally ?on time?), ?dia pun pergi? means ?He also went?, the ?pun? bestowing a past meaning on the invariable verb-form ?pergi? ? go.

[b]18. Japanese[/b]

Excerpt: We go further. I ask Mr Kido if he speaks English. Anata wa eigo ga dekimasu ka? The form is correct, but I wonder when to use wa and when to use ga: they both seem to have the same function. It takes me time to discover that ga throws light on the subject of the sentence, wa on the predicate.

[b]19. Can Babel be Unbuilt?[/b]

Excerpt: But knowing the basic words of a language is not enough. One has to know the strategies. I have already demonstrated how much work can be done with the simple verb ?to get?: knowing how this work is done is rather more than knowing the word.

[b]Part 2: English[/b]

[b]1. English From The Outside[/b]

Excerpt: Let us, then, first look at English as a substance that human history ? as opposed to philological ? may very well concern itself with, an attribute of the people who first spoke it. Let us go back to a time when it was first slowly emerging out of the common stock of Germanic speech.

[b]2. Sounds From The Past[/b]

Excerpt: Sometimes we wonder why the plural of ?foot? should be ?feet?, of ?mouse? should be ?mice?, of ?tooth? should be ?teeth?. It is legitimate wonder, for ?foots?, ?mouses?, and ?tooths? are rational, intelligible and even, perhaps, a portent for the future. But we are chained to phonological happenings not merely ancient but prehistoric.

[b]3. How Did Shakespeare Speak His Lines?[/b]

Excerpt: Born and brought up in Stratford-on-Avon, in the heart of the English Midlands, William Shakespeare undoubtedly spoke a kind of English somewhat different ? though not all that different ? from the polite language of London.

4. Transatlantic[/b]

Excerpt: There are items of American pronunciation which lie outside systematic phonemic structure. I mean that there are specific words pronounced in specific ways that do not conform to the usage of the motherland. Thus American ?leisure? does not rhyme with ?pleasure? but ?please ya?.

[b]5. The Dialect Business[/b]

Excerpt: And yet it very occasionally happens that a particular cultural phenomenon grants a temporary prestige to a regional dialect ? or, strictly, a regional accent.

[b]6. Scots, Scottis, Scottish, Scotch[/b]

Excerpt: A dialect that waves a flag may be called a language. The Scots dialect of English called itself Scottis as long ago as the end of the fifteenth century, asserting a difference from Inglis.

[b]7. Their Own Thing[/b]

Excerpt: Languages can have evil associations ? German with the Holocaust, Russian with Stalinist Terror, English (but also Spanish, Portugese and Dutch) with black slavery. It cannot be said too often that nothing capable of moral assessment inheres in a language; it remains neutral and innocuous, though there are demagogues who do not find it in their interest to think so.

[b]8. Low-Life Language[/b]

Excerpt: Fag is still, as I write, in use. It became a term for a homosexual in the United States about 1920, but its adoption into British usage has been repelled by the inveterate use of the word to mean a cigarette.

[b]9. The Dictionary Makers[/b]

Excerpt: I have deliberately allowed a great lexicographer to enter our company as a human being ? though humanity is hardly the primary concern of this book ? in order that my readers may see the making of a dictionary as at least as heroic as the building of a bridge.

10. Giving it Straight[/b]

Excerpt: Though language is essentially what the mouth utters, the discourse which fills up so much of our lives is recognised by us all as lacking in such qualities as elegance and conciseness, to say nothing of what the pundits call correctness.

[b]11. What We Call Literature[/b]

Excerpt: Literature plays games with language, but these games are in the service of the truth about its nature, for language is not just what is in the dictionaries and grammar books. Literature deals with language as painting deals with pigment and sculpture with stone, and its artistic use is regarded as subsisting in parallel with its use in the street, marketplace or bedroom. But the speech and writing of the educated is suffused with the literary, sometimes without conscious knowledge, and a language cannot easily develop without the aid of the makers of literature.

12. Biblical Matters[/b]

Excerpt: Increasingly, the Bible has become a work of interest to secular literary scholars concerned with showing that the authors of its various components were literary artists, and that, so far as the Old Testament is concerned, we can have a notion of how their art functions if we do not go back to the original Hebrew.

[b]Epilogue ? What And How Should We Teach?[/b]

Excerpt: Behind English lies language in general. The aim of this book has been to show that a study which hardly exists in our schools, and is certainly still to be recognized by educational authorities, is important because it deals with the most basic of human faculties. We cannot hope to appreciate what our native language is doing unless we understand what language in general tries to do.

After this, not much remains to be said, except that Burgess was right in laboring during his final year to get this book finished before he succumbed to cancer of the lungs. He left us an immense treasure cove that is bound to ease many a student's and teacher's path into the world of language.

[b]Postscript: What others have to say about {Mouthful of Air}:[/b]

No-one else has written such an illuminating lay guide to the world of bilabial fricatives, palatalisation and the others complexities of phonetics ... This is the most engaging, erratic yet curiously persuasive work written about our language (and some other languages) for some time. Plain Readers should buy it on doves and cut their linguistic teeth on it while keeping in mind that there are higher hurdles ahead. Professional linguistic scholars will doubtless go on ploughing their Saussurean, Chomskyan and other deeply grooved and structures furrows on Burgess.
(Robert Burchfield, writing in the {Daily Telegraph})

As was observed by someone of cruder idiom than I, you've got to hand it to the old boy. In the middle of his torrential seventh decade, among the interviews, the reviews, the lectures, the writing of novels and, one wouldn't wonder, the composition of symphonies, Anthony Burgess has miraculously found the time to write, in words of learned length and thund'ring sound, this long and complicated book about language ... We should regard "A Mouthful of Air" simply as a born writer's testament to a lifelong passion ? the love of language in all its beauties and nuances. Its chief effect on me was to leave me with a sense of chastened astonishment. One the one hand Anthony Burgess makes me feel rather cavalier about the whole business of linguistics; on the other hand still my wonder grows that one small head can carry all he knows
(Jan Morris, writing in {The Independent})

As you could guess in anything from Burgess, this is a rich and succulent stew of languages and literature, sounds and music, poetry and the demotic. .... This book is aimed at the intelligent lay reader, who is put off by the aridities of modern linguistics and the mazes of modern lit.crit. .... it is always exciting because it is informed with the belief that language is the greatest mystery.... Burgess is constantly entertaining. His book should be put on a core curriculum for ministers of education and all politicians who think they know best how to teach English... Any teacher or student who has progressed beyond the primitive notion that language is just a matter of rules will find delight and profit in this book. This is a book that will give grammar a good name.
( Philip Howard, writing in {The Times})

Enormously knowledgeable, wide (not to say manically) ranging, "A Mouthful of Air" is a mix of the complexly technical and the simply human, together with lots of small anecdotal particulars which illuminate theory and argument. It is as much a feast of language as a menu or cookbook. Readers will take from it what they want individually, or what they can understand; there is something virtually for every sort of reader, even perhaps for children equipped with a vigorous curiosity, well-developed brains, and steady nerves.
(D J Enright, writing in the {Times Literary Supplement})

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