A UNIVERSITY graduate inducted into military service in 1940, Anthony Burgess drew the duty of teaching illiterate British soldiers to read and write. From 1943 to 1946, stationed in Gibraltar, he taught English as a second language to Spanish pupils, with all the phonetic ardor such instruction entails. After that stint he served as an education officer in Malaya and Borneo for several years.
Burgess managed, over this period, to become familiar with 10 languages, including Malay and Japanese, and to learn the value of phonetics and voice exercises in language instruction. It is out of this background, which gave him his lifelong passion for words and speaking, that Burgess, who did not publish his first novel until 1956, comes forward now with a trenchantly petty study of words, sounds, and language: "A Mouthful of Air: Language, Languages ... Especially English."
The title phrase, "a mouthful of air," is from a poem by W. B. Yeats. The book is an arresting combination of technical text, meditation, and prophecy. There are some 100 charts, lists, tables, maps, and drawings. Burgess is in love with speech and with speech as sound. "It may be said," he writes, "that music uses everything in speech except meaning...."
Readers are also treated to lively disquisitions on grammar. Burgess is particularly spry on Noam Chomsky's transformational grammar and language theory. He brings up other great names in the language field, like Leonard Bloomfield and Karl Wilhelm von Humboldt.
A steady virtue of the book is this narrative sweep, in …