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RICHARD EDER

Word Power : A MOUTHFUL OF AIR: Languages, Languages . . . Especially English, By Anthony Burgess (William Morrow: $25; 400 pp.)

August 15, 1993|RICHARD EDER

If Anthony Burgess were turned upside down and briskly shaken, the heap of objects that fell out of his pockets would much resemble this book. In no particular order, it is just about everything he has to say about words, and that is a great deal.

He is a man of words even more than a man of letters, this polymathic novelist, critic, musicologist-composer, essayist and inveterate newspaper scribbler; and incapable of saying "no" to a pen, typewriter, word-processor or Sunday editor with a 1,200-word hole. He is brilliant on Mondays and Thursdays, something of a hack on Wednesdays, and cheerfully loquacious the rest of the week in a range that runs, not walks, from stimulating to tedious and back.

"Any Old Iron" was the title of a novel, loosely set around the second World War, that Burgess published three or four years ago. It is the British junk-dealer's traditional street-call and rather understated the case for that quite exhilarating book. It applies better to this one, if you think of it as a lavish household that puts out treasures in the alley along with the used-up stuff.

A considerable expansion of a book Burgess published 30 years ago ("Language Made Plain"), "A Mouthful of Air" has the fervent but erratic pedagogical intent of acquainting a general reader with elements of linguistics, writing systems, the evolution of various languages, mainly English, and the expressive possibilities of everything from Russian to Malay. The erratic quality is a drawback and a blessing--the former because even for a general smattering, the book is both too laboriously detailed and too glibly superficial; the latter because Burgess's talent is not for structure but for asides and vagaries.

Burgess was a teacher in his younger days; in Malaysia, among other places, and Brunei. He wants to be conscientious in imparting the mysteries of pronunciation--there are drawings of mouths and throats with indications about fricatives and plosives--and the vowel shift from old English to middle English. He goes on at length about German and Welsh and regional American noises. Noting that English has five vowel signs to represent 23 different sounds, he uses the symbols from the International Phonetic Alphabet to illustrate his myriad points. Without a chart for the symbols--preferably a chart that would tuck into the book and could be carried along from page to page--many of his discussions are fairly opaque.

Conscientiousness is not Burgess's best suit, in any case. He covers a great deal of word territory very fast, with the air not of making discoveries but of retailing them; even the ones that are his own. His thoughts about Creole, black English and the terminologies used by the gay and feminist movements are perfunctory; so is quite a bit else.

The book's pleasures are individual ones, and perhaps they vary with the reader. Burgess's delight can be contagious--in the neat Swedish trick, for instance, of making the same particle stand for the indefinite or definite article according to its placement. ( Et hus : a house. Huset : the house.) He tells of a survey of regional English made in 1947 before homogenization set in. The interviewers were told to look for men over 60 "with good mouths, teeth and hearing." For donkey, to take one example, they came back with: ass, cuddy, fussock, moke, pronkus and nirrup.

One of the best sustained passages in the book is Burgess's essay on the evolution of Britain's history along with its tongue: the Celts, whose language was evicted, along with its speakers, to the island's edges; the Anglo-Saxons and their high civilization; the Danes who conquered and were absorbed--along with such words as egg, dirt and sky --and finally the Normans, whose version of French turned English into a glorious hybrid.

Not without some linguistic loss, though. William the Conqueror deprived King Harold not only of his life and fortunes but of his grieving as well. Harold's Old English wanhope became the Latinate despair.

The energy of Burgess's enthusiasm can propel him into some eccentrically sensible suggestions. He urges the English poetry reader to struggle through foreign languages directly--to "touch" them--by using literal translations as ponies and without waiting to learn grammar and vocabulary. He prints passages in Welsh, Russian and German, among others, and supplies a word-by-word English rendering. Along with a German line by Kafka, he gives us: "An urgent ride stood me before." This is not just touching the German; it is climbing into bed and scratching ourselves on its toenails.

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