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 which history, geography, environment and landscape figure in the romance of language and talk. There are 27 entries on Chinese and fascinating pages illustrating ideograms, glyphs, and various alphabets. His knowledge of Malay leads Burgess to philosophical ponderings about the feudal nature of certain languages and how this affects free self-expression in the modern world. The author also provides anecdotes and reminiscences from his life and travels. One of his most notable chapters is titled, ``Can Babel Be Unbuilt?''
Burgess devotes another chapter to describing how Shakespeare would have spoken his lines. It is full of intriguing details, and he presents a sonnet of the great bard in phonetic script. Names like Baudelaire, Gibbon, and Chaucer abound in his explanations of dialect, borrowings from other languages, and neologisms. He points out with gusto and witty glossing how the dialect of his own Lancashire is pure, pristine English, unsullied by the outside world, and not bad speech.
In his epilogue, Burgess appeals for an improvement in our methods of language-teaching and suggests better training in phonetics and in speaking as sure paths to reinforcing literacy. Plato, we may recall, was suspicious of the new invention of writing, which he saw as a danger to memory, the mother of learning. Notice, only as an echo, the familiar ring in these lines from Burgess's last paragraph: ``The signs we inscribe or print should bow down to the sounds we utter. Our highly visual civilization is reversing reality. But language was contrived in the dark....''