BOOK REVIEW / Whistles while you work and other wizard prangs: 'A Mouthful of Air' - Anthony Burgess: Hutchinson, 16.99

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 time to write, in words of learned length and thund'ring sound, this long and complicated book about language.

I think of Goldsmith's village schoolmaster because A Mouthful of Air is so very clever, but what its purpose is I am not at all sure. Who it is written for is a mystery to me. How to describe it is very difficult. But it is undeniably, in the Burgess kind, a work of virtuoso learning, of generous judgement, of frequent entertainment and considerable conceit. On balance I am on its side, which is to say that those bits I didn't skip taught me a lot, gave me much pleasure and occasionally made me laugh out loud. That's the old boy for you.

The book's intentions are certainly didactic. It sets out to persuade us, I think, that language is essentially oral rather than visual (hence the title, a quotation from Yeats), and that we should all learn from childhood to understand the symbols of the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) - which have now replaced, I am alarmed to hear, the old Oxford Dictionary system that has taken me half a lazy lifetime to master inadequately. IPA figures largely in the book, accounting for much that I skipped.

Not that Burgess would mind. Though he sneers rather at people who cannot be bothered to learn a foreign language properly, in general he is a most genial instructor, aiming his discourse at an audience that seems to vary from students at a teacher training college to GCSE examinees who will share his schoolboy enjoyment of scatalogicals. He has been a schoolmaster in his time, and must have been very popular with the Lower Third.

Burgess is particularly good on translation, on dialect (he speaks his native Lancastrian in some company), and on language as it applies to the making of films. Nobody could write with more authority about the peculiar problems of dubbing - he offers us a Baudelaire poem as a sort of test piece - and who but Burgess would think of likening to recitatives those stilted exchanges of dialogue that conventionally precede the big production numbers in old Hollywood musicals?

Sometimes the book reminds me of computer manuals, whose chapters often start with an avuncular promise of what is to come - 'Now we are going to learn how to use your computer to merge data-files'. Sometimes it is like a Reith Lecture. Parts of it, notably a section on dictionaries, read very like rehashed reviews. Yet every chapter contains snippets of true Burgessian fascination, and here are a few of them:

Swedish girls, if offered a cup of coffee, sometimes say mja with the m faint, if they do not wish to appear too eager.

Whistled languages are used by the Mazateco Indians, the peasants of La Gomera and 'certain Turks'.

The Abkhaz language has only two vowels; the Yidiny language has an aversive case.

The word 'prang', as in 'wizard prang', comes from the Malay.

The phrase 'give 'em hell' contains an unaspirated form of the old 'hem', meaning him, not them.

The past tense of 'go', comes from another verb altogether, 'wend'.

When Molly Bloom's unpunctuated monologue in Ulysses was translated into French, Joyce wanted all accents removed, too.

In the Siberian language Loryak, the word nakomajn'ytamjun'n'yboiamyk means 'they're always telling lies to us'.

Anthony Burgess is not one of your irritating know-alls. He wears his gifts lightly and humorously, and even his apparently effortless understanding of Finnegan's Wake is displayed with perfect naturalness. Still, anyone of such dazzling abilities is entitled to some self-satisfaction, and Burgess is endearingly fond of dropping his own name in satisfying circumstances - being whistled to by Thomas Mann's daughter, talking to Jorge Luis Borges in Old English, moving a KGB official to tears by quoting Pushkin at him, having his own name listed in the Collins Dictionary, being presented with prizes, using the past subjunctive during a lecture to French students . . .

The question remains, what is the book for? It is certainly not aimed at professional philologists (few of whom, all the same, have ever invented a language, as Burgess did in A Clockwork Orange). It is hardly the book to read in the bath, or on the flight to Marbella.

It fails as a reference work, for all its richness, because unlike H L Mencken's The American Language it has no index of words. It is full of charm and fun, but not quite full enough to sustain our unflagging attention through all those phonetics. Perhaps then 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. On 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.