Stephen Fry’s Planet Word: Identity

Episode 2 of Fry’s Planet Word (BBC) focuses on dialects and sociolinguistic identity. It kicks off in Yorkshire, where poet Ian McMillan demonstrates stereotypical aspects of various local accents. Fry is inspired to offer his own verbal tour of the UK’s accent map, playing a weatherman to help precipitate the “microclimates” analogy.

There’s an unexpected detour into Whorfianism. After pondering our dialects’ effect on how people perceive us (Geordie, once scorned, is now adored), the show looks at languages’ effect on how we perceive the world. Lera Boroditsky, who champions linguistic relativity, tells Fry that people speaking Russian or English espouse more collectivist or individualistic ideas, respectively.

This has dinner-party Wow value, especially when it’s the only side of the story we’re told, and it seems inevitable we’ll soon hear the no-word-for-X meme. Sure enough Fry asks, rhetorically, “If you don’t have a word for evil, does it vanish?” The answer, which was not supplied, is a resounding No. (Assuming the existence of evil for the sake of the question.)

Next up is language death, something Fry rightly laments. We venture to Connemara, County Galway, where he famously had a cameo in the Irish TV soap opera Ros na Rún. He drinks Guinness and hears stories in traditional pubs, asks schoolchildren about learning Irish (they admit to texting in English), and shares hopes and trivia about the Irish tongue. Fry has spoken on this subject before.

In the Basque country, Fry meets a woman who says language, like food, can absorb external influences. He suggests that language and cuisine might be closely entwined because recipes were once passed on by word of mouth. It’s an interesting idea, but without researching it I have no idea if it’s based on fact or theory or hearsay or whimsy; and this, I think, is the show’s fault.

When I wrote about the first episode, Babel, I said Fry’s popularity and likeability would draw an audience who might not have a particular interest in language. But because he is not a specialist, he misses opportunities to ask better questions, and we are left with too much fluff. I kept getting the impression that the most important thing in any encounter was that everyone enjoy themselves and get along.

In France, Fry meets one of the 40 immortals of the Académie française, which dictates on “proper” French. It’s a curiously awkward meeting, and Fry, left outside the door while the Académie holds a meeting, decides the system is “very strange and very French”. Lightening the mood, he hears from a hip-hop singer in Marseilles how subcultural and ethnic minority slang is slipping into common spoken French in small but satisfying ways.

Similar mixing is happening in Hebrew, which died as a spoken language but was revived through political will and collective identity. Fry visits Ghil’ad Zuckermann, who offers an amusing metaphor of Hebrew as a Phoenix, a cuckoo, and a magpie. At a garage, they discuss the problem of what to call things like puncture and carburettor in a language that was frozen for so long. Some ancient terms are modernised, some words are borrowed from elsewhere.

Every language, so long as it lives and is not totally isolated, is a melting pot, and the show finishes in a cauldron of partisan wit: a football ground, where Fry watches Norwich City and he bonds with his chosen tribe. The obvious point is quickly made, and there is no time for analysis or examples of the curses and chants of the terrace.

Planet Word is fond of bonding, and of cultural quirks and scenic jaunts, but so far it suffers from a dearth of information and structure, and a surfeit of Stephen Fry himself (whom I like). Experts are interviewed, but given too little time. That said, it is an enjoyable programme with broad appeal; your mileage will probably vary principally according to your feelings about Fry and your foreknowledge of linguistics.

Next week’s episode is about swearing. That should be fun.

Update: Language Log has posted a critical review of this episode that looks in more detail at its shortcomings.


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12 Responses to Stephen Fry’s Planet Word: Identity

  1. Another truly interesting programme. particularly for a linguistic dilettante like me.

    The AF immortal came across as an ossified old prick from Academie Francaise who treated other French languages with apparent contempt.

  2. Stan says:

    Barrie: Thanks for the links. Maybe the BBC should have hired Ms. Foster.

    Jams: It was certainly interesting, but also a missed opportunity in some ways. The immortal struck me as a lazy elitist uninterested in the real world.

  3. Interesting response. thanks. I agree – i’d prefer a bit more in depth information.

    He could have mentioned lost dialects of the UK – where people who lived across the valley from one another spoke different dialects (until the railways, roads and broadcast media came along, that is), or about various dialects in different places in both Italy and Germany.

    I think the whole thing about food in Spain was a bit of a waste of time – he should have talked more about their language and less about food. But this was TV, and he needed his Brian Cox moment, where he disappears off round the world!

  4. Stan says:

    Thanks for your thoughts, Elliot. Too much filler, I agree. There’s much more it could do if it was better plotted and researched. I guess the BBC are aiming for maximum appeal and feel-good factor, but I’d sooner they dropped a few foreign flights, and added some helpful graphics or more expertise.

  5. Stop taunting me! :-) I get told I can’t watch it from outside the UK (which doesn’t explain how you’re watching it from Ireland, but the point stands).

  6. Stan says:

    Dragon: UK channels are widely available in Ireland, which is just as well because I don’t have easy access to BBC’s online iPlayer.

    [*whispers* Try YouTube.]

  7. Thanks for the thorough reviews, Stan. I have not seen either of the episodes yet (because I live on the Continent), but I assume that the reason for the show’s somewhat unscientific approach is that the TV channel the programme is broadcast on aims to reach the widest possible audience. They would surely draw a smaller crowd of viewers if the episodes were presented much more professionally and/or from the perspective of a linguist. Despite its possible shortcomings, this seems to be an interesting TV programme and one that (at least to some extent) popularises science.

  8. Stan says:

    Thanks for your comment, Árpád. I suspect you’re right, that the science has been toned down in case it puts viewers off (or maybe it was never intended to feature prominently in the first place). This is understandable, but it would a shame if audience numbers were an overriding concern.

    Science can be a big draw if it’s communicated well, and I bet there is no shortage of linguists who would have been eager to present a show like this or at least advise on it.

  9. Deó de hÚseille says:

    Fry’s …”verbal tour of the ‘UK’s’ accent map…”, was on reflection a bit mean spirited in that it might have included the rest of the island of Ireland. Given that the western island and not just north-eastern Ireland was and is related in so many ways to the the eastern island and her peoples. Surely a sensitive issue is that many people in the north-east of the westerly isle would regard themselves as Irish, period.
    One can easily understand that the tax-payers of the British State have forked out for this program to be produced, however, they should bear in mind that the political perameters of the statelet are not linguistically or culturally sealed

  10. Deó de hÚseille says:

    In short: Can one stop with the term UK, already! if one must lump it (the isles) all together – and there’s rarely a need to do so – just say Britain. “The United Kingdom Of great Britain and Northern Ireland”; oh! how the mighty have fallen!

  11. [...] about language. At first I intended blogging about each episode, but after two (Babel and Identity) I could no longer summon the enthusiasm. It wasn’t [...]

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