Watching a short documentary on the making of The Truman Show, I heard a phrase that made me turn on the subtitles and take a snapshot:
Last night the BBC broadcast the fifth and final episode of Fry’s Planet Word, its new documentary 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 bad, but it was too often superficial and repetitive, too reliant on platitudes and stereotypes.
Episode 5 is about the power and glory of storytelling. Fry is enjoying a horse-drawn jaunt in Dublin, listening to David Norris rhapsodise about Ulysses. Norris is recalling Leopold Bloom’s cat and the onomatopoeic words Joyce used to convey its mews. Alas, he misspells twice (mkgneo and mrkgneo instead of mkgnao, mrkgnao, and mrkrgnao), and the BBC’s subtitles amplify the error.
It may seem negligible, but the lapse reveals a sorry lack of care. Of course Norris, a devoted Joycean, should have known better. But how hard would it have been for the BBC to check a couple of spellings? Ulysses is not a difficult book to get hold of. The error is especially unfortunate given that Norris’s point is about Joyce’s attention to detail and his understanding of the importance of every letter.
Other encounters include William Goldman, who talks about screenwriting, Peter Jackson (Tolkien, Stephen King), Mark Rylance (Shakespeare), Simon Russell Beale (Shakespeare), David Tennant (Shakespeare), Brian Blessed (Shakespeare), Guillaume Gallienne (Shakespeare), Sir David Tang and Johnson Chang (Shakespeare), Robert McCrum (Wodehouse), Ian Hislop (Orwell), Richard Curtis (Auden, pop songs), and Sir Christopher Ricks (Bob Dylan).
Some of these discussions are enjoyable and interesting, but you’d be forgiven for wondering if women read or write books at all.
Near the end, the show ambushes its viewers with a blast of Coldplay, that we might reflect on the power and significance of their lyrics. Fry asks us, “Can Coldplay . . . really stand alongside the pantheon of great poets?” I’ll spare you my thoughts on that.
The series has its share of memorable moments and educational fun; episode 3’s admirable Jess, a “Tourette’s hero” with coprolalia as a special power, leaps foul-mouthedly to mind. But I’ll remember it chiefly as a missed opportunity. In short, I’d have liked more depth, research, and complexity, less pretty scenery* and jovial chat between like-minded friends.
Edit: I’ll use this space to add lingering thoughts. A couple of things: Given the prevailing fixation on electronic communication, it was great to see Fry’s Planet Word end in a bookshop, with Fry wandering happily among shelves laden with physical books. And I was very glad, earlier in the show, that Joyce’s Ulysses was singled out for particular praise. A few more people might feel encouraged to read it.
* Fry travels to the Mediterranean to read a few lines of The Odyssey on a boat, etc.
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.
A new documentary about language, Fry’s Planet Word, began on BBC2 yesterday with an episode about linguistic origins and evolution. Its host, Stephen Fry, looked into evolutionary-linguistic concerns such as how languages are related, how they are acquired (the Wug test was demonstrated), the significance of the FOXP2 gene, and why other primates haven’t developed language.
One sequence looked at sign languages: how they work and how they differ from speech and from each other. Fry watched a drama group sign (and reinterpret) Little Red Riding Hood, then asked them what signs are used for famous people like Obama, Hitler, and Madonna, noting how expressive and humorous a form it can be. The theatrical theme continued with Fry participating in a Klingon performance of Hamlet, hurting his throat on its harsh phonology.
The episode’s title, Babel, struck its final symbolic note at a UN session where Fry met a translator who sang the praises of linguistic variety. You could say “Well, she would”, but her sincere delight in the beauty of languages was obvious, and was music to Fry’s ears. Mine too.
Each of the areas touched upon would have benefited from a dedicated show, or even a series, rather than the few minutes allotted before we were whisked off to the next location on the whistle-stop tour. But language is a dauntingly broad and complex subject, and the show seems designed as an introductory guide; on that basis it did fine.
The programme featured interviews with the likes of Wolfgang Klein (see par. 1, second link), Jean Berko Gleason, Stephen Pinker, and Michael Tomasello, who proposed that language emerged in functional tandem with group coordination, perhaps in hunting. Their contributions were regrettably too brief to convey much more than generalities.
All in all, though, it was an enjoyable programme, and I plan to keep watching it if I can. As you might expect, Fry stressed the importance of creativity and pleasure in our linguistic gift, but he didn’t overdo it. His geniality and enthusiasm will attract and retain the interest of viewers who might not otherwise wonder about some of the marvels and mysteries of language.
Here he is talking about language and Fry’s Planet Word:
On an unrelated note, Sentence first has been nominated for a grammar blog contest at Grammar.net. Since it depends wholly on votes, it is in effect a contest of popularity and self-promotion.
Though I’m honoured to be included, I do not aspire to compete. But I won’t object if you want to do me (or someone else) the honour of a vote, and you might enjoy browsing the list of language blogs.