Stephen Fry’s Planet Word: Babel

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 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.

22 Responses to Stephen Fry’s Planet Word: Babel

  1. It really was a great doc. For primetime BBC2 it was also refreshingly undumbed-down. More please!

  2. Brian Barker says:

    It was good to see Stephen Fry taking Esperanto seriously on his programme “Planet Word”. Unfortunately the representative from the United Nations – who claimed she was an expert on the subject – knew absolutely nothing about the language.

    Not only did she not know that Esperanto intends to be an auxiliary language for all but did not know either that the World Esperanto Association enjoys consultative relations with the United Nations and is using that position to defend the rights of all minority languages. Confirmation is here

  3. I enjoyed it very much too. Oh after some huge ballot rigging (not really, I just managed to get ythe Captcha thingy on the fourth attempt which is a record for me!) I have doubled your vote. All hail Ubergrammarian Carey!

  4. Stan says:

    Mike: It was certainly enjoyable, and did a reasonable job given time constraints and the need to appeal to a mass audience. I’m looking forward to seeing more of it now.

    Brian: As far as I know, he’s making an effort to learn some Esperanto. If that’s true, it should help raise and improve the language’s profile.

    Jams: I have two votes? Excellent! I can retire happy now. Glad to hear you watched and liked the documentary.

  5. […] TV programme for the BBC, Planet Word. If it’s okay with linguistic lord of the Internet Stan Carey, it’s okay with […]

  6. […] words. In addition Stan Carey wrote about foolish consistency in grammar, and on his own blog, reviewed Stephen Fry’s documentary about language, Planet […]

  7. […] I wrote about the first episode, Babel, I said Fry’s popularity and likeability would draw an audience who might not have a particular […]

  8. John Flynn says:

    In Planet Word last night the gentlemen in the golf club bar in Connemara might have answered more instructively when asked about the differences in ways of saying things in Irish and English.

    Irish is rich in words and expressions that cover personal interaction and attitudes to that interaction. These often suggest the Irish were an ironic people even before they started speaking English.

    A short list below is made up of Irish words still used in everyday speech by English speakers in Waterford, the county which has the smallest remaining Irish-speaking area. Most counties have no such area.

    Flaithiúlach (pr. ‘flahoolock’) = wilfully, even wastefully, generous;

    Gaisce (‘goshka’) = a great deed, as done by an ostentatious do-gooder;

    Meas (‘mass’) = regard or esteem based on experience of the subject rather than on affinity, interest or inclination;

    Plámás (‘plawmawss’) = soothing flattery designed to bluff, placate or cajole;

    Searbhas (‘sharoose’) = a form of dismissiveness derived from the word for bitter (searbh), this is negativity with touches of the ungrateful and defeatist;

    Trína chéile (‘treenakayla’) = literally ‘between together’, this means a state of inability to interact with oneself, which is something more than confused.

  9. Stan says:

    Thanks for your comment, John, especially the collection of Irish words in use in Waterford. The only ones I use regularly are meas and plámás (I wrote a short piece about the second of these), and I hear gaisce every now and then. I didn’t think Planet Word‘s footage from Galway conveyed much of the richness, colour and comedy of Irish and Irish English. The link above your comment will take you to my post on episode 2, if you’re interested.

  10. ben says:

    I wasn’t very keen on the first episode but the one on Sunday 2nd was really intriguing. If you already have a keen interest in language then this doesn’t really push your knowledge but it’s so nice to have something good to watch. I’ve just started reading the book and it gives more detailed accounts of some of the issues they touch on. If you want to know a bit more then I really advise getting a copy. Shame the TV’s up against Spooks though!

  11. John Flynn says:

    Stan, reading your piece and the attached comments reminded me of two further words we use:

    ráiméis (‘rawmaysh’): the kind of rambling or raving drivel characterised by the true interest the speaker has in listening to what he or she is saying, drunk or not.

    cnáimhseáil (‘cnawvshawl’): the complaining done by a whinger, like rubbing bones together (cnámh being the Irish for bone).

  12. Stan says:

    Ben: It’s a bit uneven, but it may knit together better once all five episodes have been broadcast. And, as you say, it’s aimed at a general audience. The book sounds like a useful complement.

    John: I’m fond of both of those. I’ve been using ráiméis regularly ever since I learned it in childhood, and though I don’t use cnáimhseáil very often, I think it’s a marvellous word, and I wrote about it here.

  13. Deósamh de hÚseille says:

    would be interested to know if the English-language term,hard nosed,is derived from the Irish,ard nós(ach).

  14. Deósamh de hÚseille says:

    … is the word hotdog derived from Irish?!

  15. Claude says:

    That Captcha thing is a bit complicated! But I did succeed finally. After my fourth attempt, I was told, in stern letters, that I had already voted once. Bonne Chance, Stan!

  16. Sioe de hÚseille says:

    Irish people, in general, tend to use the spoken expression – amn’t I? – am I not? So far as I am aware they are the only people to do so; I wonder why?
    When you consider the expression – arn’t I – it somehow dosn’t sound right!
    I am right – are I not??

  17. Stan says:

    Deósamh: I don’t think hard-nosed is related to ard-nósach – the similarity in sound is just a coincidence – and hot dog is said to come from a suspicion of what sausages once contained.

    The handy contraction amn’t occurs in Scottish English too, but is rare outside SE and Irish English. Motivated Grammar has a post on aren’t I and the problems some people have with it.

    Claude: You’re very kind – thank you for your support and perseverance!

  18. Deó de hÚseille says:

    with regard to hardnosed, it isn’t only the sound of the word, it’s its general sense of meaning also that suggests a connection.
    Chambers gives it as a colloquialism which is an admission more or less that its history of origin is unknown to the lexicographer.The latter defines it, however, as tough,unsentimental. That is not a million miles from the definition of ard-nós which is defined as ‘a high aristocratic fashion'(Dinneen); and ‘grandeur;formality’
    (Ó Dónaill). The particle ‘go’prefixes an h to the vowel a (ard), thus go hard-nósach!
    All of the (other!) anecdotal stories concerning the English word’s putative origin are absurd.

  19. Deó de hÚseille says:

    The Irish word,samhdóg,pronounced: saw’do’g, means ‘sausage’; and a plump,little girl. In the vocative case: ‘Oh, little sausage!’- ‘A Shamhdóig’,pronounced: a haw’do’ig.
    Nineteen-Century USA was a place not unknown to speakers of the Irish language who might-just might, have given coinage to the word in question!

  20. Stan says:

    Deó: Thanks for your interesting comments. The meaning of hard-nosed is, as you say, not a million miles from ard-nósach, but they’re dissimilar enough to make me doubt the etymology. I wouldn’t rule it out, though, and the hotdog origin you suggest is also possible. Loreto Todd’s Green English: Ireland’s influence on the English language proposes quite a few English words of uncertain etymology to be Irish in origin, but she doesn’t mention hotdog or hard-nosed. For what it’s worth.

  21. Deó de hÚseille says:

    It brought back certain memories to read John flynn (4 Oct). Native Dubliners,too,employ the occasional Irish word in their otherwise English-language world. As in Waterford,one hears flaithiúlach, however,it’s generally used in an ironic sense – said of someone who is anything but princely with their money or someone who is given to bignoteing themselves – Mrs Flathiúlach!
    Mar dhea(mara yah)meaning,as if!or,in your dreams! Amadán(awmaw’dawn)meaning a fool; but insinuating or imputing imbecility. Any greater degree of mental retardation is usually indicated by the addition of, ‘a right amadan’, or, ‘an out and out amadan’.

  22. […] 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 […]

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