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.