wed 19/06/2024

Fry's Planet Word, BBC Two | reviews, news & interviews

Fry's Planet Word, BBC Two

Fry's Planet Word, BBC Two

We are what we speak - Stephen Fry on the language instinct

Polymath, with DNA and quills: Stephen Fry puzzles over the 'language gene'

Language is, the sages tell us, intrinsic to being human. Or to what humans call “being human”, anyway. And yet, notwithstanding the 70-odd muscles and half a billion brain cells deployed every time we open our mouths, we hardly give the matter a second thought.

I confess I was in two minds about committing to five hours of Stephen Fry telling me this; but as the opening credits rolled last night on Fry's Planet Word, before I'd even got my feet up and my tea on, while he was still saying "the story of language is surely one of the greatest stories we have” – I knew we were onto a winner.

We know a lot about words. Just not a great deal about where they come from, and how. So Fry's theme for the opening week was what language is, and why we have it, and how it gets into us. How evolution took us from imperative to narrative, to planning and to history. How, in short – well, in 50,000 years – we went from grunts and squawks to TS Eliot.

The BBC has blown this year's quota for Talking With Neanderthals, so we had to make do with chimps instead

If you want a glimpse of what life was like for our pre-linguistic ancestors, you should read William Golding's The Inheritors. Alas, what with Don't Tell the Bride, Young Soldiers and the start of the new footy season, the BBC has blown this year's quota for Talking With Neanderthals, so we had to make do with chimps instead.

Chimps were everywhere on Planet Word. Like us, but not (just two amino acids separate us on the linguistic gene), they illustrate perfectly the difference – the chasm – between communication and language: between humans and all other species. (It's only three amino acids for mice, and the best they can hope for is a spot on The Clangers.)

Chimps share the most part of our DNA, but they still don’t have library cards. Their "language" is hard-wired, a vocal equivalent of Pavlov’s drool, little more than swearing when you hammer your thumb. Many primates could learn to sign, we were told; they just can’t control their diaphragms or contort their faces enough to become opera singers. These limitations were famously embodied, of course, in the joshingly nomenclatured Nim Chimpsky, who learned sign to an advanced level but – with consummate irony – was not much chop as an actual linguist (though he at least refrained from boshing out three books a year on why governments are bad). 

I am told (by nobody reputable) that to get the chimps in the PG Tips ads to "talk" the handlers roofed their mouths with peanut butter. (Is that true?) Because animals don't chat. Their communications are 100 per cent imperative, at their most advanced only when they team up to attack stuff. Humans, though, can use language whenever and however we want, and even to mean things it doesn’t – in sarcasm, say, or satire. Or pop lyrics. Which also enables language-geneticist Wolfgang Enard to refer to FOXP2, the so-called "language gene", as “the biggest foot we have in this door”. 

Bully for us, then. But why? And how?

We are still in the neurological equivalent of the dark ages

Less is known about this part – “We are still in the neurological equivalent of the dark ages” – but Fry did an admirably pacy job of asking the right experts the right questions, discoursing with toddlers, and talking from the inside of an MRI (“I’ve seen these on House!”) in his quest for the right answers.

It's a social thing, language. And it isn't squirrelled away into one corner of the brain; it uses almost all of it. To speak we must mine memory, senses, emotions and more, and then, as a group, code them into words… words which, soon enough, become inseparable from the senses and emotions they describe. (An anthropologist friend of mine tells a story: attempting to learn Inuktitut – Inuit, to you and me – he had no sooner enquired as to the verb for "seal-hunting" than he found himself, harpoon in hand, being shown how to actually do it.) 

Hence the focus on children, both feral and domestic. No kidding, your spongy offspring benefit from lots of lingo in their formative years. You can’t just wait for your kids to reach school and hope they’ll transform into Oscar Wilde. Still, there should be limits: one man – American, obviously – decided to teach his son Klingon as a first language. I look forward to seeing him arraigned on charges of child abuse in a later episode.

Only Stephen Fry would recite, “Betty had a bit of bitter butter” – in full – to a monkey

Good stories require a good storyteller, and although some of Fry's content was schoolboy stuff (descendants of Proto-Indo-European, eg; languages don't stand still, etc, etc), the delivery was top notch and the illustrations exactly chosen. Our narrator's evident affinity with the subject matter also enabled him to be unusually relaxed as himself (as opposed to the "what-are-we-like?" cuddly poove of his QI and Twitter incarnations). Only Stephen Fry would recite, “Betty had a bit of bitter butter” – in full – to a monkey. And it’s pleasing to think that he really does work in a Faustus-type study surrounded by quill pens, a parrot and Machiavelli in paperback. 

For a five-part enquiry, though, there were a lot of loose ends. Did the Klingon kid really grow out of his dad's "language games" spontaneously? Is there not a connection between the Grimm Brothers' interested in fairy tales and philology? How does a sign interpreter ask, "What's the sign for 'Barack Obama'?" without using the sign? And why – thank the Beeb for their production budgets and all – did Fry have to travel to Kenya to congratulate the locals on their use of nouns and verbs?

There were also enough (unwitting) meta-gags to fill an extras disc. Surprisingly, these were all on Fry. "Dubbed the singing mice..." quoth he about some mice who were not dubbed; "winter-summer-winter-summer, I see, jolly good" he wittered on, long after he'd been shown the number of fingers to answer his question. And the winner: "The one thing I share with them is language," he says, somewhat unnecessarily. The camera pans to a tribesman waving a spear and chanting: "I wish all evil things to go to the West!" – and then back to our short-trousered hero, sitting on a log, chatting obliviously to a native.


I hope that Stephen Fry will also cover the need for an in international language in his BBC 2 series, And that won’t be Klingon! Esperanto however would be a worthy candidate. Many ignorant people describe Esperanto as "failed" - other ignorant people say that if human beings were meant to fly, God would have given them wings. Esperanto is neither artificial nor a failure however. As the British Government now employs Esperanto translators it has ceased to be a hobby.

I've just bought the book to go with the series which I think explains a lot of the 'loose ends'. Great series though - I think it only suffers from trying to cram too much info in.

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