Episode 1 - Babel
...And he's off: in no time at all, we are sent from Stephen Fry's comfy documentary-world study to Kenya to meet the Turkana, back to the London suburbs to meet a typical toddler, Ruby, and off to Leipzig (twice). Before you can say hello in 25 languages, we are already pondering a wide range of linguistic dilemmas. We also catch glimpses of Nim Chimpsky and the famous chattering YouTube twins. To help us out, we visit a range of experts. If I could have anyone in the world to talk about state of the art theories of language development, I would have one person at the top of my wishlist: Michael Tomasello. He adds much-needed balance both to the academic study of language development and the programme itself. Then, very quickly we are back on the slippery search for the language gene, aka FOXP2, and only just understand that this really cannot be the whole answer.
While we do not learn very much about Stephen Fry's brain scans in an fMRI, we do learn that the people he chose from UCL have a very balanced, realistic view of what they are able to achieve with these tools. I suppose if you are going to prepare a documentary on language, you have to include Stephen Pinker, if only because more Joe Publics have read his books than any others on language. Thankfully, Pinker does not get it all his own way. At the end of the episode, we have been given a fairly good overall picture of language development and been introduced to issues of language versus animal communication, language proliferation, decay and death, and the long, long way we still have to go to even start to understand language. All the time, no matter what you may think of the presenter, Fry clearly enjoys language and relishes the challenge of circumscribing the subject. As an introduction of language study to the completely uninitiated, this is a good start.
Episode 2 - Identity
We start with an investigation of the myriad accents of Yorkshire, guided by a poet from Barnsley, we give Fry a few moments to exhibit his control of accents on an 'accent forecast of the UK' made to resemble a BBC weather forecast, and then we land in Newcastle, where we hear 'chirpy' Geordie call centre operatives and their PR manager. Then we're whisked over to Connemara where we hear some Irish (or Irish Gaelic if you prefer) and find out how the young and older feel about their language which was brought back from the brink of extinction. At this point we do touch on the serious issue of language decay, identity and "linguicide", with a cheap swipe at L'Académie française for being so imperial for so long. We also look at the re-birth of Hebrew, where we at last meet a linguist (only the 2nd in this programme) whose thesis is that Hebrew still retains large parts of Yiddish. (I do not know if Fry is Jewish, but in this episode he goes out of his way to be nice to them in London, New York and Jerusalem.) Finally we compare how Irish, Breton, Basque, Hebrew, Oc and Turkana resist the threat of Globish (that's global English).
After the Frying start of episode 1, episode 2 is very disappointing. I do not think that this is due to my personal lack of interest in the issue of Identity (which I think covers a multitude of academic sins), but because the head count of experts - famous or otherwise - is much lower in this episode, and Fry's inexhaustible enthusiasm is an insufficient replacement for real facts.
Episode 3 - Uses and Abuses
Although Fry's approach could easily be dismissed by people working in the fields of sociolinguistics and humor studies (which he refers to as rather humorless), we must never forget that this is a television programme.
An experiment involving the actor Brian Blessed and a large tub of icy water is particularly unscientific, but it makes good television and is slightly related to more serious research. Admittedly this episode does descend into a promo-video for Fry's favourite issues (Judaism, homosexuality, racism etc.), but generally it also makes a point; although Fry & co. smatter their speech with expletives, none of them can bring themselves to say nigger in any form other than "the n-word." So, even for people who can cuss and swear willy-nilly, there are still some taboo words. Stephen K. Amos manages, just, but explains that it still retains an insulting meaning for him due to personal experiences. Hardly scientific. An improvement on episode 2, but still not as accurate or rigorous as episode 1.
Episode 4 - Spreading the Word
Episode 4 is all about writing, and is of a much higher standard than the previous 2 episodes. Although I would not agree with all that we see in this episode, I would say that Fry and his team have done a better job of researching the key issues in writing. We have a wide range of suitable experts from typesetters in Norwich to the inventor of Pinyin in Beijing.
When Fry wants to learn about the origins of writing he finds an expert in cuneiform in the British museum, who shows him how it is done, and even poses in front of THE Rosetta Stone (best not to ask why it's in the British Museum, though!!). He is back in Jerusalem to look at, be told off for touching, and witness digital imaging techniques for restoring the "Dead Sea Scrolls."
He also manages to trace the connection between printing, the Age of Reason and wikipedia - not bad for a TV show! He visits the Bodleian library at Oxford University to examine how they are keeping abreast of the digital age and in Harvard's library meets someone who points out that new media do not need to replace previous formats - that the iPad / Kindle etc. are not likely to replace the book, but both will develop alongside each other just as radio did not replace newspapers and was not replaced by TV.
As with other episodes Fry adds his own pet theories, likes and dislikes but he also places developments such as printing in a social context, providing a good balance of enthusiasm and restraint on a subject that easily leads to hyperbole. I also support his call to support the libraries of the U.K. and the world, no matter what formats are being preserved - buildings dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge through reading are the bedrock of civilizations!
Episode 5 - The Power and The Glory
So in the ultimate episode we learn that the ultimate purpose of language is...
Fry explains why he loves a range of writers, from Joyce to Wodehouse to Orwell, heaping the greatest praise on Shakespeare - he even manages to find a French actor to admit that he would rather play Shakespeare than any of the lesser French playwrights. Fry just could not resist one last jab at the French before the series finishes. Some old friends are back, such as Brian Blessed and the Turkana villagers, as well as some new faces, including David Tenant giving us some of his take on Hamlet.The episode is just as busy and full of locations, interviews and Fry's opinions as the others, but offers no new information on linguistics or even language studies. For this reason it is the most disappointing episode - at least episode 2 was related to aspects of sociolinguistics and the hot topic of identity. All of the science disappears and we left with the absolute relativism of everyone's opinion is just as good as each other, which is clearly not the case. Just ask a Cambridge Don!
Episodes 1-5 - Planet Word
All in all, Planet Word is very uneven. It manages to combine wit and fact, controversy and error. At times, it is highly perceptive and at others completely misleading. To be fair, this is TV. It is not intended to be lectures 1-5 in a course in linguistics. Evaluating the series from an academic perspective is completely unfair. Whatever Fry offers, it must work well on the screen - hence the frequent scene changes (often for no reason), cuts to the fake study for a talk-to-camera and a heavy dependence on interviews with experts (used in the loosest sense where Stephen Pinker is concerned).
What we need most from this series, perhaps, is for the general public to gain some understanding of language studies or even be inspired to look further into the subject, especially if they are young and are considering what to study at university. I believe Fry has succeeded to some extent in providing a TV series that engages with its audience, entertains and informs. A wide range of linguistic issues, perspectives and facts are offered with a minimum of effort on the part of the viewer - no mean feat. Only the last episode could be considered misleading. Certainly I do not agree with a lot of what he claims throughout the series, but this is his show not mine!
the DVD, or even pick up the book, and see if you could find better ways to make linguistics appeal to more people who have never considered studying language before. It will not improve the programme but it may just help you, if you are a lover of language, to explain your interest to others. Spread the word - Planet Word.