Planet Word
A five-part documentary by Stephen Fry and an accompanying book


In this BBC TV series, the well-known writer, broadcaster and polymath Stephen Fry has addressed the topic of human language, in which he has a long-standing interest. He makes many points which should be better known to thoughtful language-users than they typically are, in places correcting common folk-linguistic misconceptions; and his presentation of the material is enthusiastic, articulate, fascinating and eminently accessible to the intelligent and interested lay-person, perhaps more so than if the series had been made by a professional linguist working alone. The five programmes cover, successively: 1) the historical origins of language (as explained both in traditional myths and in the work of linguists) and the acquisition of language by children; 2) language variation and identity; 3) the ‘use and abuse’ of language; 4) writing systems; and 5) language and power.

Given the obvious importance of language for the human species, Fry is justifiably concerned at the rather low level of explicit awareness of the relevant issues which prevails in otherwise well-educated lay circles. He is also judicious and for the most part fair in assessing the current state of knowledge regarding language, and he draws heavily upon the expertise of linguists and of scholars in related fields, displaying considerable erudition. But (unfortunately, as I would suggest) he has chosen not to invite any linguist to co-author the work; and there are points at which he adopts a ‘popular’ approach (which may be judged fully justified in other sections) and thereby oversimplifies issues and perhaps underplays the significance of academic linguistics (not widely known in the community at large) as a discipline. In addition (as in his works on other topics) there are certainly places where, despite a measure of diffidence, he appears over-confident in expressing or endorsing ideas which are in fact controversial, and in consequence presents rather one-sided or even (occasionally) inaccurate accounts of certain key issues.

Below I treat the undoubted merits of Fry’s material largely as given, and focus, programme by programme, upon the most important cases where a non-linguist watcher might reasonably be encouraged to exercise a degree of reserve and caution. Rather unfortunately, these are particularly salient in the first programme.

Programme 1
Most linguists hold, on the basis of evidence of various kinds, that Homo sapiens has had language for rather longer than the 50,000 years suggested by Fry.
It should be emphasised that not all languages have all the same ‘parts of speech’; for instance, some have no clear distinction between verbs and adjectives.
Fry’s account of the ‘design features’ of human language omits or underplays some key points, notably the feature (unique among known communication systems) of ‘double articulation’, the relationship between phonemes, meaningless in themselves, and the meaningful morphemes/words which they make up in combination.
By no means all linguists would accept the ‘nativist’ theories of Noam Chomsky, Steven Pinker and their followers, which imply that the brains of young humans contain a ‘dedicated’ language module which exercises highly specific constraints upon possible linguistic structures, that the genetic disorders displayed by the ‘KE’ family relate to language specifically (see especially pp. 41-42 of the book) and that even otherwise intelligent non-human species (such as apes) are inherently unable to acquire the most significant aspects of language; despite his occasional caveats, Fry’s overt admiration for Pinker in particular seems to have led him to adopt a somewhat one-sided view of this set of issues.
Fry does not really explain the (admittedly often difficult) notions involved in grammatical analysis adequately for his purposes.
There is debate among historical linguists as to the geographical origin of the Indo-European language ‘family’; some locate Proto-Indo-European in Anatolia rather than in what is now Russia.

Programme 2
Fry arguably relies excessively upon non-linguists (amateur dialectologists, dialect writers, etc.) in his discussion of dialects and accents, and some of his treatment is in consequence rather naive – especially where, for example, he takes seriously the popular idea that climatic differences affect regional accent variation, or where he treats regional varieties as if they had sharp geographical boundaries.

Programme 4
Fry adopts a rather one-sided view of the desirability of alphabetic writing, even for languages such as Chinese which have traditionally been very successfully written in scripts of other types; he downplays the cross-linguistic evidence which suggests that these other types have their own very considerable advantages (psycholinguistic, etc.).

The accompanying book has a preface by Fry himself but is authored by John Paul Davidson, a well-informed television director/producer with anthropological training. In this mode the pressure on space is obviously reduced, and the treatment of some of the above-mentioned issues is somewhat more even-handed. But in my view it is still a pity that no professional linguist was involved as a co-author; this might for instance have reduced the incidence of naivety as displayed in Davidson’s discussion of writing systems on pp. 259-260 (in the context of the decipherment of the syllabic Linear B script). And in Fry’s preface some of the problems referred to above emerge again, for example on p. 17 where he oversimplifies (at least in his presentation) the contrast between the thought of Chomsky and that of Benjamin Lee Whorf (as indeed he does in Programme 2 of the documentary series).

Nevertheless, the book is well worth obtaining, even for those who have already seen the documentaries; and the documentaries themselves should be viewed eagerly by all who have an interest in language or who need to increase their awareness of linguistic matters (teachers, educationists, parents, writers, broadcasters, etc.).