Non-linguists frequently ask me whether I am avidly watching "Fry's Planet Word", the new five-part BBC television series on language written and presented by Stephen Fry. (A bit of googling will probably find it for those outside the UK who can't access the BBC iPlayer; there are various illicit copies around, including some on YouTube.) The answer is no; I simply cannot bear Fry on the topic of language. Such a fine actor (the quintessential Jeeves); such an insufferable twit on linguistic topics. So I know barely anything of this series except that even the radio trailers for it make my teeth itch. However, Edinburgh syntactician Manuela Rocchi is made of sterner stuff, and has watched some. She kindly contributes this guest post to inform you (and me) about it.
Guest post by Manuela Rocchi
The first episode of Fry's Planet Word was entitled 'Babel', and covered a huge range of topics, from language origins to language change, from first language acquisition to feral children, to the number of languages spoken in the UN. As the show was only an hour long, none of these topics were really explored in any meaningful detail, partly because a lot of time was wasted on showing Fry travelling around the globe for no particular reason.
Pauline Foster at Bad Linguistics has written an excellent review of this episode (my friend Seán has written a more favorable one here). I don't have much to add to their analyses, so I will focus solely on the second episode, entitled 'Identity'.
As the name suggest, the theme of this episode was the relationship between the language we speak and our 'identity', defined rather loosely as "what makes me me". This meant discussing different British accents and attitudes to them, minority languages, language purity, football (?), and the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. Once again, the range of topics was quite broad, but this was undoubtedly a more focused and coherent episode than the first one.
The section on accents kept reminding viewers how "beautiful" all accents are. This is a nice change, I suppose, from seeing them derided as lazy and uneducated ways of speaking, but it came across as rather patronizing, especially as most of this section involved Fry and the poet Ian McMillan doing silly and over-exaggerated impressions of different accents, rather than any serious discussion of what we mean by 'accent' or 'variety', or standard. Moreover, different accents were often described inaccurately with statements like "they don't pronounce their t's", or "they can't pronounce 'house'", which made it sound like they were deficient in some way. In sum, I don't think the viewers will have learned much new about accents at all, and I doubt that snobs will have changed their mind about non-standard varieties just because Stephen Fry told them they are wonderful.
From accents, Fry moved on to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, the link being the question "if your accent can have such an impact on your identity, imagine what a difference the language that you speak has" [sic]. This took Fry to Stanford University, where he talked to Lera Boroditsky about how language influences thought. This is by far the most irritating part of the documentary, and it's a textbook case of why documentaries on complex topics should be done by people who know the subject well.
For all his enthusiasm and passion about language, Fry simply doesn't have the expertise that would allow him to ask probing questions, or to challenge any of Boroditsky's claims. For example, he never brings up, either to her or to the viewers, that what she is saying is not the accepted consensus, and that there is a lively debate in the field about what her results mean.
When Boroditsky says that German speakers give more feminine descriptions of bridges than Spanish speakers because the words for bridge is feminine in German but masculine in Spanish, he could ask her how strong these effects are, and whether they vanish when more context is added (e.g. if you ask them to describe a very sturdy, big concrete bridge with huge towers, would German speakers still go with 'fragile' and 'pretty'?). But I also wonder whether it should have been up to Boroditsky herself to mention the fact that her results are controversial. Obviously, she believes that she's right, but shouldn't intellectual honesty demand that, in a popularization program like this one, the viewers be told that there is a debate in the field, and that a lot of people disagree on the correct interpretation of her findings? (Of course, it may well have been the case that she did this and it was edited out. I'd be very interested to hear what she thought about how the interview was used, I'm sure a lot of material was omitted).
More worryingly, however, the interview soon degrades to rather silly generalisations about the Russian mind, and bilinguals having two conflicting ways of thinking. I've transcribed the exchange for people who can't find the video. At this point Fry and Boroditsky have been talking about the fact that she is bilingual, and Fry has been asking whether bilinguals have two ways of seeing the world.
Fry: As someone who speaks both [Russian and English] what is there that is characteristically Russian in the way you feel and experience when you're thinking in a Russian way?
Boroditsky: Russian speakers express much more collectivist ideas when they're speaking Russian, they espouse more collectivist values, and they espouse much more individualistic values when they're speaking English, so, even if they're giving an explanation about the same kind of phenomena, when they're doing it in one language they have a very different perspective on it than when they're doing it in another language. So, language serves as a cue to the cultural values . . . [gets interrupted]
Fry: So it's not a miserable oppressed dark Russian soul sort of way of looking at the world then?
Boroditsky: Well, yeah, that's a very English way of looking at the Russian soul. [laughs]
It's clear towards the end that both Fry and Boroditsky are joking, but it's really worrying that Boroditsky lets the conversation stray into crass generalizations that confuse language, thought and culture. I wouldn't be surprised if some viewers went away thinking that the Russian revolution occurred because the Russian language makes people think in collectivist terms (especially if they've heard of a certain Starkey who thinks that language can make you riot). In fact, the confusion between culture and language runs throughout the program, as when Fry repeatedly conflates Jewish culture and the Yiddish language (Woody Allen and Ben Stiller are mentioned as examples of the fact that some languages, like Yiddish, are funnier than others), or when he goes to the Basque Country, and spends most of his time discussing Basque food (more on minority languages later).
After the interview we see Fry walking in New York pondering on the age-old 'no word for X' problem, or, as he puts it "if you don't have a word for evil, does it vanish?", and concluding (without giving any reasons) that, whereas he sees Boroditsky's position, he also agrees with the Chomskian view that "all languages have intrinsically the same structure". This is where having a linguist on board would have helped. It's true that sometimes linguists themselves present Chomskian and Whorfian ideas as though they were in contradiction. But as Barbara Scholz stressed, they're not; you can very easily subscribe to both theses even in their strongest forms.
Surely no linguist would have let Fry move from a point about vocabulary to one about structure as though they were the same thing, nor would they have let him get away with his gross overstatement of UG. And why tell the viewers whose side he's on without explaining why? This would have been a good time to explain that there are linguists who don't subscribe to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, and maybe to interview one of them. What a missed opportunity.
From Neo-Whorfianism Fry moves on to Yiddish (the language that makes you funny even if you don't speak it) and from there to minority languages in general. This section is not as bad as the previous one, partly because Fry doesn't really say anything particularly meaningful, so there's not as much to get wrong. There are still problems however.
The first one is the cliched romanticization of minority languages. I understand that speakers of endangered languages may be on the defensive and may feel the need to come up with reasons why their language is worth preserving. But asking people about their own language, especially if it's one that is in danger, is like asking them about their God: they'll just all tell you that it's better than anybody else's, and you won't have learned much. So, for instance, you get the Irish fisherman saying that Irish is so much more creative and colorful than English because it has wonderful descriptions, an example being the name for jellyfish, which means "seal's spit", and nobody mentions that jelly fish is actually more effective as descriptions go (and is quite funny if you've never heard it before).
Or you get an Irish golfer saying that Irish has more ways of saying "It's a nice day" depending on who you're addressing ("or undressing", he adds), but who fails to notice that, in explaining what he means, he's doing just that (i.e. finding "different ways of saying the same thing", as he puts it) in English.
It would have been so much more interesting to learn about the history of the relationship between Irish and English, or what policies have been implemented to protect Irish, and how successful they are. In the Basque country, Fry could have gone to the Basque Language Department of the University of the Basque Country and ask them how a language used mostly for farming and fishing became a medium of university instruction. Instead, we got silly talk with a chef about the Basque language being like Basque food, i.e. open to outside influence, and how Basque food and language are so intrinsically linked in their culture because, historically, recipes were transmitted orally (the many Basques who are monolingual Spanish speakers must starve to death).
The second problem is that, as a result of this attempt to show the relationship between traditional culture and language, Fry ends up presenting a very outdated, nostalgic view of minority languages. He interviews fishermen, farmers and cooks, or people in quaint little cottages in rural Ireland, as though minority languages couldn't also be languages of culture, technology and progress. When he interviews an odious member of the French Academy who talks about the other languages of France as though they were not as sophisticated as French, one feels that what has been shown up to then sort of proves his point.
In sum, the program is well-meaning, and it does show Fry's great love for language; but it either gets some things very wrong, or treats complex topics as though they were dinner-party talking points, thus failing to tell viewers anything they didn't already know or suspect anyway.
— Manuela Rocchi
Comments were closed because of a clerical error. Manuela wanted them switched to open. They are now.