Around the world of words, without a linguist

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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.


  1. David said,

    October 7, 2011 @ 10:37 am

    I attended the lecture that the BBC recorded; Dr. Boroditsky did discuss the debate about Sapir-Whorf and the controversy about her findings. She also talked about the bridge-gender experiment in much more detail, talking about many objections to it that had been raised and the studies which were done to address them (which I found much more convincing than the original).

    I'm not really sure why they chose to use the lecture clip they did–it was one of the more boring points that she made. I would have preferred it if they had included more of Boroditsky's talk, and less of Fry doing accent impressions.

  2. Manuela Rocchi said,

    October 7, 2011 @ 12:10 pm


    Dr. Boroditsky has emailed me to say that the interview was edited in a way that did not do justice to what she actually said. I'm waiting for her to allow me to post her email here so everyone can read it.

    I also learned today that the Basque teacher at the University of Birmingham (UK), where I studied Basque a few years ago, was also interviewed, and spent a whole day in San Sebastian talking to Fry about Basque, but was completely left out to make space for a chef. He says he'll be commenting here over the weekend.

    Re Fry's accent impressions, it was physically painful to watch.

  3. Keith M Ellis said,

    October 7, 2011 @ 12:15 pm

    In addition to discussion of how Fry's program presents the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis as mainstream linguistics and thus (it seems to me) quite regrettably validates all the bad pop-culture pseudo-linguistics of "Eskimos and snow" and "no word for x" and their kin, I'm also interested in discussion of the "odious member of the French Academy".

    It's mostly been at LL that I've become aware of how prevalent are notions in the non-anglophone world of "better" and "worse", "more evolved" and "more primitive" dialects and languages. Obviously, this has everything to do with cultural chauvinism and nationalism and it's a politically explosive topic. What's not entirely clear to me, though, is how much this distorts or even outright prevents the functioning of linguistics as an empirical academic discipline in all these cultures/nations where these notions are prominent, even cherished as fundamental truths.

    It has recently seemed to me that even among the western Europeans, who are so very cosmopolitan and as advanced as anyone in the world with regard to empirical science, that because of 18th/19th century nationalization in conjunction with language standardization there are these widely-accepted-but-false notions about languages and dialect.

  4. maidhc said,

    October 9, 2011 @ 12:16 am

    Actually the Irish term for jellyfish means "seal snot".

    The idea that Irish is a more expressive language than English goes back to the days of the Gaelic Revival 100 years ago, and it wouldn't be hard to find an Irishman who would tell you about it.

    A few years ago there was a lot of talk about whether Ireland would "say 'yes' to Maastricht". It was a problem because you can't actually translate this expression directly into Irish, since Irish has no word for "yes". (You answer questions by repeating the verb.) There were some attempts at translations but they were all a bit awkward.

  5. dave said,

    October 9, 2011 @ 2:56 am

    A shame this; I had recorded the programmes, but I don't think I'll bother watching them. The points raised above about chauvinism and 'minority' languages are part of a conundrum that always amuses me. The efforts of other people to impose some tidied-up academic version of what the written form of their language might have been on communities who probably never spoke it in the first place seem remarkably promiscuous in the range of moralising justification that they will seek out. If they just let their linguistic evolution follow a similarly promiscuous course, like that raddled old whore English, things might be easier for everyone.

  6. boynamedsue said,

    October 9, 2011 @ 2:53 pm

    "if your accent can have such an impact on your identity, imagine what a difference the language that you speak has" [sic].

    I thought prescriptivism was banned on here, but go on then, I'll bite. What's up with that?

  7. boynamedsue said,

    October 9, 2011 @ 2:56 pm

    by "what's up", I mean "what's wrong"… I'm not quite sure if "what's up" is standard English or not.

  8. Dan Hemmens said,

    October 9, 2011 @ 4:49 pm

    I thought prescriptivism was banned on here, but go on then, I'll bite. What's up with that?

    Do you mean "why was there a [sic] after that quote". I'm not sure, but I'd guess it's just because "imagine what a difference the language you speak has" sounds awkward (or is likely to sound awkward to some people) and the OP wanted to draw attention to the fact that this was not a mistake but was actually what Fry said.

    It isn't prescriptivist to observe that a particular way of phrasing something sounds awkward, or isn't standard English – nor is it prescriptivist to understand that native speakers can make mistakes.

    Since this is transcribed from speech, I suspect that Fry intended to say either "imagine what an effect the language you speak has" or "imagine what a difference the language you speak makes" and got mixed up between the two.

  9. Manuela Rocchi said,

    October 10, 2011 @ 11:33 am

    @Keith M Ellis

    I'm not sure why you think that those attitudes are only found outside the English speaking world. Language Log is full of posts about English speaking people making exactly those type of judgements.

    Re the impact on research, I shouldn't think there would be any. If common misconceptions had any bearing on the research done in linguistics departments, there wouldn't be any descriptivist linguistics at all! Many people in Italy think that the Italian regional languages are not proper languages, yet there is plenty of research done on them.


    I'm not sure I understand your point. Are you referring to language academies coming up with standard varieties for minority languages (e.g. the Euskaltzaindia If so, while I'd agree that these are extremely artificial methods, and can alienate native speakers of those languages, they're sometimes necessary if you have to suddenly educate a whole population in a language that has little literary tradition and a myriad of dialects with no agreed standard (which was the case with Basque not long ago). This is quite different from academies like the Académie Française or the Real Academia de La Lengua Española, which deal with languages with a rich literary and academic tradition, and a long-established standard.


    Dan Hemmens got it right. It seems to me that 'what a difference language has' is not right, as we say 'make a difference', not 'have a difference' (if you google '"What a difference * has" -made' you only get noise). But I'm not a native speaker, so I might be wrong. The [sic] is simply to point out that the (possible) mistake was in the original and not in the transcription.

  10. Ken Kukec said,

    October 14, 2011 @ 7:18 pm

    " …. since Irish has no word for 'yes'."

    Seems a language like that could complicate campus PCcodes.

  11. Ken Kukec said,

    October 14, 2011 @ 7:22 pm

    But provide a good premise for a Monty Python skit.

  12. cm said,

    October 16, 2011 @ 4:33 pm

    A few years ago there was a lot of talk about whether Ireland would "say 'yes' to Maastricht". It was a problem because you can't actually translate this expression directly into Irish, since Irish has no word for "yes".

    You can't? Since the question to be answered by voters in an Irish referendum is given in both Irish and English versions, and since the alternative answers to the Irish version of the question are "Tá" (="Yes") and "Níl" (="No"), it is hard to see what difficulty there could possibly be in translating the expression you mention.

  13. Max Pinton said,

    October 22, 2011 @ 9:24 pm

    I can't believe no one has mentioned the atrocity of titles set in Comic Sans.

    Which segues nicely into my point, which is that specialists are never happy with how their specialty is portrayed on TV. I agree that it certainly could have been better, but surely it does more good having been made at all than not. If it sparks some interest in the topic, some googling will quickly fill in Fry's gaps/misapprehensions.

  14. Timothy Barton said,

    October 28, 2011 @ 12:27 pm

    On the whole I've found the programme very interesting. I take your point about the minority languages though. I was particularly annoyed with how Occitan was portrayed (especially as I speak a little bit of Occitan!). They interviewed the France 3 Occitan newsreader, who said some wishy-washy stuff about Occitan being more melodic and having nicer sounds. Whether a language sounds nice is very subjective.

    Regarding the odious chap at the Académie Française, I wish Stephen Fry had challenged his views. Since one of the main raisons d'être of the Académie is to protect the French language from the invasion of English, perhaps he could have challenged him by saying that if languages like Occitan and Breton should be abandoned in favour of French, shouldn't French be abandoned in favour of English. (I hope nobody misinterprets me. I don't think that should happen, but that's how I'd have challenged the Académie member he interviewed.)

  15. Timothy Barton said,

    October 28, 2011 @ 12:31 pm

    CM: "You can't? Since the question to be answered by voters in an Irish referendum is given in both Irish and English versions, and since the alternative answers to the Irish version of the question are "Tá" (="Yes") and "Níl" (="No"), it is hard to see what difficulty there could possibly be in translating the expression you mention."

    I'm no expert in Irish, but I suspect the words "Tá" and "Níl" mean "I do" and "I don't". There is no specific word for "yes" and "no". The translation varies depending on the context.

  16. Kevin said,

    November 17, 2011 @ 3:47 pm

    Just for the sake of completeness: "Tá" and "Níl" mean "(it) is" and "(it) isn't" respectively -using them as shorthands for "yes" and "no" seems to be a rather recent invention limited to formal voting/referenda out of simplicity (e.g. for the buttons of the electronic voting system in the Irish parliament which were presumably not fancy enough to dynamically display different verbs back when they were installed). In everyday speech it would be unusual to respond to a question other than by repeating the (properly conjugated) verb either affirmatively or negated.

    Unfortunately I have to agree with the review above, even though I sat through all five episodes – documentaries on linguistics are so rare that you have to appreciate it if anyone addresses the topic at all. I too was shattered by the completely out-of-context remark regarding agreeing with Chomsky though – it's not a good sign for the field if outsiders find it impossible to make a 1-hour episode on linguistics without having to throw in at least one random reference to the old man.

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