Stephen Fry: tried hard but could have done better

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On Radio Four at 8.30 a.m. on September 26th, Stephen Fry stepped up to plug his new BBC TV series and book, entitled Fry’s Planet Word.

Already I’m disposed to dislike it, even before he has spoken one syllable. It’s the title. Why is his name in it? Why did he call his radio show Fry’s English Delight? How come physics gets TV documentaries presented by physicists (Brian Cox), history gets historians (Lucy Worsley), medicine gets doctors (Michael Mosley),  and music gets people who are musically trained to some degree (Simon Russell Beal, Gareth Malone), while anything to do with language tends to get presenters who are famous for other stuff? *

The interview, if we can call it that, is available to listen to for one week on the BBC Today programme website , but then it will vanish. So I reproduce his main points.

No linguists believe that language is ever stable.

People are wrong to hate Americanisms as imported words enrich the language like imported food enriches the cuisine.

Words are freighted and must be used with care by journalists; ‘ to claim’ is not the same as ‘to state’.

Well, yes, OK so far, but then Fry gets loose from his crib notes and improvises dangerously. He says that BBC bulletins could be improved by using different words to the ones their journalists normally employ, in order to ‘concentrate on what is going on’, and he repeats at almost unintelligible speed a 6.30 a.m. bulletin on the Labour Party conference to arrive breathless at his real objective, which is to deliver a pun: “Two Eds are better than one.” (For non-UK readers, this is a reference to opposition politicians Ed Balls and Ed Miliband, but never mind if you fail to get its relevance to the discussion because there is none.)

After a pause for the necessary laugh from his audience of journalists in the studio, off he goes again. This time he whizzes through the 6.30 bulletin on the proposal in Northern Ireland to reduce the drink-drive limit “from 2.7 fl oz to 1.69 fl oz” Pause. “That’s what would happen if language stayed the same!!…. I think we can agree that what (we are) talking about here is 15 Milibands per 100 Milibands!

So Fry’s objective was another pun, and perhaps an even worse one.  He asserts that this kind of thing gets people’s ears ‘to cock’, and implies that Radio Four listeners won’t give their proper attention to the news unless there is some verbal play involved. The punster is showing us his skills in this department, but he surely can’t be making a serious point.

Fry pushes on with a pretty sound account of the astonishing speed and accuracy of our real-time encoding and decoding of language, during which I cannot help noticing that the importance of capturing attention through language play gets no mention. “Language” he concludes “is totally under-estimated!”  Yes, I’d agree. It’s a shame though that this is exactly what he has just done in claiming that we pay more attention when there is a zany punch line.

From here on Fry comes unstuck completely from his crib notes, which is the danger in having a non-specialist hold forth on a subject he has a limited grasp of.

“Communication, it seems to me, like when you learn a language at school as opposed to acquiring it like a normal (sic) person. You come across things like tenses, future, past, and you don’t really think about them but actually without this extraordinary thing in language called tense, we couldn’t have got anywhere, because tense allows you to say what you will do tomorrow or the day after tomorrow…. to remember that thing which we saw yesterday, three sunsets ago, let’s meet here in four sunsets’ time. That’s immediately a plan and it’s an enormous saving on calories which is what nature is all about. Instead of having to improvise, like a wolf pack, by instinct, you can set out a plan and implement it. ..It underwrites everything in our civilisation.”

Now it is true that the spoken language does not involve syntactically complete utterances all the time, or even much of the time, and it is true that speaking extemporaneously to an audience of millions is stressful and can cause your thoughts to fail to be encoded coherently in language. Even so, you would have to conclude that what Stephen Fry is saying here is a great big jumble of half-understood bits of information about language acquisition, language structure and language evolution. This is my version of what a better informed Stephen Fry might have said:   

            ● People can acquire language as babies, or learn them later as adults. The difference is that the former process is largely implicit and unconscious, while the latter is largely explicit and conscious.

            ● Explicit language learning can make a learner conscious of a language feature like tense which he or she may never have thought about before, despite using it effortlessly from babyhood.

            ● But many languages (such as Mandarin) have no verb tense features at all. They rely on adverbials such as yesterday or tomorrow or in four sunsets’ time. This is not tense; it is another way of marking past and future time.

            ● Humans are able to conceive of times and places other than the here and the now, and can encode these in language in various ways (i.e. not just through tense.) This allows groups of humans to talk together about the past and future and unseen things, and to make plans accordingly.

● This attribute of human language, known as displacement, does not allow calorie-saving per se, because complex information processing requires a big brain and big brains require a lot of calories to run.  It does however mean that humans can plan together to hunt very large prey, and this in the end produces more food for less effort. One large mammoth kill is better calorie value than chasing hundreds of squirrels. Even so, this is not ‘what nature is all about’. Ask any blue whale.

●Civilisation does not rest so much upon language, as upon written language. For most of our history, humans were in small hunter-gatherer communities where spoken language was all that was needed to keep things ticking over nicely. Civilisation meant farming, land-ownership, trade, laws, genealogies, account keeping, all sorts of stuff.  Ultimately, recording it all somewhere more permanent than air became essential.

 

I don’t think anyone who makes a TV series and writes a book on the nature of language should be on the airwaves making such a mess of explaining its essence. I don’t think anyone in that position should feel it necessary to make silly puns to sell the show. The subject matter — language—is interesting in itself and should be able to sell itself if presented by someone familiar with its complexity and able to convey it securely and eloquently to an audience who might know very little and want to know more.  Fry’s personality just won’t step back and let the topic take the limelight. Just as in his annoying radio show, Fry’s English Delight, the most important thing was Fry with his whimsy sound effects and silly voices.  “Quick,  another pun or my audience will slip away to a different channel!”

I will watch Fry’s Planet Word on BBC i-Player so that I can take it in small bites, hoping that he will stay modestly behind the camera as much as possible. And yet, I doubt he will be able to resist playing the whimsical polymath that he likes to appear to be on Q.I.   He is to linguistics what Johnny Morris was to zoology, when what we need, please, is a David Attenborough.

 

If you are not old enough or British enough to remember Johnny Morris, you can catch a lot of his Zoo Time stuff on YouTube, (where you can also get a taste of Fry on Q.I.)

 

* I must give honourable mention to Jonathan Miller who presented a four-part documentary in 1990 called Born Talking: A personal enquiry into language.  He’s not a linguist but at least a medical doctor who was able to understand and present a very well considered exploration of the topic of language acquisition

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8 thoughts on “Stephen Fry: tried hard but could have done better

  1. Well said. The problem with people like Fry is that they’re more concerned with presenting themselves than their topic. Pity they didn’t get David Crystal. I believe it’s something he would like to do.

  2. Not only does Mandarin have no verb tenses (if you say so, my own knowledge of Mandarin pretty much nonexistent), English doesn’t use tenses to distinguish between present and future, so they’re very clearly not needed to say what we will do tomorrow or the day after.

  3. True indeed. English has two tenses only, other languages have none. Stephen Fry was not making the necessary distinction between time and tense. I think by tense he really meant time, which is a cognitive rather than linguistic matter.

  4. Oh dear. And there was me hoping that someone in the field of physics would make a better fist of a documentary about the universe than someone who just rather fancies the subject. Too bad Prof Cox didn’t shine, but at least it wasn’t Stephen Fry. I am assured by a colleague here that the BBC assumes its main audiences are a bit short on education and attention span, so a high profile presenter is more important than anything else.

  5. That was a very nice restatement of what Fry might have or should have said. One quibble, though, with the idea that (child) first language acquisition is implicit and unconscious while (adult) second language acquisition is explicit and conscious. Explicit and conscious describe language learning, or gaining knowledge about language – much like what a linguist does. Acquiring a second language, developing automatic and fluent use of a language after childhood, is also an implicit and unconscious process. There’s a lot of debate in the field about whether "learned" language can become "acquired" language, but it’s pretty clear that people who use a second language proficiently are not thinking of it consiously when they do so.

  6. May I quibble back on this last point? There is no doubt that much of second language acquisition is conscious, explicit and deliberate. It’s very difficult to imagine any adult getting anywhere in a second language without conscious reflection and deliberate effort. This does not mean that all second language knowledge is gained through this route, nor does it mean that consciously and deliberately gained knowledge cannot become, through repeated practice, fluently and automatically accessible. Yes, there is debate in the field about the two routes to knowledge and whether there is any interface, but I have never seen any convincing evidence that the two are always separate. Krashen, whom I suppose you are referring to, was just speculating on this score. It’s very clear to me that consciously acquired knowledge can be automatized in language as in everything else, and my point remains that the route to second language knowledge is largely, though not entirely, conscious, explicit and deliberate.

  7. An excellent post, except for one minor point: the radio show was clearly titled as a play on pink-packeted confectionery classic Fry’s Turkish Delight.So far as I know, J.S. Fry never marketed a bar called "Planet Word".

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