Right brain, left brain, hare-brain. Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks tries and fails to unite language, thought and religion.


I have found it difficult to know where to begin with Jonathan Sack’s extraordinary mangling of linguistics on Start the Week (BBC Radio Four, October 17th 2011) available here –   http://tinyurl.com/6xkv25f  –at least for a while, then maybe you will need to search the BBC archives. The Rabbi has written a book, The Great Partnership: God, Science and the Search for Meaning, and was on the national airwaves to promote it. He began with what inspired him to take on this subject. His ‘moment of discovery’ came, he says, when he realised that all languages that do not include symbols for vowels in their alphabets, (such as Hebrew) take a right to left path across the page. Languages written in an alphabet that does include symbols for vowels (such as Greek) go from left to right.

This, he says, is evidence of a fundamental difference: there are right-brained languages (Hebrew) and left-brained ones (Greek and all other European languages). Sacks claims that the Chinese, who write from top to bottom have ‘triangulated this difference’, ignoring thereby the rather obvious fact that Chinese script is not alphabetic, so has symbols for neither vowels nor consonants. Continue reading


Planet Word, part two: Fry still struggling.


I don’t know who coined the term linguicide, but it does not seem apt to me, any more than the death of George VI could be called regicide. His Majesty passed away after a long illness, rather than got his head chopped off, and this is surely a better analogy for what is happening to the vast majority of the world’s languages. Some are being actively —even violently—persecuted, but most are ill and slipping away with their elderly speakers. A very moving book on this subject is Nicholas Evans’ Dying Words. This could have guided Stephen Fry to any number of languages that are down to their very last few speakers, but the tone of this would not lend itself much to humour, and humour is again central to Fry’s topic in week two of Planet Word: the relationship of a person’s language to a person’s identity. Continue reading

Fry’s Planet Word: Too much Fry, not enough Word, Planet not necessary.


It is a truth universally acknowledged by documentary makers that you must talk to camera a lot, especially while walking towards it or driving with it along a highway somewhere. It is essential to visit many parts of the globe to find answers to questions, while staring dreamily over a beach or cityscape. If you think the subject matter might be getting complex for your audience, try making it into a comedy.  It’s entertaining also to have a few actors dress up to enact an historical scene, and it’s always good to pose unchallenging questions to a few real experts on the topic, safe in the knowledge that you need not follow through with anything but a fascinated nod. 

In episode one of his documentary series, Stephen Fry does not take the cameraman for a ride in his car, but he employs all the other conventions. He does the talking to camera as he walks through forest, along beach and down street. He stares into space. He shows us TV clips from long ago of his face doing wordy comedy sketches. He has actors in eighteenth century costumes with candles. He flies himself and crew to East Africa, to Germany, to the United States in order to give us bits of linguists Jean Berko, Steven Pinker, Michael Tomasello…..  All the basic documentary items are here, but Fry does not succeed in putting them into a coherent whole. If there was a thread of an argument running through this show, I was not able to pick it up. Continue reading