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.

It all took an hour, and despite Fry’s constant high-pitched excitement about how absolutely amazing and wonderful a subject language is, he managed to make it slow and rather dull. If it had gone to an applied linguist at the planning stage, a little more linguistic backbone could have been shoved into it, and a lot of padding could have been removed, thus saving a pile of money without compromising its entertainment value. Here would be my suggested changes to Mr Fry:

Get rid of the embarrassing and pointless re-enactment of the story of Victor the Wild Boy of Aveyron. (By the way, where did your Victor get his clothing from? Did he knit it himself from moss?) No-one knows enough about the circumstances of this boy’s life before or after discovery for his case to have any bearing on theories of language.  And you have got it absolutely wrong to say that Victor’s case suggests that languages are ‘not genetic’ but have to be learned. The two things are not in opposition. Human language is clearly a genetic inheritance, but its structures have to be learned from the environment. If a child does not hear a language, it will never speak one. Isolated children are interesting in this regard, and if you want a story of a modern language-less child, you could just ask Steven Pinker to describe one for you (Genie, Isabel or Chelsea) and save loads of time and actors’ fees thereby.

 Get rid of your youthful TV sketches. Insert Rowan Atkinson as Gerald the Gorilla.  This is much more germane to your topic.  Get rid also of the chimp tea party adverts. The only interesting thing about these is that the actors doing the chimp voice-overs use working-class London accents, and you don’t wonder why. A wonderful illustration of the bizarre human fascination with teaching apes to use language is Koko the gorilla (, and her trainer Francine Patterson would probably love to be on your programme.

While on the subject of primates and language, it’s a big mistake for you to say that monkeys have ‘a whole grammar of hoots and howls and calls’. Whatever vocalisations they use, there is not a speck of evidence that there is any grammar in them. Michael Tomasello is indeed a great person to ask about this, so why not stay with him on this interesting subject a bit longer? Why move him on to the subject of language evolution? All this stuff about ancient climate change and co-ordinated planning being necessary for hunting bigger game, then humans having more babies because they were eating more calories, and having time off for developing stories….. it’s just guesswork. So say so.

 Tomasello is so much better and stronger on language development in children. You should use him for this part of your show. He can talk eloquently about why he feels the evidence is pretty clear that there is no genetically endowed grammar, and then you might be able tie this in with Pinker’s insistence that there is an ‘innate gift of grammar.’  You don’t need to take this debate on, but you could at least show that it’s far from over.

The FOXP2 gene stuff is interesting. There is indeed a mutation on this gene that stops language from developing properly in the people who have inherited it, but why show us mice who have been given human FOXP2? OK, they squeak a tiny bit differently from unmodified mice. So what? Couldn’t you stay with humans and show us what effect a mutated FOXP2 gene has on their language? Wouldn’t that be an easier point to make? This research is done in the UK, so you wouldn’t have to go far for that.

I bet that MRI scan cost a bit. So why did we not see anything of what you had to do while in the scanner, and why did we not see anything up close of your own brain images? You might as well have saved the money and just looked at scans of someone else, perhaps someone with brain damage that affects their language. This would have also saved you the trouble of interviewing Robert McCrum whose right-hemisphere stroke, while obviously a terrible experience, did not knock out his language. Could you have found someone whose language is compromised by brain damage and whose brain did not ‘re-wire’ itself? (This, by the way, does not happen as a matter of course, which you seem to suggest.)

Jean Berko and the children doing the WUG test is just wonderful. I think it’s the best bit of your programme. What I don’t understand is why you thought you would follow a London child’s language progress for a year when you clearly didn’t know what to look for. You could have tried two WUG tests a year apart on the same child. You could have filmed a mother and child looking a picture book, and gone back a year later to do the same book and same child. You could easily have shown the huge difference in the child’s language. Instead you use random bits of film of Ruby at 15 months and Ruby at 24 months with a loud hailer, and all we can tell is that she is louder and chattier, but we can’t make out what she is talking about so we couldn’t say what language changes have occurred. You really missed a trick there.

And you missed another trick with the deaf signers. Yes, it’s important to ask, “Can we call this language?” But you don’t answer it very well.  Don’t just explore signs for nouns; that’s vocabulary. Ask your deaf signers about the grammar of past tenses, or plurals, or wishes. Get them to show you the difference in sign between I carry an umbrella and I was carrying an umbrella and I wish I had been carrying an umbrella. Could you find us a deaf child who is acquiring sign language? Could you get her to tell you a story from a picture book?  Maybe the same book you might have used with the other hearing children? Now compare that with ‘signing’ apes like Koko. Brilliant stuff.

As for the ‘primary language of humans’, I assume you mean the original one. But this is long gone and has left no trace that anyone will ever be able to find. So stop right there and save yourself the trip to Germany to talk to the Grimm’s Law specialist about proto-Indo-European, because this language didn’t emerge until perhaps 100,000 years after the first human language had vanished with the first humans. Save yourself also the trip to the UN in New York. Yes, it has two working languages and six official languages, and yes, that makes life tricky sometimes for the organisation, but you don’t need to cross the Atlantic to find that out. It’s pointless also to wonder if we could save ourselves a lot of trouble by having only one world language (please drop the Klingon joke) that everyone would use. If you know anything at all about language you know that it fractures into dialects at the first opportunity.

Finally, why East Africa? It’s true that groups of early modern humans passed through here on their way to inhabit the rest of the earth, but the languages spoken in East Africa now are no more like ancient human languages than any other modern language is. Sitting there amongst these colourfully dressed tribal people, you could give the impression, totally unintended I am sure, that their language is connected to something primitive. There are no primitive languages on the planet. If you want to be filmed talking to people who have a very different language from English, you can find plenty of them in London. No need to spend any money going to Africa or anywhere else. 

 There, rather a lot to take in.  I am not sure if I’ll be watching the other programmes in the series. If I do, I’ll post some feedback

(On the subject of documentaries following the same pattern book, have a look at this parody by the brilliant  Dead Ringers: ) 


13 thoughts on “Fry’s Planet Word: Too much Fry, not enough Word, Planet not necessary.

  1. Hi Pauline, found your blog through Language Log. It’s been added to my RSS feed.Thank you for so eloquently articulating the reason behind my discontent with this show. I love Stephen Fry but I really think that as an actor he should stick to acting and leave the linguistics to linguists.

  2. In addition to this problems, it implied that sign languages were invented in 1760 (which was just when French Sign Language was codified; in fact signed languages seem to have existed for as long as spoken languages, although some theories propose one or other came first). And also there was a brief implication that the critical window for L1 acquisition closed at around puberty, when it actually closes far earlier (maybe 4?) although of course the exact age is debated. Errors aside, however, I don’t think the documentary was particularly bad – it touched on a good deal of key introductory areas, and sadly filler is par for the course in documentaries today, so that’s just a trapping of the genre.

  3. An impressive fisking of episode 1. I can agree with all this (and Manuela Rocchi’s critique of episode 2 at Language Log (, whilst at the same time being glad the series exists and willing to tolerate its many flaws – some of which I wouldn’t have been aware of but for you, so do please stick with it so that I can, in turn, ensure my own students are getting the gaps filled and the errors corrected.I think almost any TV programme aimed at a general audience is pretty much bound to disappoint experts in its field even if the presenter is him/herself an expert (as the comment re. Brian Cox under your last post suggests). However, at least Stephen Fry has the clout to engage people with a topic that is woefully under-represented. See, for example, this list: – only one of them is on language, and that’s in the History section, and also presented by someone who is not an academic in the field.If you do a twitter search for the hashtag #frysplanetword, the responses are overwhelmingly positive. It might be a little frustrating that some of what these people are getting is trivialised, distorted and lacking coherence, but I still think – despite the missed opportunities – that it’s a big step-forward from the yawning void that was serious-but-popular coverage of language before this came along.

  4. Actually,the yawning void is not quite so yawning. There was a pretty good documentary on language just two years ago, and it’s there on the science section compiled by http:// It’s called Why Do We Talk? I would much rather show that to my students than the Stephen Fry job.(I see that the one in the History section of the documentary list is Melvyn Bragg’s take on the History of English, which is about as bad as his book.)

  5. Apologies: I missed the Horizon programme in that list. I’ve seen it, and used it with students. Having said that, ‘just’ two years ago is quite a long time, given that decent material on history, literature, and much science can be found almost continuously even on the terrestrial channels. The fact that you only spotted one other language programme in the hundreds on that list reinforces the point that documentaries on language are pretty rare, and it was ‘Horizon’ so is aimed at a much narrower niche than Fry’s programme.I’m not showing ‘Planet Word’ to my students: I’m interested in it primarily because many of them are watching it of their own volition because it’s Stephen Fry. (Very few would watch Horizon or the like without being made to.) This then gives me an opportunity to discuss precisely the flaws and controversies that you and Manuela Rocchi have pointed out. That’s a step forward in my book, however faltering.

  6. Did Fry say Danish is nothing like English at some point? I couldn’t believe he could say this. Do you recall him saying that?

  7. yes The killing showed me that too, I wondered if there was any northern – southern distinction here in terms of word usage and syntax. The intonation, words and syntax are much more similar for me to understand and than French for myself. Hence my surprise I ondered if this was Fry’s ‘Anglian’ ‘southern’ Oxford ear?

  8. Due to stupidly messsing up the formatting in my reply to David’s first comment earlier, I have had to delete it. It read thus:"I can’t say I did hear Fry say that on his programme, but it would not surprise me at all.Can anyone else enlighten us? Having watched with close attention both series of The Killing and series one of Borgen, I have discovered how very close Danish is to pre- Great Vowel Shift English."In answer to David’s second post here, about Fry being on the south side of a north-south divide in his inability to see the relationship between Danish and English. again, I could not say but it would not surprise me too much.For me, the problem with an English ear failing to detect anything familiar in Danish is thecombination of long vowels being lower, and the consonants becoming glottal stops.

  9. "the combination of long vowels being lower, and the consonants becoming glottal stops."Which makes it a beautiful language to sing.Anyone here familiar with the operas or art songs of Carl Nielsen?And, hey, Pauline – how about updating your blog? 😉

  10. yes, Joe, you are right. I have been totally neglecting this blog. My day job has been all-consuming for months and there is now a small pile of potential badlinguistics items sitting in a corner waiting for me to turn my attention to them. I’ll unlock the flood gates soon, promise.

  11. I’ve always liked Fry and his comedy, but this doc was a disappointment. I like how often Fry reminded me that language is "amazing" and "wonderful" and that I should be in awe and utter appreciation. I am supposed to be inspired because i am told to? Can you amaze someone by simply telling them that they should be amazed? I’m sorry, but I don’t share Fry’s enthralment by simply being told to.

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