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.

We start with poet  Ian McMillan, giving us a rendition of the variety of accents within the county of Yorkshire and making the extraordinary claim (which might have been a joke, or might have been serious) that the Barnsley accent is the way it is because the cold wind keeps the people from opening their mouths too much.  But Fry the actor was not to be upstaged by a poet. He followed with an excruciatingly terrible attempt to mimic UK regional accents as he took us round a map of the British Isles, and even though he kept stressing that the voices of Belfast and Glasgow and Tyneside were all so beautiful and so wonderful and he did not want to insult anyone, his inept caricatures were clearly played for laughs. (He stopped himself in full Glaswegian voice to say that England was like a stew of accents, a comment which can’t have gone down very well in Scotland.) After Newcastle he gave up, presumably because his Birmingham, Norfolk, Cockney, Welsh, West Country etc. are too terrible even for his own show.

Next stop the United States, where Fry had tracked down a Sapir-Whorfian psychologist, Lera Boroditski, who believes that your language influences the way you think. This is a contentious position to say the least.  (If you want to read a pretty good discussion of it, see here ) Anyway, Fry does not know how to probe her argument. He plays along and allows her to state that Russian speakers express more collectivist ideas, and English speakers more individualistic ideas, without stopping to ask her what evidence she has for this, or to offer an opposing view. He ponders instead to himself whether a concept, such as ‘evil’, would vanish if you didn’t have a word for it, thereby making the classic error of supposing that languages operate through single words only. If any language lacks a word for the concept of ‘evil’, it certainly has a phrase for it.

Fry informs us airily that he agrees with Chomsky that all languages have the same basic structures. He implies that this is in opposition to a Sapir-Whorfian view, but he has been careful to hold that in until he has left Dr Boroditski’s office and is safely on the street again. He does not tell us anything about Chomsky’s position, nor why he thinks it’s a good one, nor why increasing numbers of linguists think it’s a very bad one. In a cocktail bar he reveals,

 My own, admittedly unscientific, research has led me to believe that some languages are simply intrinsically funnier than others.”

His research has also led him to the conclusion that the top funny language is Yiddish. To support this claim, he says that Jerry Seinfeld, Woody Allen and Larry David are brilliantly funny. And yes, they are. But they use English to tell jokes in so it’s hard to see what Yiddish has to do with it. I don’t think Fry himself noticed that he had switched from talking about language to talking about culture, even when he said that Yiddish is more a mindset than a language. So let’s get this straight: Yiddish is a language. And it is no more or less funny than the people who make jokes using it.

Yiddish being one of those many languages with an uncertain future, i.e. facing ‘linguicide’, Fry turns to the subject of other endangered languages, such as Irish. To delve into this, he goes to Connemara in the Republic of Ireland to ask fishermen and golfers for their opinions on their language. It’s beautiful and precious, they say, just as anyone would when asked such a question. We call jelly-fish ‘seal spit’, says the fisherman, giving an example of Irish. And Fry says how lovely and expressive. And it is lovely and expressive. But so is jelly–fish. So is cuckoo-spit, a lovely English way to describe the frothy sap that the froghopper beetle hides in. One of the golfers says that there are many ways in Irish to say, it’s raining, each depending on the person you are speaking to. English, he says, has only one way to do this. Perhaps out of politeness, or perhaps because he’s not thinking, Fry does not comment that English also has many ways to refer to the rain, and these too depend on circumstances. (It’s p***ing down.  Nice weather for ducks. It’s turned out wet again.) It’s all too easy for someone to have the opinion that his own language is superior to another in expression. But it’s never true.

It’s with the Irish school children that Fry is an especially poor investigator. He asks them a series of Yes/No questions about their use of Irish, (Do you regard yourselves as Irish speakers first? Yes!) and then discovers that they all use English for texting and Facebook. Fry concludes this is because English is the international language of online communication, but surely the only interpretation this will bear is that the children routinely use English with each other, and not Irish. That might be linguicidal, but all the while there is government money going into supporting the language, the prognosis is not terminal.

And so to San Sebastian in Spain to eat Basque food and talk to a chef about another endangered language, Basque. This part seemed to me mostly about cooking due to Fry’s belief that “The Basque language is in the DNA of Basque cookery and preparation techniques.  I have absolutely no idea what that could mean. Fry follows up with, “Cuisine and language may be so entwined because traditionally recipes were passed on by word of mouth,” another of his pronouncements which sound academic and weighty until you think about them for two seconds, and then they sound silly. Pretty much everything in a pre-literate culture had to be passed down by word of mouth.  (Did you know, he tells the chef in his irrepressible QI polymath mode, that the very first book printed in Basque was not till 1545! But as the first book printed in English was not till 1471, it’s perhaps not that surprising.)

Before Fry leaves to travel north into France, he asks a shepherd why Basque has survived when Cornish and Breton have not, a question that will surprise the 100,000 or so Breton native speakers alive today. The shepherd, of course, does not know why Basque has survived, but he offers his opinion that it is due to pride. Possibly so, but it might also have something to do with the mountainous remoteness of their country.

So we move on to the South of France in Fry’s car. (I knew he’d eventually get the cameraman in a car.) A singer tells us that Occitan has nicer sounds than French because it’s Mediterranean and Latin-based, two opinions that Fry could challenge as dotty in the way that Ian McMillan was dotty to think a Barnsley accent is shaped by cold wind, but I guess the point being made here, as in Spain, is that language is an important marker of who you think you are, and you will defend it as superior against all-comers with whatever ammunition you care to use, valid or not. I wish Fry had made that point plain, instead of appearing to be a speaker of a very powerful global language patting on the head these quaint people with really very lovely languages heading to extinction.

I enjoyed Fry’s trip to the Academie Française where an elderly academician put the case for the primacy of Standard French and Fry said next to nothing, and I also enjoyed the interview with the very fast-talking French rapper, where again Fry said little. The juxtaposition of these two faces of French, the conservative and the contemporary, needed no mediation.

There are two more stops on Fry’s Odyssey, Israel and Kenya, but I was too tired to pay close attention. The man can make an hour seem like two. But I thought the Israeli linguist, Ghil’ad Zuckerman, was very good on the subject of Hebrew, a language successfully resuscitated because it was needed to mark an identity. He was eloquent and informed as well as enthusiastic, and I wish Fry were more like him, or would interview more people like him. We ended our journey at Norwich Football Club, where Fry told us that we identify ourselves as members of tribes when we support a football team, and this is true, but I do not know how this relates to the use of language in England. If he had been at a Celtic-Rangers game, he could have made the point much better. Sectarian chanting is a famously strong and offensive identity marker there:

Perhaps Stephen Fry could do a programme on the physiology of the amazing, absolutely wonderful thing called the human digestive tract which is literally astonishing in that no matter who we are, we have this amazing ability to put all manner of food into our mouths and, hey presto, our digestive tract turns it into wonderful things like skin and hair and teeth, and yes, that other rather nasty stuff which we excrete, and it doesn’t matter where you go all over the world people are eating things and digesting them without ever really knowing how it’s done. And he could go all over the world and talk to all kinds of people about their amazing diets and ask them how they digest it all, and they would give him their opinions.


14 thoughts on “Planet Word, part two: Fry still struggling.

  1. "cuckoo-spit, a lovely English way to describe the frothy sap that the froghopper beetle hides in" I’m British, but in the USA. At work we have hand sanitizers outside the bathrooms that generate a frothy substance that is just like cuckoo-spit! A pleasant (?) reminder of home. BTW this may vaguely amuse you on the subject of cuckoo-spit:

  2. It seems that readers of the Economist preferred Boroditski’s argument over Mark Liberman’s by a ratio of 3-to-1. Either Mark wasn’t very convincing, or the readers know something he doesn’t.

  3. Yes, indeed. Or perhaps they didn’t take it all in. But I thought Liberman was pretty good at showing how small the language effect was in Boroditski’s results. "…..students at the Universidad de Chile were on average 4.4% worse at remembering accidental agents than intentional ones, while Stanford students were on average 1.9% better. Even to get this much of an effect, the event videos had to be carefully crafted to make the incidents and agents as bland and unmemorable as possible. Furthermore, in a follow-up experiment, the authors found that you can turn English speakers into Spanish speakers—for the purposes of this paradigm—by having them listen to 24 non-agentive sentences before the start of the experiment."As he comments, the later experiment showed that the effects of a lifetime of being a Spanish speaker can be cancelled out by a very short spell of listening to a list of sentences that are deliberately oriented in a non-Spanish way

  4. On Basque geography. There was a consensus that the Basque people were unusually isolated from wider population trends in Western Europe, accounting for significant differences in the physiological make up of the population eg blood group markers, together with a non Indo-European language. The geography of the region makes all that feasible, although it seems recent genetic studies are suggesting more mixing. Do you know what the current accepted position is on the language?

  5. Hi AdrianI’m afraid I don’t know much about Basque, so perhaps someone more knowledgeable will answer. But I do know that genetic mixing of people into the Basque population would not be an unusual thing. It would appear that the incomers adopted Basque as their language, like the Vikings adopted French once they settled in Normandy.The point which Stephen Fry did not make was that Basque has survived thousands of years while Indo-European languages swarmed around it. That’s quite a story

  6. What about the irony that the basque chef translated what Fry was saying in English into Spanish for her father! The language isn’t going that well for a number of reasons, including linguistic oppression under Franco but Fry could at least have found us an actual Euskadi speaker to listen to.

  7. Am puzzled by Boroditsky’s feminine and masculine keys and bridges and what difference this could possibly make to how one thinks. French, Spanish, Portuguese and Greek all have slang terms for the male member that are grammatically feminine, so would we expect speakers of these languages, if asked to entertain the notion of a talking willie, to give it a lady’s voice? I’m missing the point. Obviously.

  8. Hi Steve,What a wonderful research idea! Not sure how I would get it past the Ethics Committee, but maybe someone somewhere will try to do it and get it published

  9. <html dir="ltr"> <head> <meta http-equiv="Content-Type" content="text/html; charset=iso-8859-1"> <style id="owaParaStyle">P {
    MARGIN-TOP: 0px; MARGIN-BOTTOM: 0px } </style> </head> <body fPStyle="1" ocsi="0"> <div style="direction: ltr;font-family: Times New Roman;color: #000000;font-size: 12pt;"> <p>&nbsp;</p> <div> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <div style="FONT-FAMILY: Tahoma; FONT-SIZE: 13px"><font size="3" face="Times New Roman"> <p>&nbsp;One problem&nbsp; really is the historical labelling of&nbsp;noun classes as masculine or feminine, rather than class&nbsp;1 or class 2, class A&nbsp;or class B or class C. </p> </font></div> </div> <div style="FONT-FAMILY: Times New Roman; COLOR: #000000; FONT-SIZE: 16px"> <div></div> <div> <div style="LINE-HEIGHT: 18px; WIDTH: 600px; FONT-FAMILY: Arial,Helvetica,sans-serif; FONT-SIZE: 12px" class="PosterousEmail"></div></div></div></div></body></html>

  10. Do these classes exist, or is this just something you’re recommending? And if they do exist, what are the classifications based on, if not masculine-feminine?

  11. Joe: in European languages at least, the classification is based on sound patterns in words,derivation from parent languages, and on convention. Not all speakers of French and German are consistent in their assignment of gender to the nouns of their own language. In Albanian, lots of words change gender from masculine to feminine in the plural, so it’s convention rather than gender reassignment surgery. German diminutives automatically become neuter, what / who ever the referent, and in Greek, agori (boy) and koritsi (girl) are grammatically neuter. If you want to say ‘who’s a good little girl!’ in Greek, you say ‘pios einai kalo koritsaki!’ where pios (who) is masculine, ‘kalo koritsaki’ (good girl) is neuter, and the referent feminine! In French, the terms bite, verge and queue are all feminine terms for the male member, and… Well, you get the idea.

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