Stephen Fry turns his gi­ant in­tel­lect to lan­guage and how it makes us hu­man first watch

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Television - Graeme Blun­dell

‘ IPER­SON­ALLY think we de­vel­oped lan­guage be­cause of our deep need to com­plain,’’ co­me­dian Lily Tom­lin once said. Stephen Fry would surely give her points for wry­ness if she were a pan­el­list on his chatty ab­sur­dist game show QI, bat­tling to get a word in among the other comics. I’m sure too he would im­me­di­ately re­tort with an epiphany on the evo­lu­tion of hu­man speech and how it has helped us progress as a species.

Which is what he does at much greater length in this in­tel­li­gent, wordy — could it be any­thing else? — and some­times provoca­tive doc­u­men­tary se­ries about the ex­plo­ration of lan­guage in all its forms, Fry’s Planet Word.

It starts with a mo­ment that looks like one of those fa­mous tele­vi­sion se­quences, now called the CSI shot, where we watch as a bul­let spi­rals out of the bar­rel of a gun, shreds a hole through the vic­tim’s shirt, burns through the skin, dev­as­tates cap­il­lar­ies and pierces the heart. But, no, the lens takes us in­side Fry’s meaty oe­soph­a­gus to il­lus­trate how we say the word ‘‘ hello’’ us­ing 70 mus­cles and a half-mil­lion brain cells.

It rises, pro­pelled by that ac­tor’s mighty di­aphragm, jet­ting lustily past the vo­cal chords, ex­pelled dex­ter­ously from lips that never seem to tire of talk­ing. As he says, the mo­ment is just one ev­ery­day de­tail in the in­ven­tory of the com­plex­ity of hu­man speech.

Then he’s off, tak­ing us on a be­gin­ner’s guide to the cu­riosi­ties of lin­guis­tics and the com­plex tale of the evo­lu­tion of hu­man speech, from the first words ut­tered to the al­most in­com­pre­hen­si­ble cy­ber world of html, codes, Twit­ter and tex­ting. It’s about lan­guage, he says with an al­most Dick­en­sian rel­ish, the cupid bow lips smack­ing out the words, ‘‘ in all its amaz­ing com­plex­ity, va­ri­ety and in­ge­nu­ity; how we learn it, write it, some­times lose it; how it de­fines us’’.

His ar­gu­ment is that we are con­nected by a fil­a­ment of lan­guage that stretches from some­where in­side his brain to some­where in­side ours. He ex­plained, dis­cussing the se­ries re­cently for Bri­tain’s Ra­dio Times: ‘‘ There are so many cog­ni­tive and cere­bral pro­cesses in­volved sim­ply in the act of my writ­ing and your read­ing these words that not all the massed ranks of bi­ol­ogy, ge­net­ics, lin­guis­tics, neu­rol­ogy, com­pu­ta­tional sci­ence or phi­los­o­phy can prop­erly de­scribe, let alone un­der­stand or ex­plain, how it all works.’’ And in his se­ries he trav­els the globe de­ter­mined to elu­ci­date how lan­guage ac­tu­ally works, how it con­nects us, makes us laugh and cry and some­times tear our hair out, and so of­ten in­spires.

He sets up his the­sis at the start of the first episode, Ba­bel, in a rather El­iz­a­bethan er­alook­ing oak-pan­elled study, sur­rounded by quill pens, a live nod­ding par­rot and what ap­pears to be a glossy pa­per­back copy of Machi­avelli on the ta­ble be­fore him. (Words de­ceive, too?)

Be­fore long he’s me­an­der­ing jovially among the Turkana peo­ple of dusty ru­ral Kenya, near where we first evolved from grunts and growls to the nov­els of Pa­trick White and the wordy out­bursts of Kanye West. The Turkana wan­der­ers, he re­veals, de­vel­oped a lan­guage sur­pris­ingly sim­i­lar to English, with cor­re­spond­ing rules and con­ven­tions and which their chil­dren pick up at about the age of two. Like us, they

Ac­tor, co­me­dian and TV pre­sen­ter Stephen Fry in Fry’s Planet World

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