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