University of Sussex Students' Newspaper

On the small screen: Fry's Planet Word

The Badger

ByThe Badger

Oct 17, 2011

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Sunday nights have got considerably more exciting for linguists at Sussex, as ‘Fry’s Planet Word’ hits our screens on BBC 2. Even if you’re not a linguist, you may have wondered at some point about why children learn to talk so fast, yet you still can’t have a decent conversation with your dog. No? Well, in the first episode of ‘Fry’s Planet Word’, we meet a father who brought his son up to speak Klingon and some mice who might give us a clue as to whether animals can be genetically mutated to ‘talk’.

In the second episode, he discusses fiercely debated issues such as: Why do call centres seem to consist almost entirely of Geordies (Think Student Finance hotline)?  On a more serious note, Fry ponders why some languages are dying out when others seem to grow exponentially. In the third episode, he discusses why you aren’t to blame for accidentally using swear words (cue MRI scans and a lot of brain jargon) and how they can actually relieve pain. Brian Blessed, Stephen K Amos and Omid Djalili are just a few of the famous faces you can expect to see in this episode. In fact, all the episodes seem to use unnecessary ‘experts’, and while this is needed to a certain degree, I can’t help thinking that my license fee could be better spent on more linguists and scientists than comedians and television producers.

As a third year English Language student, I am in two minds about the show because while I admire Stephen Fry and all his eloquence, I have to wonder how qualified he is to talk about language in an analytical way. Yes, he obviously is a comic genius, as shown by the success of ‘Blackadder’ and ‘QI’, and I have no doubt that this documentary series will also be a success. How can it not be when he has a Twitter following of over three million? But Fry is not a expert when it comes to studying language, which in my opinion makes him an odd choice for a programme focusing on exactly that.

After the first episode was aired on 25th of September he tweeted: ‘Thanks to those who liked #planetword. Hard to tread line between the over-technical or the tedious. But UK audience is smarter than ppl think’. Well,  thanks Stephen for giving us the benefit of the doubt. Thanks for the entertaining, if piecemeal, look into the world of language – I’m sure there are more (quite) interesting facts to come. Episode four is on this Sunday (at 9pm if you’re intrigued), exploring ancient and futuristic forms of communication. Even as someone foolish enough to take a degree in the subject, I can’t see myself cancelling any plans to watch this. However, if you’re looking for an introductory glance into several facets of language it is ideal – although, be warned, this barely scratches the surface!

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