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Planet World

“Words are all we have.” So began Stephen Fry’s article for the Radio Times. In his case, he attributes his particular skill with words is compensation for his lack of prowess in the arenas of music, mathematics and sports. But, as always, he is far too modest. I subscribe to the rule that says 10,000 hours of practise is required to become skilled in any area, although what greater pleasure can there be in practising than reading? And so to a series dedicated to the celebration of the discovery of language. About time.

I was delighted to see Fry in conversation with Steven Pinker, Professor in the Department of Psychology at Havard. His book, The Stuff of Thought, has been sitting on my bookshelf for many years, a constant source of inspiration since I read his description of the paradox – how children seen to learn the unlearnable: the acquisition of language. “To become so fluent in a language, children must have analyzed the speech around them, not just memorized it. We see this clearly when children say things that sound wrong to adult ears but reveal acute hypotheses about how the ingredients of language may combine. When children make errors like “All the animals are wake-upped,” “Don’t tickle me: I’m laughable, or “Mommy, why did he dis it appear?” they could not have been imitating their parents. They must have extracted the equivalent of grammatical rules that add suffixes to words and arrange verbs and particles in phrases.”

What the two Stephens/Stevens share is an enormous curiosity that enables them to see the extraordinary in the seemingly ordinary. It is almost exhausting to the jaded observer. The effect of being transported from an African village to Ruby’s English home and back to America left me feeling a little jet-lagged and demonstrates the problem of trying to cover such a challenging subject in a six hour-long episodes; or, perhaps, the current trend in documentary-making that requires the presenter to visit far-flung corners of the earth in order to demonstrate that language is a world-wide phenomena (we get that, by the way). It was touching to see Fry tell a child, who couldn’t possibly have understood him, that he was a miracle. But, if anything, as Bruce Parry has done so sucessfully, it only served to demonstrate how sucessfully we humans can communicate without language, how far a smile or a hug will get you. As ever, it was a delight to see Mr Fry in action (especially the old clips from Fry and Laurie). I know this is television, but, in a series that is all about words, it might have been interesting to rely less on imagery.

Jane watched Fry’s Planet Word, Sundays 9.00pm, BBC2

Jane recommends The Stuff of Thought by Stephen Pinker.