Tuesday, 4 October 2011

Shallow Fry

Heh. The post title is a reference to Stephen Fry, so I will now probably receive hate mail for daring to criticise the sainted National Treasure. In his defence, before we start, he didn't write Fry's Planet Word, but he did put his name to it so he has to answer for it.

The programme mentioned above is a BBC2 series currently running, on language. The second episode is the one linked to above, and the first episode is here. I think the first episode was better, actually, but both have the same good and bad points. I'll begin with what's good about these programmes.

First, it's just great to have programmes about language on the telly. It's even about linguistics in some places, and he does occasionally talk to real linguists in it (for instance, Lera Boroditsky gets quite a long segment in the second programme, and in the first Jean Berko Gleason got to show us her wugs). Fry is completely enthusiastic about the subject, and this comes across well. This makes it a very watchable programme, as he is so obviously enjoying learning this stuff and taking us along with him.

And most importantly for a programme of this sort, what he is telling us is all true. This fact is easily underestimated, but it's very unusual for there not to be any myths or simple misrepresentations in a series on language. Fry has himself been guilty of this in some of his radio programmes. He veered close to disaster when he mentioned the hundred Eskimo words for snow, and then pulled away from the cliff edge at the last moment by telling us that "sadly", it isn't true.

However, the things he learns are presented as incontrovertible fact, which might be misleading, if not actually wrong. For example, Boroditsky's research was explained in a way that seemed pretty accurate to me (and as she was actually there doing the explaining, I imagine it was correct). But then it was just a case of saying "Oh wow" and moving on, rather than asking any questions about methodology which would have actually strengthened the case, as it seems sound from what I know of it. It was the stuff about how German speakers describe bridges in a feminine way and Spanish speakers describe bridges with masculine attributes, due to the grammatical gender bridge has in each language.

And then after this, he says something about language influencing how we think, and that's fascinating, but "I subscribe to the Chomskyan notion that all language is structurally the same". Well, yeah, but that's a whole other point, and nothing to do with the effect language has on our perception of the attributes of bridges. Then rather than explore this point that he's just introduced, he for some reason plays snooker with Yiddish comedians. Later in the episode, we see him at a football match, and there is no linguistic point made at all - he's just yelling incoherently, and it feels like it was just put in because the viewers would like to see Fry at a football match.

Overall, it's a bit disappointing. Both my partner and mother said that they didn't learn anything new from it, and considering that neither of them is a linguist, that's indicates that the topic isn't being treated in enough depth. Well, it's a BBC2 documentary fronted by Stephen Fry - this is what the Beeb thinks we want, I suppose. The interested viewer will just have to hang on for my three-part BBC4 documentary on the structure of language.

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