Stephen Fry and English – Words Are How the World Works


A suitable setting for a wordsmith of outstanding ability

“If one could only teach the English how to talk, and the Irish how to listen, society here would be quite civilized’ said Irish born London based writer and poet Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde (1854 – 1900) when he was 28 years of age and already a cultural icon.

Speaking English is like being on a constantly changing journey, one you have to experience first hand, while moving through time and space.

It’s a mystery, mostly to the people who speak it, certainly for those who are trying to learn it and, for those desperately trying to understand and comprehend its many complexities.

As a language it is reputedly the hardest for other language speakers in the world to learn, understand and embrace, a creative cocktail of social history, literature and linguistics. It is all about tone, shape, style and context, as well as construction.

Stephen-Fry-WebThe television series Stephen Fry’s Planet Word, when it was released in 2011 was billed as a round-the-world trip of a lifetime. Television director and writer John-Paul Davidson had the witty British actor and television presenter Stephen Fry offering the diversity and delight of a wonderful world of words, wooing people with his style.

It’s an interest they both shared and a journey on which it was possible to find out who the 105 year old man that invented modern day Chinese was and how he all but eradicated illiteracy. It was an intelligent five part monologue surveying the evolution of language from ancient Sumeria the first linguistically identifiable urban literate society, to the contemporary world of blogs and twittering.

You were able to build your trivia knowledge by finding out why in Japan the go-light is blue and, why superstar rock legend Mick Jagger embraced a ‘cockney’ accent. For a man with a huge intellect, hyperactive mind and an incredible ability to emphasize the point, Fry made complete use of cleverly crafted words in a series that must have been both a challenge and a joy for him to present.

Fry uncovered the origins of language and explained how different peoples around the world are identified through their language, by examining its development.

This included slang words and swearing and what effect they have on our lives. He explained language in an engaging way and it helped he was a bit of a wit, a total wag and master word smith.

As well he has an ever growing number of ‘twitter’ fans, over three million and counting, who hang on his every word. On Planet Word Stephen Fry explores language, helping us to understand how we learn it, write it, sometimes lose it and, why it defines who we are.

He and special guest David Tennant (Dr Who), spent time talking about the wonderful words that make up Shakespeare’s Hamlet because words are how the world works.

Actor Stephen Fry (1957 – ) was the man surely born to play Oscar Wilde on the big screen, as he did in a movie in 1997. Wilde is recorded as saying ‘I have nothing to declare but my genius’ at U.S. Customs. He was a wit of the highest order who had been invited to tour America and lecture about aestheticism and the decorative arts.

He travelled from New York to San Francisco and today his lectures in print reveal an era of American culture in the making, including distinct changes to the English language.

It was just on a century later when Austrian born actor Arnold Schwarzenegger noted about America that ‘In this country, it doesn’t make any difference where you were born…who your parents were… or if like me …you couldn’t even speak English until you were in your twenties…!

Actor Stephen Fry playing Oscar Wilde who said ”Anyone who lives within their means suffers from a lack of imagination. America had often been discovered before Columbus, but it had always been hushed up’, and, ‘It is the only country that went from barbarism to decadence without civilisation in between’.

Up until a gramophone and tape recorders were invented there were no ways of recording the languages on our planet and how they were being spoken.

The only clues came from how words were written down and, in the case of English, writing them down has meant a whole set of rules that for centuries has been constantly changing, or being broken. This has just added to the confusion for those already challenged by its constant state of flux.

It was after the Elementary Education Act of 1870 in England that the educated élite would rebuke someone who said ‘loik’e instead of ‘like’. Up until then everyone had spoken the different dialects of the British Isles with great pride. This is the point where accent levelling became a social status marker.

An approved ‘tone’ also needed to be acquired as it was now ‘desired’ that a whole new ‘standard’ of English be spoken, especially when the age of the recorded voice and electrically transmitted sound began. This is when teaching elocution became a new age profession.

According to Davidson’s publishers, Penguin, the book about the series with an erudite forward by Stephen Fry, ‘uncovers everything you didn’t know you needed to know about how language evolves: from feral children to deaf Tourette’s, fairy-tale princesses and wicked stepmothers to secrets codes, invented languages, back slang – even a language that was eaten’.

It also informs us that according to the Snohomish tribe of North America, we speak different languages today because of a row about a duck.

It asks do you ‘take a bath’ or ‘have a bath’, do you use a ‘napkin’ or a ‘serviette’ and are you wearing ‘spectacles’ to read this or your ‘glasses’? How we speak and what we say (or don’t say) reveals much about our identity. But does where we come from influence how we think? Does a Frenchman better understand love. Has a German-speaker a more technical way of looking at the world?

The only place language seemingly remains static is once it is in a printed format, especially a dictionary. Those published in the many different languages of the world over the centuries will become collector’s items in the years ahead. They provide a valuable record of language and cultural development. Those in English will also offer a rare insight into the progression and pace of change,  of surely one of the most fluid of all our world’s languages.

According to statistics provided by Penguin, there are still more than 6,000 languages spoken today, some by only a handful of people. However by the end of this century the prediction is there will be only about 900 left. Eventually experts tell us, we will no longer have a need for a written language at all, only using pictures and symbols to communicate instead? With a heart being the first graphic to enter the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) are we already well on our way? Are we going back to the future, to a whole new world of hieroglyphics?

These days that task is made slightly easier via the Internet where we can access the OED online. What we find is that in theory and in practice the world of English words at least, are often poles apart. Wherever English-speaking people have migrated in the world for centuries has meant many great changes to the words of English, their structure and modes of expression.

The study of the English language changed in 1986 with the watershed production of The Story of English by Robert McCrum, Robert MacNeil and William Cran. Revised in 1992 and again in 2002 incredibly, it became and  has remained an international bestseller. The reason is that its authors established a model for telling ‘linguistic tales’, providing both practical and theoretical implications attached to words.

It was brilliantly thought out, both in the study of the language of English and presentation of the language itself. It helped explain the rich diversity of spoken and written English around the world and why it could manage, dependent on where it was being spoken, to sound as if had come from a variety of planets.

The book was a landmark television series of its time, that was also a lesson in democracy while being very accessible to the average ‘Jo’. In Australia on SBS the multicultural channel, the television series of the book was a big hit.

The story of English revealed how people can fasten their anxieties about changes happening daily on to words, utterly believing that to say something ‘incorrectly’ or not in the right context is just about the end, at least for them, of civilisation as we know it.

Language should be and is a constantly moveable feast, which is what makes it so damn interesting. Different dialects of the same language are intriguing. Just on the island of Britain the diversity of tone and structure is mind blowing.

From the fishermen down in Cornwall to the Yorkshire farmer and a Scot from the Borders or the Highlands, you have to train your ear to really listen to hear what it is they are speaking. Is it the ‘Queen’s English’ and what about the Irish?

Well they are now teaching English and Irish to their children from when they are tiny tots. Being bi-lingual is helpful in the brave new world.

It is easier for a majority of people in out world of words to dwell on the well-catalogued and recorded past, rather than live in the present, world.

The whole idea of an even more rapidly evolving life of words, via phone texts and twitter is for many people, completely overwhelming.

Stephen Fry’s Planet Word was absolutely sensational, and celebrated the complexity, variety and ingenuity of language all around the world.

Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2011, 2016

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.