Stephen Fry shares his love of language in Fry’s Planet Word

The QI host hails the power of words

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Stephen Fry shares his love of language in Fry’s Planet Word
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Stephen Fry
Words are all we have. Certainly, reader, words are all we have, you and I, as you read this and I sit and tap at my keyboard. You have no idea where I am as I do this, and I have no idea who, where or what you are as you continue to read. We are connected by a filament of language that stretches from somewhere inside my brain to somewhere inside yours. 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.

Yet language, as we are all aware, is a human birthright. It is as free and available to us all as the ability to walk. The impairment, trauma, abuse or psychological impediment must be very severe indeed for any child in the world not to be able to acquire their language with no more effort (and usually less pain) than they acquire their teeth.

Language has delighted, enthralled and enraptured me since I can remember. I sometimes imagine that I have been granted by nature a greater awareness and higher sense of language as compensation for my appalling deficiencies in music, mathematics and all things athletic. Musical athletes who speak and write well are a sore aggravation to me, as you might imagine.

From the earliest age I played with language as others played with toy cars and guns. Constant repeating, altering, distorting, rhyming, punning, inventing and vamping with words was as natural to me (and doubtless as irritating to others) as sniffing lampposts is to dogs or air-guitaring and football were to normal boys.

Language was my way of both getting me into trouble and getting me out of it. To learn a new word was to make a new friend, twee as that may sound. I was a verbal dandy, unquestionably, but the diffusion of pleasure that spread through me as I learned and thereby “possessed” new words was real and impossibly thrilling.

I can still see in my mind’s eye the actual positioning of certain words on the pages of the Concise Oxford Dictionary that was my constant companion from the age of eight to 18. Words like prolix, strobile, banausic and pleonasm. Intolerable show-off that I was, I peacocked them at every opportunity, but they mattered to me. This ownership of new words, coupled with the tracing back of their lineage, “etymology” as I learned to call it, gripped me entirely.

“Did you know,” I would ask a bored friend, “that the word ‘sycophant’ originally meant someone who showed figs?” and the bored friend would say “Wow” in that way that people do when what they really mean is “I wish you would fall into a coma for ever”.

It struck me from an early age, and the belief has never left me, that language is not celebrated enough. As a study, linguistics has flourished, splitting into psycho-, neuro- and socio- crossbreeds that have a presence at most serious universities; crosswords and language games like Boggle and Scrabble thrive more than ever; discussions about “correct” use and the “dumbing down” of language still take up a disproportionate amount of readers’ letters space in the newspapers – all this is certainly true, but how rarely do people play or perform with their nature-given power of utterance in the way they might play or perform with music by dancing in clubs and at festivals, by walking everywhere with tunes in their ears and by whistling and humming as they shower? Even people who can’t draw can doodle.

But how often do we doodle with language? I do it all the time. If you were to plant a recording device in my living quarters, you would think me insane as I verbally nonsensed my way around the flat. Perhaps my plea for playfulness with language is a plea for me to be thought more normal, but it seems to me that language should be the last of all human attributes to take for granted.

What I am saying, I suppose, is that with this astonishing resource readily available and costing no more than breath or finger-tapping to produce, why is it that most people are so dull and unadventurous in their use of it? Why don’t they delight themselves with new yokings and phrases, new rhythms and coinings, new pronunciations and abbreviations?

Well, one answer is that collectively they do. All the time. Especially when young. Most juvenescent sodalities (two other words I learned early and overused embarrassingly), most social groupings of young people, have their own private language, catchphrases and nicknames for people and processes.

But language (especially English perhaps) presents a problem. Embarrassment, shame, a sense of inferiority, unfashionable regionality, gender, sexuality, age, education – all these dreadful bugaboos come into play whenever we exchange language outside our, for want of a better phrase, “peer group” and we lose confidence in the creative side of our linguistic selves for fear of the negative judgements and snobbish contempt of the mainstream, just as we might one day lose our piercings and the coloured streaks in our hair.

All that bright individual verbal clothing is put away for the workplace and dull, pretentious verbal suits are worn in their place. Never was the word “suit” less... well... suitable. The memos, meetings and conferences of the workplace are couched in agglomerations of phrases as soulless, bloodless, styleless and depressing as the grey carpets, strip lighting and hessian partitions that constitute their physical environment. Sick-building syndrome is now well understood, sick language syndrome perhaps less so.

But this is to talk about language within language within a language. When I told friends that I was off to make a series of films about language for the BBC, the most common response was “Which languages?” and I became used to having to explain that I meant programmes looking at Language with a capital L, which must of course include individual languages, but would hope to look at the nature of the phenomenon, the achievement, the gift of language itself.

Where it comes from, how it split into the 60,000 world tongues we now have and why some of these are disappearing by the hundreds every year; how language is acquired in each human individual; how it is used for persuasion, tyranny, solace, art and commerce; how or if the nature of one tongue influences, defines or circumscribes the actual thought of its user; how we respond to its transgressive deployment in blasphemy, obscenity and other offensive usages... so many questions, so many areas of interest, such an endlessly fascinating and elusive subject.

Over the course of six months or so I have travelled the globe in search of all kinds of answers. None of us is able to say, any more than the most gifted and informed linguist can, whether English will be the dominant world tongue that it is today in a hundred years’ time.

We cannot predict the future trajectories of Mandarin, Arabic or Spanish. Warfare, famine, technology, trade and natural disasters have all played and will continue to play their decisive parts in linguistic dissemination and desiccation and the individual has yet to be born who can successfully predict the momentous upheavals in human affairs that drive people and their languages in new directions.

Neither can we predict the new influences that will be brought to bear within individual languages. Who knew, just ten years ago, of OMG, lulz and retweeting? Nor can we know what words will be offensive to generations yet unborn. I can write the f-word now in the more or less certain knowledge that only an odd few will be offended. I cannot, however, write the word that begins with N and rhymes with “Tigger” without blushing to my roots and fearing for my reputation.

Some call this “political correctness”. They are, in my estimation, deluded: their sense of language seems to be defined by the asininities of the worst of the bourgeois tabloids. Verbal taboos are far too interesting and complex to be fobbed off as fashionable liberal courtesies or even as simply “good manners”.

Perhaps the biggest discovery I made, or at least the feeling I already had that was most heavily reinforced, was to do with language and identity. We may be what we eat, but we most certainly are what we say. My sense of language as identity is more to do with the short time I spent amongst the Turkana in Kenya, the Akha in Kenya, the Basques of Spain and France and Irish speakers in the Gaeltacht.

Our individual language may or may not limit or widen our thought according to its breadth of vocabulary, elasticity of structure or complexity of syntax, but it seems most certainly to place us in the world like no other property or quality we possess. In our limited and foolish way, we may think skin colour a greater determinant of identity, but an Ibo would feel no more in common with a Jamaican, I submit, than he would with me.

It so happened that I was in Kenya at the time of Barack Obama’s election as president. I spoke to a member of the Luo tribe, from which Obama’s father came, and asked if he was pleased that America should not only now have a black president, but one from his people. “Very pleased of course,” came the reply, “but you should consider that had Mr Obama been elected president of Kenya, he would have been our first white president.”

Our confusion, inconsistency and insanity when it comes to labelling people as black when they are half or even three-quarters white, may one day, it is to be hoped, resolve itself into sense. True identity, aside from the very personal individual qualities, the DNA and parentage that separate all humans each from the other, resides in one cultural marker above all: language.

In the course of our travels I met in Beijing the most influential linguist who ever lived. One hundred-and-six years old, his first words to me were, “You will have to forgive me, my English is a little rusty these days.” He modestly repudiated my claims for his place in world history, but I believe them none the less. He is the reason, incidentally, that we now write “Beijing” and not “Peking”.

In London I underwent fMRI trials that tried to locate the areas of my brain that were responsible for different types of conscious and automatic utterance.

In Victoria, Australia I attempted to get my befuddled mind around the absolute directional concepts built into the language of the aboriginal people of Pormpuraaw.

In Jerusalem I came as close to handling a fragment of the Dead Sea Scrolls as any human being can (only four in the world are allowed that actual privilege) and at the Max Planck Institute in Leipzig I had dung hurled at me by gorillas.

I narrowly avoided smoking an opium pipe and eating curried dog on the borders of Thailand and Burma, and helped prepare a Basque-style, Michelin three-star lunch in San Sebastián. If you feel a tinge of envy, or something stronger, I cannot blame you.

It was the gig of a lifetime and I am fully aware that it is no use my saying that it was very hard work, that the days were exhausting and the living conditions often atrocious. I am a lucky, lucky devil to have had such an opportunity.

I mentioned that language was, in my estimation, our clearest indicator of culture. Perhaps food comes a close second. The analogy holds at many levels. Just as one kind of cheap western catering in the form of burgers, fried chicken and fizzy cola swamps towns and cities the world over, threatening natural indigenous cuisines, so one kind of English seems to be doing the same to minority languages.

But, in a positive and countervailing manner, just as our bland English cuisine has been enriched, coloured and spiced by foreign influences from the world over, so too has our language. When families and individuals express their sense of who they are, it is as much through their mother’s cooking as their mother tongue.

Whoever you are, whatever your provenance, however you came to be in the position you are now in, you can read and speak.

What is more, the language you read and speak, while universally understood and given descriptive (but not prescriptive or proscriptive) grammatical rules and semantic definitions, is at one and the same time entirely your own and that of your clan, your tribe, your nation and your people.

The way you speak is who you are and the tones of your voice and the tricks of your emailing and tweeting and letter-writing can be recognised unmistakably in the minds of those who know and love you.

I sometimes wonder if Alexander Pope should not have written that the proper study of mankind is language.

We hope the series will delight you and perhaps make you think afresh about the free, inexhaustible and delicious resource that lies somewhere in your brain and allows you to be who you are.

But next time you speak or write, do not try to work out what is going on socially, culturally, neurally, intellectually or physiologically. The effort is beyond us all and you might just explode. Instead...celebrate.

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