Stephen Fry on language and identity

The QI host explains his belief that language is what makes us individual

Polymath Stephen Fry argues in this week’s Radio Times that, rather than race, colour or creed, language is what makes people truly individual.


As part of an article in which the QI host calls for others to celebrate and enjoy all things verbal, he says: “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.”

The 54-year-old Renaissance man explains: “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.

“Our individual language may or may not limit or widen our thought…but it seems most certainly to place us in the world like no other property or quality we possess.

“The language you speak…is at one and the same time entirely your own
and that of your clan, your tribe, your nation and your people.”

Describing one of his encounters during the making of new BBC2 series Fry’s Planet Word, he reveals that language use directly informs conceptual thought, leading to difficulties in understanding between people of different linguistic backgrounds:

“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.”

“I sometimes wonder if Alexander Pope should not have written that the proper study of mankind is language,” adds Fry.


Read the rest of the article, in which Fry describes his fascination with language, his travels and his upbringing in this week’s Radio Times, which is on sale now.