If the prospect of a five-part series exploring language reduced you to squeaks of terror last night, the gentle, mellifluous tones of Stephen Fry would soon have calmed you.
He has set himself a herculean task but, as expected, proved a witty and engaging guide through the clamour of scientific voices, animal calls and childish babble (insert your own joke about Klingon speakers here).
As someone who loves languages, I needed no urging to tune in. I’d agree with the professionals who last night labelled the existence of the world’s 6,000 plus tongues “beautiful”. I’m endlessly fascinated by their nuances and idioms, their possibilities and pitfalls – like the time I reported my purse stolen in St Petersburg, mispronounced a Russian consonant and told the confused official it had contained not credit cards but “small potatoes”.
Fry didn’t get as far as looking at specific languages in episode one, Babel. Instead he sensibly began at the beginning, asking why humankind had acquired language, how it evolved and how as children we pick it up seemingly without effort.
But for all the incredible insights from evolutionary linguists and psycholinguists and philologists (did you know the Brothers Grimm had traced back patterns in Indo-European languages to posit Grimm’s Law?), and the serious point that language became the foundation of human society and culture, there was plenty of room for fun with Fry as well.
So along the way he baffled a monkey by reciting a tongue twister, learned the sign language for “Madonna” (it’s as you’d expect), ruined a production of Hamlet in Klingon by not taking it terribly seriously and treated us to some very agreeable clips of old Fry and Laurie sketches featuring wordplay.
Plus there was a little giggle to be had in spotting, as the credits rolled, that the director of photography was one Simon Ffrench.
Although Fry turned up some fascinating facts, the more questions he asked, the more you realised the tool everybody involved would probably have found most useful was the “Nobody Knows” sign from QI. Despite the best efforts of the world’s best experts, much of the capabilities of the human brain and the origins of language remain shrouded in mystery.
But don’t let that put you off tuning in for part two. This was a spellbinding start to what promises to be an illuminating series. And, since it’s up against Spooks and Downton Abbey in the Sunday 9pm slot, let us all use our considerable voices to praise the person who came up with that magic word “iPlayer”.