Fry's Planet Word sees Stephen Fry finding out more about linguistic achievements and how our skills for the spoken word have changed. He dissects language in many of its guises.
In this programme, Stephen Fry explores 'the written word'. Writing is a great invention - making it possible to communicate across space and time. Without writing we would have no history and very little technology. Stephen discovers the earliest writing - cuneiform - at the British Museum, and learns how our alphabet came from the Phoenicians. As part of his exploration of the diversity of scripts, Stephen visits 106-year-old Mr Zhou, the inventor of the Chinese phonetic writing system called Pinyin, who relates how literacy increased four-fold after its introduction under Mao. After the written word came the printed word, and Stephen looks at how this has shaped our relationship with writing, giving us libraries, dictionaries and encyclopaedias. From the Bodleian to Diderot's favourite café to the cutting-edge research at MIT, Stephen explores how the written word evolved into printing, then libraries, encyclopaedias and computer code. Blogging and twittering is just the tip of a brave new future which no one dares predict.
In this first episode, Stephen seeks to uncover the origins of human language and how and why we are the only species on the planet to have this gift. From attempts to teach chimps to speak to the so-called singing mice who have been given the human 'language gene', Stephen uncovers to what extent our brain is uniquely hard-wired for language. Watching how a child acquires language, Stephen hears from psycholinguist Steven Pinker how grammar is an innate quality, yet still has to be nurtured. Case studies of feral children, like Victor of Aveyron, illustrate how difficult it is to be certain which is more important. And at the National Theatre of the Deaf in Connecticut, Stephen learns why sign language is a true language. Taking part in a Klingon version of Hamlet prompts Stephen to ask the question why we have created the 6,000 plus languages which exist on the planet and with philologist Wolfgang Klein, he understands Grimm's law, which shows how over 2,000 Indo-European languages have all come from one source.
This programme looks at the ways language is used and abused. While not everyone approves of 'bad' language, Stephen learns that swearing plays an important part in human communication the world over. He undergoes an MRI scan and discovers the parts of the brain associated with swearing - and meets a sufferer of Tourette's and a stroke patient who swear they can't help using the f-word. Stephen and Brian Blessed participate in some rather colourful experiments to examine how swearing can help relieve pain. Stephen discusses the positive and negative power of 'bad' words in humour and social interactions with Armando Iannucci, Stephen K Amos and Omid Djalili, and discovers how we use double entendres, euphemisms, and politesse to hide true meanings. Stephen meets nurses, teenagers, and rappers to discover how slang and jargon can both aid and thwart clear communication, but ultimately add to the richness and texture of language.
In this programme, Stephen Fry celebrates storytelling. It has been with us as long as language itself and as a species, we love to tell our stories. This desire to both entertain and explain has resulted in the flowering of language to describe every aspect of the human condition. Stephen asks just what makes a good story and why some writers just do it better. He reveals what stories make him shiver with joy or, conversely, shudder with horror. From Homer's epic to Joyce's modern-day reinvention with Ulysses, from taking in Shakespeare, PG Wodehouse, Tolkien, Orwell, Auden, Bob Dylan and the even the mangled web of words that became known as Birtspeak, Stephen uncovers why certain words can make us laugh, cry or tear our hair out. Talking to storytelling gurus like screenwriter William Goldman and modern-day interpreters of classics like Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson, he looks at how character and plot are interwoven and how any schema to create the perfect story are doomed. Shakespearean actors Simon Russell Beale, David Tennant, Brian Blessed and Mark Rylance give their take on Hamlet and laud the bard as the blue planet's supreme writer. Sir Christopher Ricks argues that Bob Dylan should be considered as great a poet as anyone, whilst Richard Curtis explains why Auden can move us to tears but why in the modern world, Coldplay are just as important.
What is it that defines us? Stephen argues that above all, it is the way we speak. Be it a national language, a regional dialect or even class variation - we interpret and define ourselves through our language. From markets in Kenya to call centres in Newcastle, Stephen charts the shifting patterns of lingua franca and the inexorable spread of Globish (Global English). As many of the world's more than 6000 languages are threatened with linguicide, Stephen seeks out examples of this rise and fall. In Ireland he learns how TV soaps are keeping Irish alive, whilst in Southern France, Provencal and other Oc languages are struggling to survive after 200 years of suppression by Parisian orthodoxy and the heavy hand of the Academie Francaise. But even amidst the imminent death of some, other languages like Basque survive, whilst Hebrew in Israel is reborn. Variety is the spice and in Bradford poet Ian McMillan teaches Stephen the subtle variations of dialect, whilst in Norwich Stephen finds his ultimate sense of identity in the chants of his beloved Canaries, Norwich City F.C.