Fry's Planet Word

Language is what defines humans from other species, and with our planet home to around 7000 different languages, words have played a crucial role in our evolution. Renowned wordsmith Stephen Fry is the perfect guide for this fascinating exploration of language in all its forms.

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  • The Power and the Glory
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    August 5, 2013

    Storytelling has been with us as long as language itself. As a species we love to tell our stories and this desire to both entertain and explain has resulted in the flowering of language to describe every aspect of the human condition. Eschewing any historical or thematic structure Stephen celebrates what makes a good story, why some writers just do it better and what makes him shiver with joy or conversely shudder with horror. From Homer's epic to Joyce's modern day reinvention with Ulysses, taking in Shakespeare , PG Wodehouse, Tolkien , Orwell, Auden , Bob Dylan and 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.

  • Spreading the Word
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    July 29, 2013

    In this programme, Stephen Fry explores 'The Written Word'. Writing is our greatest 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, 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.

  • Uses and Abuses
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    July 22, 2013

    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 Tourettes 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, sailors, 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.

  • Identity
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    July 15, 2013

    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 worlds 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 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 him the subtle variations of dialect, whilst in Norwich he finds his ultimate sense of identity in the chants of his beloved football team, the Canaries.

  • Babel
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    July 8, 2013

    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', FOXP2, 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 whilst at The National Theatre of the Deaf in Connecticut he 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 6000 plus languages which exist on the planet and with philologist Wolfgang Klein he understands Grimms Law which shows how over 2000 Indo European languages have all come from one source.