words being Fry-ed

For the past two Sundays evenings my lovely bride and I have been watching a series by the inimitable, Stephen Fry.*  The series is called, “Fry’s Planet Word” and for those able to access BBC iPlayer, episode 1 is here and episode 2 is here.

To speak generally, Fry in episode 1 explores not only the nature of language as a distinctly human characteristic but also its evolution, especially the 2000+ languages that ostensibly emerge from a single tongue. Along the way Fry intimates a concern about the apparent devolution of language (or, linguicide–as he will later call it) brought about by the advancement and development of the ‘global village’, where a small number of languages are becoming the lingua franca of this village. The concern is therefore not with the interrelationships with other peoples and cultures that can be and are formed; instead the concern is with the loss of particular languages that are essential to the unique identities of those peoples and cultures.

Then, and retaining the generality of my comments, Fry in episode 2 picks up the theme of ‘language as identity’ and places it at the forefront of his investigation. Specifically Fry examines accents and dialects not only as unique in form and character but also inextricably bound to people’s sense of self. It is here that the concern intimated in episode 1 receives explicit attention. The attention falls on those languages or dialects that have struggled to survive, not because of the history (or, historical existence) of the language or dialect of a particular people but because that language or dialect retains, reflects and recalls the history of the people who possess it. Hence Fry’s (appropriate and needed) concern: if a language or dialect is lost, the identity of those who possess it is also lost; and that loss would truly be a tragedy, especially if the loss was the result of a desire to create a linguistic homogeny suitable for life within the global village.

I’ll end this post with a quote from the conclusion of episode 2, followed by a slight reapplication.  While the context of this quote is people’s fascination with identifying themselves with a particular football club, the substance of Fry’s remarks apply to things beyond that fascination.

Those who say, ‘Well, it doesn’t matter to me; I have no sense of identity. It doesn’t matter to me that I’m British. It doesn’t matter to me that I’m English. It doesn’t matter to me that I’m from Shropshire or Yorkshire or Kent or Norfolk.’ Maybe they’re right, but I can’t feel like that; I have this . . . I can’t help but belong. I think it was Clemenceau, the French Prime Minister of the earlier part of the 20th century, who said he was a patriot but he wasn’t a nationalist. And they said to him, ‘What do you mean by that?’ He said, ‘Well, I think a patriot loves his country but a nationalist hates everybody else’s country.’ (56.54–57.33)

To broaden the application of Fry’s comments: patriotism is people loving and cherishing specific aspects of their culture or nation, those things that make them who they are and distinguish them from others cultures or nations; but that does not mean they necessarily hate those who are unlike them. Nationalism, on the other hand, is people arrogantly perceiving aspects of their culture or nation as so unique and superior that such things must become universal for other cultures or nations. Nationalism is hateful because it has little-to-no regard, respect or love for the unique and historically rich identity of others.

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* Stephen Fry is one of several people in the UK I would love to meet. So if Fry is reading this, or if someone has connections: if ever in Cheltenham, then coffee, tea or lunch–my treat.

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