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Planet Word Hardcover – 29 Sep 2011
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Arguably the greatest living Englishman (Independent on Sunday)
Fry's linguistic facility remains one of the Wildean wonders of the new media age. The patron saint of British intelligence (Daily Telegraph)
About the Author
John Paul Davidson is a film and television director and producer. After completing his doctoral field work in Malaysia, he joined the BBC's Travel and Exploration Unit as their resident anthropologist and learned how to say 'action' in over fifty languages.
Stephen Fry is an award-winning comedian, actor, presenter and director. He rose to fame alongside Hugh Laurie in A Bit of Fry and Laurie and Jeeves and Wooster. He currently hosts the popular quiz show QI. His recent memoir, The Fry Chronicles, was a number one bestseller.
Top customer reviews
The book bills itself as "The story of language from the earliest grunts to Twitter and beyond", but it is not really an introduction to linguistics, and certainly not a serious attempt to tell the whole story of language throughout human history, an undertaking which would be well beyond the scope of a book of only some four hundred pages, many of which are taken up with notes and illustrations.
It is, in fact, essentially a compendium of facts about language. Davidson takes delight in exploding a few myths. It is not, for example, true that the Eskimo languages have hundreds of words for snow; they only have about six or seven basic roots to describe various types of snow. The misunderstanding arose because these languages have an agglutinative structure and modify nouns by adding a suffix rather than using a freestanding adjective as English does, so an expression like "heavy snow" would be translated into what appears to be a single word but which consists of two units of meaning. Nor is it true that the word "kangaroo" derives from an Aboriginal word meaning "I don't understand"; it rather derives from the word "gangurru" which, disappointingly, does indeed refer to a species of kangaroo.
The author does, however, also occasionally perpetuate a few myths of his own. "Peking", for example, is the traditional English name of the Chinese capital, not the Wade-Giles transliteration of the Chinese name, which would be "Peiching". Also, contrary to what Davidson implies, Proto-Indo-European did indeed have a root for "bear", which survives in Latin "ursus" (whence French "ours", Italian "orso" and Spanish "oso"), Classical Greek "arktos" (whence Modern Greek "arkoudha"), Sanskrit "rksa" and Welsh "arth". Only certain Indo-European language families used euphemisms for the bear, notably Slavic (i.e. Russian "medved", meaning "honey-eater") and Germanic, which used a root probably meaning "the brown one". The Old English form was "bera", not "bruin" which is a mediaeval borrowing from Dutch via the "Reynard the fox" fables.
"Planet Word" the book, as opposed to "Planet Word" the TV programme, suffers from a problem common to many non-fiction TV tie-ins. Much of the appeal of such programmes lies not in their content but in the charm, knowledgeability and enthusiasm of their presenters. Fry gives eloquent expression to his enthusiasm for language in a rather purple passage on the dust-jacket in which, in a breathless series of metaphors, he compares language to, among other things, "my whore, my mistress, my wife", "the breath of God" and, bizarrely, "the faint scent of urine on a pair of boxer shorts".
Far-fetched though some of these comparisons may be, they do at least give an indication of Fry's passion for his subject, a passion which in the television programmes did much to compensate for the rather fragmentary nature of his material. In the book, Davidson's workaday prose is unable to perform the same service, and the fragmentary nature of its contents becomes all too apparent, especially in the latter sections. In the final section, for example, we are treated to items on a random selection of topics, such as Aboriginal mythology, Homeric poetry, James Joyce, Yeats, Shakespeare, Bob Dylan and propaganda, with only a few paragraphs devoted to each. The links between one topic and the next are generally either non-existent or tenuous, along the lines of "Well, Homer's hero Odysseus was also called "Ulysses", which is also the title of a book by Joyce, and Yeats like Joyce was an Irish writer, and Shakespeare like Yeats was a poet, and so in his own way is Dylan..........".
As I said, "Planet Word" is essentially a compendium of facts about language. Some of these facts are interesting enough, but they are not presented in a particularly structured or meaningful way. This is the sort of book that will probably get bought a lot as a Christmas or birthday present, but if the recipient of the gift is someone wanting to know more about linguistics there are better introductions to that subject available, and if he or she likes Stephen Fry I would recommend one of Fry's own, often very witty, books.
The fact that it is sold as being a Stephen Fry book is misleading. He only writes the preface, which is delivered in his usual witty and engaging manner. The main writer has a more academic style of writing. While I am used to this style (and probably write the same way myself!) I think some readers may wish for a lighter reading experience.
This book won't change your life but will give you some fascinating facts to reel off at dinner parties.
The book has a foreward by SF but the rest is written by JP Davidson. The book was given to me as a Christmas gift, by my daughter, and she admitted when she bought it she thought it was written by SF. She need not have worrried if she thought that this would somehow make the book less interesting. It is a fascinating story of the origins of language and the written word, broken up into bite-sized chunks so that it is never too hard going. Great illustrations too. I loved the sections on slang and where many of our modern sayings coming from. There is so much to dip into but I read the whole thing straight through.
Spookily - the whole time I was reading I had Stephen Fry's voice in my head; I don't know what Davidson would sound like but he did a very good job.
Author of 'The Palaver Tree'
Despite being a hefty tome, it doesn't take long to get through - bite-size chapters and a host of colour illustrations mean there is plenty of variety.
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Most recent customer reviews
Easy to dip in and out.