Fry's English Delight

Stephen Fry explores the highways and byways of the English language.

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Winter Special: Word Games20101228

Stephen Fry celebrates, examines and plays word games and explains why they're important.

Is English an innately playful language? Are word games good for you? Do we divide into number and word players? Sudoku and Sudon't ku? In this special winter programme, Stephen examines word games in diverse formats, and challenges his audience to play some unusual ones.

We'll hear some familiar voices playing unfamiliar games - Sheila Dillon from the Food Programme plays Font or Cheese against miscellanist Ben Schott, who typesets his own books.

Phill Juptitus talks about his personal word game habits.

And we'll remember the late Humphrey Lyttleton's scurrilous account of Una Stubbs on Give Us A Clue, the TV version of Charades.

At the heart of the programme a question about English - the original language of the best word games like Scrabble and crosswords.

But is English by its nature a language that encourages word play, and therefore shapes English-speaking culture? Does its size and diversity make it somehow playful?

We'll travel deep inside the mind of puzzlemaster Chris Maslanka, who helps put diverse word games into categories.

And we'll examine an extraordinary claim - that the fashion for increasingly cryptic crosswords helped save the free world from Nazi domination.

The psychology of word games is also considered.

Pondering over words requires a special kind of relaxation.

Word association games used to bring to mind an old cliche.

Supposedly they revealed your innermost thoughts, usually to psychiatrists sat alongside chaises longues.

Now they're more the preserve of improvised comedy, so we visit the Comedy Store in London to experience the lightning reflexes of some top word-athletes.

Producer: Nick Baker

A Testbed production for BBC Radio 4.

0101Metaphor2008082520090201
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20140719 (BBC7)

The sea, and the way it shapes the land, has a special metaphorical meaning.

Britain's high coastline/population ratio helps to explain how maritime metaphor shaped the English language. But the sea, and the way it shapes the land, has a special metaphorical meaning. Stephen suggests that language is shaped, like a coastline, by a flow of metaphors, which erode, break down and eventually become part of everyday speech and writing.

Britain's high coastline/population ratio helps to explain how maritime metaphor shaped the English language.

But the sea, and the way it shapes the land, has a special metaphorical meaning.

Stephen suggests that language is shaped, like a coastline, by a flow of metaphors, which erode, break down and eventually become part of everyday speech and writing.

0102Quotation2008090120090208
20140725 (BBC7)
20140726 (BBC7)

'Ask driver for quotation' van signs and why a misquote is better than a quote.

Stephen Fry explores the highways and byways of the English language.

Stephen examines the thought processes of those who compile quotation dictionaries as well as those who use and abuse them. Such compilers can wield unsuspected power, conferring greatness on the most insignificant text.

Stephen examines the thought processes of those who compile quotation dictionaries as well as those who use and abuse them.

Such compilers can wield unsuspected power, conferring greatness on the most insignificant text.

0103 LASTCliche2008090820090215
20140801 (BBC7)
20140802 (BBC7)

Stephen looks at how cliche operates for both good and bad.

A cliche crisis affected the writing of Flaubert, Joyce and Eliot and helped shape modern language and culture.

Stephen Fry explores the highways and byways of the English language.

Stephen looks at how cliche operates for both good and bad. A cliche crisis affected the writing of Flaubert, Joyce and Eliot and helped shape modern language and culture.

Hither and thither were cliches, from 725.

0201So Wrong It's Right2009081120140808 (BBC7)
20140809 (BBC7)

Stephen Fry examines how 'wrong' English can become right English.

Stephen Fry explores the highways and byways of the English language.

Stephen examines how 'wrong' English can become right English. For example, nowadays, more people use the word 'wireless' in a computer context than in a radio one. With help from a lexicographer, an educationalist, a Times sub-editor and a judge, Stephen examines the way in which usage changes language.

He applauds the council leader who claimed the services provided by her local authority should be seen as strawberry-flavoured and castigates attempts at banning government jargon like step change and synergy. Banning words is fruitless; he favours blue sky thinking, and strawberry flavouring.

Stephen examines how 'wrong' English can become right English.

For example, nowadays, more people use the word 'wireless' in a computer context than in a radio one.

With help from a lexicographer, an educationalist, a Times sub-editor and a judge, Stephen examines the way in which usage changes language.

He applauds the council leader who claimed the services provided by her local authority should be seen as strawberry-flavoured and castigates attempts at banning government jargon like step change and synergie.

Banning words is fruitless; he favours blue sky thinking, and strawberry flavouring.

0202Speaking Proper2009081820140815 (BBC7)
20140816 (BBC7)

Stephen Fry tries to navigate through a rather bumpy area of the English language.

Stephen Fry explores the highways and byways of the English language.

It may be that elocution classes for children are being replaced with 'presentation skills' courses for adults, but we still see effective communication as the key to success. Stephen announces a field day for pedants in his investigation into what nowadays counts as 'speaking proper'.

It may be that elocution classes for children are being replaced with 'presentation skills' courses for adults, but we still see effective communication as the key to success.

Stephen announces a field day for pedants in his investigation into what nowadays counts as 'speaking proper'.

0203 LASTHallo!2009082520140822 (BBC7)
20140823 (BBC7)

Stephen Fry says goodbye with the story of 'Hallow!'.

Stephen Fry explores the highways and byways of the English language.

Hallo! Stephen says 'goodbye' with a programme about 'hallo', and how it came to be one of the world's favourite words.

Stephen says 'goodbye' with a programme about 'hallo', and how it came to be one of the world's favourite words.

0301The Trial Of Qwerty2010081120150703 (BBC7)
20150704 (BBC7)

The Qwerty keyboard: ancient, illogical, inefficient. Why does it still rule how we write?

All rise for Judge Stephen Fry, in whose court the Qwerty keyboard stands trial.

The gravest charge against the still ubiquitous Qwerty is that the layout was designed deliberately to slow typing down.

Typists in the 1870's got too fast for their machines. The keys would easily stick. Typists would have to delve under the bonnet to untangle them.

Messy business. Dirty Mr Qwerty.

But will the charge against Qwerty stick? Invented in the 1870's before the age of ergonomics and future proofing, it was a result of a commercial race to dominate the new typewriting industry with a universal system. The father of formats. There were typewriting races too, which resembled today's motor racing. Hyped up typists, competing systems and publicity hungry manufacturers proved only one thing: the new fangled typewriting machines could be very noisy.

Alongside contributions from historians and qwerty experts, Stephen meets a man who has deqwertified himself and adopted Dvorak, a system claimed to be quicker and cleaner than Qwerty. There's also an examination of newer, more modern formats, which may be more efficient but are no match for qwerty.

We also meet some speedy junior qwertists' primary school pupils who learn to touch type as part of their curriculum. They come up an idea for the ultimate system for inputting text and in so doing demonstrate an important point about how thought relates to language, and how any system, using keyboard, pen or even speech is a compromise.

But will Qwerty be acquitted?

Producer: Nick Baker

A Testbed production for BBC Radio 4.

The Qwerty keyboard: ancient, illogical, inefficient.

Why does it still rule how we write?

Typists in the 1870's got too fast for their machines.

The keys would easily stick.

Typists would have to delve under the bonnet to untangle them.

Messy business.

Dirty Mr Qwerty.

But will the charge against Qwerty stick? Invented in the 1870's before the age of ergonomics and future proofing, it was a result of a commercial race to dominate the new typewriting industry with a universal system.

The father of formats.

There were typewriting races too, which resembled today's motor racing.

Hyped up typists, competing systems and publicity hungry manufacturers proved only one thing: the new fangled typewriting machines could be very noisy.

Alongside contributions from historians and qwerty experts, Stephen meets a man who has deqwertified himself and adopted Dvorak, a system claimed to be quicker and cleaner than Qwerty.

There's also an examination of newer, more modern formats, which may be more efficient but are no match for qwerty.

We also meet some speedy junior qwertists' primary school pupils who learn to touch type as part of their curriculum.

They come up an idea for the ultimate system for inputting text and in so doing demonstrate an important point about how thought relates to language, and how any system, using keyboard, pen or even speech is a compromise.

0302He Said, She Said2010081820150710 (BBC7)
20150711 (BBC7)

Do men and women really talk as if they were from different planets?

Stephen Fry examines whether men and women really use and understand language differently.

Is there a genuine gender language barrier, or is it just something we made up to amuse ourselves, or to castigate each other?

As a former presenter on Woman's Hour, Sue MacGregor has a unique insight into the way men used to use language to patronise or dominate, and recalls one of her guests on the programme referring to her as 'my dear'.

But as women began to win equality there was a genuine need to discover whether and how women and men differed in the way they spoke.

Cast aside all memories of cartoon strips, Woody Allen movies, sitcoms and diatribes on political correctness or questionable seaside postcards.

This programme gets to the truth, with the aid of academics, a bit of comedy from Ronnie Barker, a sex change surgeon and a speech therapist. Do people who want to change their sex also want to change the way they use language?

Producer: Ian Gardhouse

A Testbed production for BBC Radio 4.

This programme gets to the truth, with the aid of academics, a bit of comedy from Ronnie Barker, a sex change surgeon and a speech therapist.

Do people who want to change their sex also want to change the way they use language?

0303Accentuate The Negative2010082520150717 (BBC7)
20150718 (BBC7)

Stephen Fry explores some of the many aspects of the use of the negative in English.

Contradiction is an addiction - from philosophical dialectic to the verification of scientific and mathematical hypotheses, and from religious controversy to traditional pantomime exchanges with the audience. Oh No It Isn't, you may think. Oh, yes, it very much is.

Stephen Fry examines various aspects of the subject with language expert Professor David Crystal, theologian Melissa Raphael-Levine, philosopher Anthony Grayling, and Oliver Double, who has made a special study of comedy double-acts, and will reveal just how vital contradiction is not only for cross-patter partners but for the whole of comedy.

We learn about the Square of Opposition and about how there is more than one way to be wrong. We find out just how the law of double negatives work, and how beguiling and sometimes surprising the oxymoron can be - that little combination of a couple of words that cancel each other out in some way. Well, it's only common sense, isn't it?

We also hear how those who claim to spot contradictions in the Bible, or the Talmud, or the Koran are essentially misguided, and we hear about a current development in English that threatens to change one of the things that has so far made the language different to French or German.

All of that, together with a lesson in when "No" does not necessarily mean no - and when "Yes" doesn't really mean yes, either.

Producer: Ian Gardhouse

ATestbed production for BBC Radio 4.

Contradiction is an addiction - from philosophical dialectic to the verification of scientific and mathematical hypotheses, and from religious controversy to traditional pantomime exchanges with the audience.

Oh No It Isn't, you may think.

Oh, yes, it very much is.

We learn about the Square of Opposition and about how there is more than one way to be wrong.

We find out just how the law of double negatives work, and how beguiling and sometimes surprising the oxymoron can be - that little combination of a couple of words that cancel each other out in some way.

Well, it's only common sense, isn't it?

All of that, together with a lesson in when "No" does not necessarily mean no - and when "Yes" doesn't really mean yes, either.

0304Future Conditional2010090120150724 (BBC7)
20150725 (BBC7)

What will English be like in 200 years' time? Stephen Fry investigates how it will change.

Stephen Fry on the future of English.

As English continues to grow and spread, the influences of the places around the world where it has been adopted are being reimported. As Stephen puts it, "we exported brown Windsor soup and re-imported mulligatawny. We exported clogs - back came tap dancing". The McDonald's slogan "I'm Loving it" is an example. So is the youth-speak Jafaican.

This continual process means we can predict some changes in the way we use language. Dr David Crystal, a world authority, thinks the sound "th" might disappear. The very rhythms of our speech might change, and our vocabulary certainly will.

The other huge influence on the way English will change relates to technology. The programme features computer programmes that "read" text. They do this not just to show off. The London School of Economics employs a computer programme to read text in the service of research. So computers will, in some sense, join the swelling billions who use English.

But will they - can they - ever "understand" English well enough for them to read and understand a novel? Professor Margaret Boden, a leader in the field is doubtful. She and Microsoft search engineer Ron Kaplan discuss a test for computers, in the shape of this sentence: "Is the duck ready to eat?"

Nobody knows exactly how English will change, or whether we might, as time travellers, recognise it 200 years hence. But speculating about it is endless fun.

Producer: Nick Baker

A Testbed production for BBC Radio 4.

0304 LASTFuture Conditional20100901

What will English be like in 200 years' time? Stephen Fry investigates how it will change.

Stephen Fry on the future of English.

As English continues to grow and spread, the influences of the places around the world where it has been adopted are being reimported.

As Stephen puts it, "we exported brown Windsor soup and re-imported mulligatawny.

We exported clogs - back came tap dancing".

The McDonald's slogan "I'm Loving it" is an example.

So is the youth-speak Jafaican.

This continual process means we can predict some changes in the way we use language.

Dr David Crystal, a world authority, thinks the sound "th" might disappear.

The very rhythms of our speech might change, and our vocabulary certainly will.

The other huge influence on the way English will change relates to technology.

The programme features computer programmes that "read" text.

They do this not just to show off.

The London School of Economics employs a computer programme to read text in the service of research.

So computers will, in some sense, join the swelling billions who use English.

But will they - can they - ever "understand" English well enough for them to read and understand a novel? Professor Margaret Boden, a leader in the field is doubtful.

She and Microsoft search engineer Ron Kaplan discuss a test for computers, in the shape of this sentence: "Is the duck ready to eat?"

Nobody knows exactly how English will change, or whether we might, as time travellers, recognise it 200 years hence.

But speculating about it is endless fun.

Producer: Nick Baker

A Testbed production for BBC Radio 4.

04Class20110801 (BBC7)
20150821 (BBC7)
20150822 (BBC7)

Is language and class still the contentious issue it used to be?

Stephen Fry's idiosyncratic meander along the byways of English takes him into dangerous territory: Language and Class. Is it still the contentious issue it used to be?

In the Nineteen Fifties a famous distinction was drawn between what came to be called "U" and "Non-U" words, expressions and pronunciations that were supposed to give a pretty clear indication as to which class the speaker belonged. That's all old hat now surely? Or are there still differences between the way the social classes speak, and are perceived?

Once the social boundaries were very clear. Now they seem a lot more porous. So have we changed the way we speak to cope with social changes? The answer - according to experts in the programme seems to be "yes, but not as much as you might think".

With the help of a socio-linguist, a waspish columnist, a professional voice coach and Yorkshire poet Ian Macmillan, Stephen looks at the history of class and speech, and finds that changes have been subtle. Yet for many old tribalisms remain.

Macmillan helps show how the issues always seem to be debated in a metropolitan context. They take on a very different hue if seen from elsewhere.

Producer: Ian Gardhouse

A Testbed Production for BBC Radio 4.

0401The Mouth2011071120150731 (BBC7)
20150801 (BBC7)

"If you were an intelligent designer, would you combine the food processor and the word processor in the same unit?" asks Stephen Fry in this intimate portrait of the most important part of speech.

Evolutionary biologists can't agree whether the complexities of eating and speaking are linked. But the evolution of the mouth is important. It date stamps the start of language and of modern humanity. As soon as we had the equipment to speak, we started, for example, to make art. We hear from a lipreader, who explains why we all hear mouths with our eyes. Ventriloquist Nina Conti explains how she has learned to over-rule the automatic functions of her mouth. A facial surgeon gives us the tour of the inside of the mouth and a psychologist discusses humanity's earliest form of happy oral communication - or language. The smile. But are smiles conscious or unconscious? The psychologist and the lipreader also explain what distinguishes English mouths. And it's not the stiff upper lip.

The programme gives us key information about the development of language. The human mouth's structure is unique among primates. If chimpanzee or neanderthal mouths had developed the same physical structure, would they be able to speak? The answer comes with the help of a monkey, interviewed by Stephen in the studio. He just happened to come along with Nina Conti.

We also learn of a design fault unique to human mouths. The benefit of the power of speech has a potentially fatal downside.

Producer: Nick Baker

A Testbed Production for BBC Radio 4.

Is there a link between the history of eating and speaking? Stephen Fry investigates.

Stephen Fry on the complicated workings of our most important part of speech - the mouth.

"If you were an intelligent designer, would you combine the food processor and the word processor in the same unit?" asks Stephen Fry in this intimate portrait of the most important part of speech.

Evolutionary biologists can't agree whether the complexities of eating and speaking are linked.

But the evolution of the mouth is important.

It date stamps the start of language and of modern humanity.

As soon as we had the equipment to speak, we started, for example, to make art.

We hear from a lipreader, who explains why we all hear mouths with our eyes.

Ventriloquist Nina Conti explains how she has learned to over-rule the automatic functions of her mouth.

A facial surgeon gives us the tour of the inside of the mouth and a psychologist discusses humanity's earliest form of happy oral communication - or language.

The smile.

But are smiles conscious or unconscious? The psychologist and the lipreader also explain what distinguishes English mouths.

And it's not the stiff upper lip.

The programme gives us key information about the development of language.

The human mouth's structure is unique among primates.

If chimpanzee or neanderthal mouths had developed the same physical structure, would they be able to speak? The answer comes with the help of a monkey, interviewed by Stephen in the studio.

He just happened to come along with Nina Conti.

We also learn of a design fault unique to human mouths.

The benefit of the power of speech has a potentially fatal downside.

0402Brevity2011071820150807 (BBC7)
20150808 (BBC7)

Stephen Fry peers at the tiny facets of linguistic brevity in telegrams, lyrics and poems.

Stephen Fry explores 'Brevity' - from lyrics to headlines and epitaphs to telegrams.

We've always had a taste for the tweet-sized. Proverbs and aphorisms go back to the ancient Greeks. We explore the possible links between the Tweet and the Haiku - including that tiny rarity, an English Haiku. We visit Bunhill Cemetery in London with writer Kevin Jackson to enjoy the necessary terseness of epitaphs and reflect on a poetic exponent, William Blake.

The concision of telegrams created poetry and humour born of economy. We recall Oscar Wilde's famous telegram exchange with his publisher in which he enquires about sales of his recent book with a lone '?' The response was of course, '!'

One liner-machine Tim Vine joins Stephen in the studio to discuss his affinity with brevity and 'his passion for small hand grenades of wit' as one reviewer put it. He describes the liberation of the bite-size joke and reflects on why he would make the perfect headline writer.

'The pun is the life blood of the headline' according to Kelvin Mackenzie who recalls the origins of his famous headline from the 1980s - 'Gotcha' and reflects on the importance of short words for any tabloid newspaper editor. Laura Barton, writer for the Guardian, explores her love of short writing and of neologisms in pop lyrics. If 'la la' means 'I love you' and 'wop-bop-a-loop-a' was an expression which captured the freedom of 50s rock and roll, what short word sums up the world today?

Alex Krotoski chooses the word 'Meme' and examines the way technology has given us the means to create ever smaller bespoke packages of information. And more of them. The chopped up doesn't necessarily mean the dumbed down.

Producer: Nick Baker

A Testbed production for BBC Radio 4.

Stephen Fry on Brevity: headlines, epitaphs, telegrams and an English Haiku.

We've always had a taste for the tweet-sized.

Proverbs and aphorisms go back to the ancient Greeks.

We explore the possible links between the Tweet and the Haiku - including that tiny rarity, an English Haiku.

We visit Bunhill Cemetery in London with writer Kevin Jackson to enjoy the necessary terseness of epitaphs and reflect on a poetic exponent, William Blake.

The concision of telegrams created poetry and humour born of economy.

We recall Oscar Wilde's famous telegram exchange with his publisher in which he enquires about sales of his recent book with a lone '?' The response was of course, '!'

One liner-machine Tim Vine joins Stephen in the studio to discuss his affinity with brevity and 'his passion for small hand grenades of wit' as one reviewer put it.

He describes the liberation of the bite-size joke and reflects on why he would make the perfect headline writer.

'The pun is the life blood of the headline' according to Kelvin Mackenzie who recalls the origins of his famous headline from the 1980s - 'Gotcha' and reflects on the importance of short words for any tabloid newspaper editor.

Laura Barton, writer for the Guardian, explores her love of short writing and of neologisms in pop lyrics.

If 'la la' means 'I love you' and 'wop-bop-a-loop-a' was an expression which captured the freedom of 50s rock and roll, what short word sums up the world today?

Alex Krotoski chooses the word 'Meme' and examines the way technology has given us the means to create ever smaller bespoke packages of information.

And more of them.

The chopped up doesn't necessarily mean the dumbed down.

0403Persuasion2011072520150814 (BBC7)
20150815 (BBC7)

Stephen Fry persuades you to listen to a programme about persuasive language.

The language of persuasion interrogated. Advertisers, lawyers, cold callers and politicians are all, in a way, language experts. And we are all targets for people who try to persuade us of something, whether to buy a particular brand of soap powder, change our car insurance, or vote for a political party, for instance. And most of us at one time or another try to persuade other people to do something that we want them to do for us. It might be that it's to give us a job, come on holiday with us, or lend us a fiver until pay day. Is it possible to maximize your chances of success with the right approach, and by simply using the right words control someone else's behaviour?

How did the great persuaders of the past sway their audiences? We look at rhetoric and gesture, as well as hearing from an advertising executive, a professor of political history, a legal expert, and someone who runs one of the country's most successful telemarketing companies. Just how good do you have to be to sell someone something over the telephone? How hard is it to sell anything face-face with your client? We hear what happens when someone from one of Britain's most influential management training institutions observes a man selling sausages for his living from a stall in a London market. Does a humble street trader use the same devices as a vast multi-national corporation when it comes to getting you to put your hand in your pocket? You will listen, won't you? You know you deserve it.

Producer: Ian Gardhouse

A Testbed Production for BBC Radio 4.

The language of persuasion interrogated.

Advertisers, lawyers, cold callers and politicians are all, in a way, language experts.

And we are all targets for people who try to persuade us of something, whether to buy a particular brand of soap powder, change our car insurance, or vote for a political party, for instance.

And most of us at one time or another try to persuade other people to do something that we want them to do for us.

It might be that it's to give us a job, come on holiday with us, or lend us a fiver until pay day.

Is it possible to maximize your chances of success with the right approach, and by simply using the right words control someone else's behaviour?

How did the great persuaders of the past sway their audiences? We look at rhetoric and gesture, as well as hearing from an advertising executive, a professor of political history, a legal expert, and someone who runs one of the country's most successful telemarketing companies.

Just how good do you have to be to sell someone something over the telephone? How hard is it to sell anything face-face with your client? We hear what happens when someone from one of Britain's most influential management training institutions observes a man selling sausages for his living from a stall in a London market.

Does a humble street trader use the same devices as a vast multi-national corporation when it comes to getting you to put your hand in your pocket? You will listen, won't you? You know you deserve it.

0404 LASTClass20110801

Stephen Fry asks whether we're bovvered by the issue of class and speech.

Stephen Fry's idiosyncratic meander along the byways of English takes him into dangerous territory: Language and Class. Is it still the contentious issue it used to be?

In the Nineteen Fifties a famous distinction was drawn between what came to be called "U" and "Non-U" words, expressions and pronunciations that were supposed to give a pretty clear indication as to which class the speaker belonged. That's all old hat now surely? Or are there still differences between the way the social classes speak, and are perceived?

Once the social boundaries were very clear. Now they seem a lot more porous. So have we changed the way we speak to cope with social changes? The answer - according to experts in the programme seems to be "yes, but not as much as you might think".

With the help of a socio-linguist, a waspish columnist, a professional voice coach and Yorkshire poet Ian Macmillan, Stephen looks at the history of class and speech, and finds that changes have been subtle. Yet for many old tribalisms remain.

Macmillan helps show how the issues always seem to be debated in a metropolitan context. They take on a very different hue if seen from elsewhere.

Producer: Ian Gardhouse

A Testbed Production for BBC Radio 4.

Stephen Fry's idiosyncratic meander along the byways of English takes him into dangerous territory: Language and Class.

Is it still the contentious issue it used to be?

In the Nineteen Fifties a famous distinction was drawn between what came to be called "U" and "Non-U" words, expressions and pronunciations that were supposed to give a pretty clear indication as to which class the speaker belonged.

That's all old hat now surely? Or are there still differences between the way the social classes speak, and are perceived?

Once the social boundaries were very clear.

Now they seem a lot more porous.

So have we changed the way we speak to cope with social changes? The answer - according to experts in the programme seems to be "yes, but not as much as you might think".

With the help of a socio-linguist, a waspish columnist, a professional voice coach and Yorkshire poet Ian Macmillan, Stephen looks at the history of class and speech, and finds that changes have been subtle.

Yet for many old tribalisms remain.

Macmillan helps show how the issues always seem to be debated in a metropolitan context.

They take on a very different hue if seen from elsewhere.

050120120816

Stephen Fry gets help from David Hockney on how language and colour work together.

David Hockney rightly observes to Stephen Fry that it feels odd to be making a programme about colour on the radio. In a way, that's the point. Colour is subjective and emotive. The very phrase "colourful language" is a metaphor for vividness. But, until quite recently, we've been confused about how colour language developed. A discovery by statesman William Gladstone, who was also a Homer expert, led to a staggeringly wrongheaded theory. Gladstone helped show that most ancient cultures didn't have a word for blue. As a result, it was concluded that the ancients had under-developed colour vision. The reality was that they had under-developed vocabularies.

We meet a man who sees no colour but hears it electronically and can "name" colours with audio signals. We also hear from the head of colour marketing at Dulux paints whose job it is to find new words for new colours. And a bilingual woman says she might think differently about colour depending on which language she's using. The conclusion - how we see colour and how we describe it can shed light onto how language works.

Produced by Nick Baker

A Testbed production for BBC Radio 4.

0502Intonation20120823

Stephen Fry on the ups and downs of English. Intonation can make sentences somersault.

"It ain't what you say, but the way that you say it". David Blunkett surprises us with song and reveals how important intonation is in his life. Anne Karpf and daughter Lola share some familial secrets and the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art lets us observe an intonation class. Stephen himself plays with the intonation of the football results in order to better the record of his team, Norwich City.

Joining Stephen in the studio and bringing some academic grist to the intonational mill is speech coach Dr Geoff Lindsey, who introduces us to some of the concepts and practices of this interesting phenomenon of the English language.

Have you experienced HRT? No, it's not what you're thinking. It's High Rise Terminal - or what Stephen calls "Australian Question Intonation", a particular affliction for the host of this entertaining programme. It's the ending of every sentence with a question, even when it isn't one? Together, Stephen and Geoff try and work out how it works, why it annoys and how the intonation at the end of a sentence can affect its meaning.

Producer: Merilyn Harris

A Testbed production for BBC Radio 4.

0503Conversation20120830

Stephen Fry explores the many facets of human conversation, from banter and gossip to drama and debate.

He hears how the art of conversation has been interpreted over the decades and how rare it is today to find time for lingering conversation. We visit a nursery to hear budding pre-school conversationalists and the School of Life where people can take classes in how to improve conversational skills. One student says, "So many of our daily conversations are superficial. I want to learn how to make conversation an adventure."

Broadcaster Fi Glover joins Stephen in the studio to discuss her experience of conversation on air. She explains how a broadcast interview can also be a conversation and warns that the word "because" can be a conversation-stopper.

Philosopher Theodore Zeldin has spent a lifetime discussing conversation. He's also the thinker behind an idea known as the Menu of Conversation where strangers are encouraged to share intimate and thought provoking talk over a menu of discussion points. He says, "People are mysterious creatures. In my mind a good conversation doesn't get going for at least an hour."

We also hear from Paul Abbott, screen writer and creator of the TV series Shameless, about conversation from the dramatist's view point. "Conversation is at the centre of my life. I've become a genius at tracking multiple conversations. I'm constantly listening out for the patterns behind the way people talk to each other."

And food writer Claudia Roden describes the marriage that is food and conversation, from the intimacy of the kitchen to the open forum of the dinner table.

Producer: Sarah Cuddon

A Testbed production for BBC Radio 4.

Stephen Fry celebrates the important verbal art and social tool of conversation.

0504 LASTThe Story Of X20120906

Stephen Fry's X rated account of the 24th letter of the English alphabet starts in ancient Greece and ends with exploitation movies carrying X ratings. On the way we hear the truth about how x was used as a signature, its place in algebra, marketing and medicine, and with the help of Mr Gyles Brandreth why X is a mixed blessing in the English version of Scrabble.

We venture into the unknown with the story of physicist Willhelm Roentgen who discovered an odd luminescent ray that appeared to have immoral properties, and Mark Kermode explains to Stephen why marking movies with an X made them seem more attractive to the very audience they were designed to exclude.

And we end with some affectionate xxxx kisses on the bottom with a mathematical explanation as to how and why you gottem and what they mean, courtesy of Rene Descartes and Fats Waller.

Producer: Nick Baker

A Testbed Production for BBC Radio 4.

Stephen Fry explores the eXtraordinary story of the 24th letter of the English alphabet.

0601Rhetoric Rehabilitated20130826

Nowadays 'rhetoric' can't be trusted. Stephen Fry attempts to restore its noble status.

It's a 2500 year old system of public speaking, a system of spoken language designed to persuade. It was the bedrock of democracy, widely admired and studied until fairly recently. Now though, "rhetoric" is usually considered the language of wily politicians and overblown dictators - it's not to be trusted, it's misleading, it's a posh word for spin.

In this programme, the first of a new series of Fry's English Delight, Stephen Fry outlines the history of rhetoric, and argues that we should try and restore its original noble meaning.

He's helped by Professor Jennifer Richards and Sam Leith, both rhetoric fans, who use rhetoric to dismember three speeches: a backslapping post-Olympic one by Boris Johnson; a chillingly explicit one by Colonel Tim Collins to his battalion at the beginning of the 2003 Iraq war, and a moving one by US Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. She was the victim of an attempted assassination, yet two years later she overcame her injuries to deliver an impassioned speech to the US Senate. It was simple and to the point, yet our experts conclude she was still using rhetorical devices.

Stephen Fry and Sam Leith concede there's an element of "geekery" in rhetoric. They enjoy a bout of "figure spotting" - revelling in terms like "antanaclasis" and "dialysis".

What emerges is that patterns of public speech (the power of three, for example) may have been set down in ancient times - but they still work. Speechwriting trainer Alan Barker and members of the Cambridge Union Debating Society demonstrate how standards of oratory and debate are key to our civilisation.

Producer: Nick Baker

A Testbed production for BBC Radio 4.

0602Spelling20130902

How did our spelling system get so chaotic? Stephen Fry investigates.

The spelling of English has always been a strange. As Stephen Fry puts it "I before e except after c. Weird!"

Stephen asks how our spelling became so irregular, and whether we can do anything to simplify it - with the help of Professor David Crystal who explains how a history of attempted language reform has probably made things steadily worse.

The programme starts with a mysterious postcard from a listener, in an almost unrecognisable form of English writing. Stephen eventually gets a translation from his huge band of Twitter followers. He also finds out how the commercial success of My Fair Lady helped fund a 20th Century attempt at reform, and hears from a current member of the English Spelling Society about how she would "tidy up" English spelling.

What emerges is that there is probably only one set of circumstances in which language can be systematically reformed. Lexicographer Noah Webster knew that his fellow countrymen in the New World would welcome a form of writing that distanced them from their British "oppressor" - and his dictionary, with its simplified spelling, was an instant success.

Producer: Nick Baker

A Testbed production for BBC Radio 4.

0603Words Without End20130909

Stephen Fry on our ever-expanding lexicon. How many words do you know?

Have you been 'trolled' on the Internet lately? Or perhaps 'bangalored' at work? Just a couple of the hundreds of new words absorbed by the English language every year. Like the ever expanding universe, our lexicon is getting bigger and bigger - truly words without end.

Since the publication of the Oxford English Dictionary in 1928, its number of words has more than doubled. It's doubtful there will be another printed edition. Online since the year 2000, it receives two million page views a month. Stephen Fry, a self-confessed dictionary addict, looks at how dictionaries have changed since Dr Johnson's day.

Stephen's guest is Michael Rundell, Editor in Chief of Macmillan Dictionaries - not an example of the 'cardiganed old duffer' lexicographer of yore but one who has the latest computer software at his fingertips. Card indexes have given way to corpora of billions of words, assessing the latest and most accurate word usage, and 'crowdsourcing' has democratised the compilation of twenty-first century dictionaries.

Stephen and Michael discuss the sources from which new words spring, including social media and global English. Actress and writer Nina Wadia provides a sketch using examples of today's Indian English, which in the future might join bungalow and pyjamas, their nineteenth century compatriots, in the O.E.D. Averil Coxhead from New Zealand contributes her research - how many words do we know and, perhaps more importantly, how many can we use? And for fellow Radio 4 wordaholics, Stephen offers a special vocabulary test

Producer: Merilyn Harris

A Testbed production for BBC Radio 4.

0604 LASTWtf20130916

In a special late night Fry's English Delight, Stephen Fry and guests ponder the history, culture and legality of "The F word". With the help of language expert Professor Geoffrey Hughes we trace it back to the thirteenth century, when it was fairly harmless, and chart its progress to the present day. What makes the history of the word interesting if not difficult is that there was always a taboo about writing it down. Many explanations about the provenance of the word, like Fornicate Under Command of the King, are entertainingly off-target.

Denis Norden, present when it was first used on live television in 1965, remembers an even more shocking example from his teenage years in the 1930's; Graham Linehan, co-creator of Father Ted tells a story about the Irish word "feck", which he says is less offensive than it sounds. Meanwhile Kathy Burke reflects on how the English F word is used and misused today.

Stephen's guests discuss the word in its sexual context and whether less "aggressive" forms are preferable. They also talk about its changing level of taboo. Geoffrey Robertson adds a legal perspective, reflecting on the word's prominence in the Lady Chatterley Trial and its current legal status And lexicographer Jesse Sheidlower guides us through his own lexicon, The F Word, commenting on the versatility of the word and the diversity of uses to which it has been put.

Producer: Nick Baker

A Testbed production for BBC Radio 4.

0701Magic20140804

Stephen Fry celebrates the mind-altering and mysterious language of magic.

Language and magic have a mysterious relationship, which is probed in this programme by Stephen Fry. It's a beguiling, secret world in which magicians and psychologists feel equally at home. The common factor - nobody knows exactly how either works.

Derren Brown, illusionist and mentalist, is Stephen's guest. He describes how the idea of magic features in his work, how the art of persuasion is akin to magic, and how some people are more susceptible than others to this mysterious - largely verbal - art. Derren also exerts an amazing power over Stephen, despite them being two hundred miles apart. And he does it using words alone.

From a psychological and neuro-scientific angle, Dr Steven Pinker examines the idea that language itself is a form of magic and the use of words give us the power to change our perception of reality.

And we venture into the coven of Davenport's Magic Shop to meet some young Harry Potters trying out their stage patter. Magic Circle Vice President Richard Penrose leads us to a safe containing the first ever glossary of magic terminology -The Discovery of Witchcraft - and utters some magic words he then refuses to explain.

Folklorist Juliette Wood offers some theories as to the origins of taboo words like Hocus Pocus and Abracadabra. Philip Pullman talks about the magical effect of poetry. And Stephen himself conjures another poetic figure from history, the great Magus Prospero from Shakespeare's The Tempest, to demonstrate Shakespeare's use of magical language to create new worlds.

Producer: Sarah Cuddon

A Testbed production for BBC Radio 4.

0702Capital Punishment20140811

Stephen Fry finds the business of capital letters and proper nouns punishingly hard.

Adopting a wild west theme, Stephen ventures into the untamed territory of names, place names, brands and trademarks.

For example, 'wild west' - should those two words have capitals? Stephen hears from a lexicographer in a cowboy hat, some west country cows (West Country cows?) an intellectual property lawyer and an onomastician - the name given to name experts.

What he finds out is that 'capital-ism' changes its rules, and may be threatened by technology, as well as discovering that trade mark owners will be quite assertive about making sure you spell their brands with capital letters. What the programme really asks, to misquote Juliet, is what is a name? And do names operate differently to other words?

One of the answers is counterintuitive. Linguistically, names don't always behave like other words.

Capitalising on this, Stephen will conduct tests on listeners' ability to capitalise correctly. The trouble is the solutions aren't always clear.

There will be no mention of hoovering in this programme. Or should that be Hoovering?

Producer: Nick Baker

A Testbed production for BBC Radio 4.

0703Reading Aloud20140818

Stephen Fry looks at the practice of reading aloud, from Roman times to the present day.

Stephen Fry looks at the history and practice of reading aloud.

Silent reading is a relatively new accomplishment for man. In Greek and Roman times, reading silently to oneself was frowned on - libraries resonated with the rumble of individuals reading aloud to themselves. Skill in the art was much respected and it was fashionable to hold soirees at which one read aloud to one's friends.

Pliny the Younger was so ashamed of his lack of skill in this area that he recruited a talented slave to conceal himself behind a curtain and read aloud a manuscript while Pliny mimed delivery of the content to the audience seated in front - the first recorded example of the art of lip-syncing.

Later, monks started putting spaces between the words of a manuscript so it was easier to make silent sense of the content and, over the centuries as populations became more literate, so reading silently became the norm.

But reading aloud didn't go away. Stephen's studio guest is Professor John Mullan of University College, London, who provides fascinating insight into the greats of literature and their skills in this area - Austen, Dickens, Stevenson. He points out that contemporary authors are having to hone these skills in order to satisfy the demands of attendees at the ever growing number of literary festivals, eager to hear text delivered in the authorial voice.

We hear also from Jane Davis and members of her Reader Organisation in Liverpool, a charity working to connect people with great literature through shared reading aloud. Damien who is bi-polar, and Louise who has Asperger Syndrome, are witnesses to the change the simple art of reading aloud can bring to troubled lives.

Producer: Merilyn Harris

A Testbed production for BBC Radio 4.

0704 LASTPlain English20140825

Stephen Fry finds the subject of plain English can get complicated.

Plain English can be very valuable. Clarity, precision and simplicity are highly important - in an airline safety announcement, in online terms and conditions or instruction manuals, or messages from public bodies.

But Stephen finds it's not as simple as that. A definition of plain-ness is hard to achieve. The study of readability, as it is properly called, can grade certain texts and calibrate their readability, usually coming up with the age of the person who might be expected to read and understand them. But it's not an exact science, and can't come up with a single defined plain-ness.

There ought to be a plain English law, it's been suggested. The trouble is, defining what plain English means can be paradoxically complicated. In order to do so, Stephen and Charlotte dance the tango, examine a famous TV commercial and have an argument. Stephen claims that there is a law enforcing government departments to communicate in plain English. Charlotte doesn't believe him. The outcome of their disagreement is a bit, well, complicated.

Producer: Nick Baker

A Testbed production for BBC Radio 4.

0801Words Fail Me20150811

Stephen Fry gets emotional with John Lydon and Stephen Pinker.

Stephen gets emotional as he attempts to measure the gap between feelings and the language we use to express it. He's joined from LA by John Lydon - a man who famously wears his emotions on his sleeve - albeit torn in several places. John describes how anger has been his energy throughout his life and how being the frontman of a band allows him to express 'proper emotions'.

Emotion and language are both held to be proof of our humanity but, as Professor Stephen Pinker explains, there's a mismatch between the two. We often fail to control the emotion in our language. At other times the language we have to express our emotions fails us altogether.

For some, this can be extra challenging. Dr Rebecca Chilvers at Great Ormond Street Hospital describes how people with autism often struggle to express feelings, over-relying on learned cliche or creating startlingly unusual turns of phrase.

And how does emotion translate to text? Poet Kate Tempest describes the raw feelings that go into her live performances. And we hear how mood and food unite in language. A bad restaurant review often employs the language of a trauma victim to express disgust.

Today the old fashioned love letter has been usurped by a new hieroglyphic language - emoji, serving both our need for micro-second communication and our desire to emote. Should this inspire a frown face, single tear drop or a smiley grin? We now have more than 722 emoji to help us out. But how do we assess their sincerity?

And although machines don't have emotions, computers can now detect them in text. Professor Stephen Pulman, computational linguist, explains 'sentiment analysis'.

Producer: Sarah Cuddon

A Testbed production for BBC Radio 4.

0802Talking About The Weather20150818

Stephen Fry discusses weather and climate talk with experts and climate change activists.

A history of weather-related language, Stephen Fry acknowledges the influence of God, who it was thought controlled the weather and used it as a way of talking to humans, and tracks the Englishness of weather talk from Shakespeare to the present day.

God seemed to have signalled his approval of the English cause in 1588, by helping destroy the Spanish Armada with storms. Unseasonably hot winter weather in 1661, which threatened to spread plague, was interpreted by King Charles as a punishment for human sin. In a densely worded proclamation, he ordered all subjects to fast. The weather reverted to normal and the King ordered another fast to say thank you.

Despite modern meteorology, whose language is explained to Stephen by TV meteorologist Tomasz Shafernaker, people still look for metaphorical meanings in weather. One activist on the climate change demonstration on an unseasonably warm day in 2015, described it as 'an omen'.

The English preoccupation with weather as a topic of conversation can be quite complex. But Stephen argues we don't have adequate language to deal with the onset of future changes in the climate. We find it hard to realise the idea of 'future generations' as yet unborn. He quotes Marx (Groucho) on the posterity question. 'What has posterity ever done for me?'

Producer: Nick Baker

A Testbed production for BBC Radio 4.

0803Do You Promise Not To Tell?20150825

Stephen Fry reveals all, as he decodes the mysterious appeal of secret language.

Do you want to know a secret? Of course you do! And how much more appealing to speak a language which is itself secret, known only to a select few. One of whom is Stephen Fry.

Stephen leads us into a world of private communication, only to find such languages are not just to keep secrets - they also build camaraderie, foster creativity, forge identity, and save lives.

Former New York cop Lou Savelli reveals the lingo of the city's street gangs, taking us to the heart of a dark world where the key to the code means the difference between life and death. Better know your bugs from your puppies.

Former MI6 officer and espionage historian Harry Ferguson lays bare the language of the spy, from obscure jargon to the language you use to talk someone into betraying their country. But, he warns, secrecy can become a poisonous addiction.

There are less sophisticated groups who use secret languages. As linguist Professor Bill Lucas reveals, practically every family secretes obscure neologisms which mean nothing to outsiders. Finding a lost bimmer on the floordrobe does add a bit of colour to the daily grind.

At the doctors, you've encountered a whole world of secret medical language designed to mystify. You might even have benefitted, says Dr Phil Hammond. After all, a sore shoulder doesn't sound like much, but 'call it by a fancy latin name and you can get out of sex, work and the washing up for a week'.

From Polari to Morganish (what do you mean you've never heard of it?) Stephen Fry cracks the code and lets us in on the secret. Just don't tell anyone else.

Producer: Kate Taylor

A Testbed production for BBC Radio 4.

0804English Plus One20150901
0804English Plus One20150901

Stephen Fry celebrates bilinguals' life stories and discovers the bonuses of bilingualism.

Bilinguals have big advantages. Those who are bilingual from birth acquire human empathy earlier and all bilinguals have advantages that go beyond language skills. Stephen delights in the stories of different bilinguals ranging from 4 year-old Luca, becoming fluent in English and French simultaneously, to 70 year old Barry Davis, bilingual in Yiddish and English. Stephen talks to him about how he uses his skill as an interpreter helping members of the London Chasidic community, many of whom have English as a second language.

In between, meet teenager Francesco in Rome who lives in a bilingual family but gets most of his English from the internet. Also there's Berliner Juliane, who learnt her English on an Arkansas rodeo and is a subtitler/translator currently working on MTV's challenging reality show Geordie Shore. And hear how Aatif Nawaz, bilingual comedian and Islam Channel chat show host, enjoys the way a multilingual audience laughs.

Bilingualism isn't that rare and bilinguals, according to new research, are often more attentive and better at decisionmaking. Antonella Sorace, Professor of Developmental Linguistics at Edinburgh University and a world authority, says there's no such thing as the perfect bilingual - one language always dominates, albeit slightly. She's bilingual in English and Italian, the latter surfacing when she gets cross.

There are downsides, but they tend to come from monolinguals' perceptions of bilinguals. People who speak the language of one place perfectly and then reveal they come from another place can make others feel deceived.

Producer: Nick Baker

A Testbed production for BBC Radio 4.