Fry is paying particular attention to minority languages, especially to those which, for various reasons, are under the constant threat of extinction. And language extinction is going on all the time indeed; during the course of our present century some 1000 more languages of this earth are believed eventually to go extinct.
Now, there are two main kinds of minority languages: there are those which are spoken only in one particular geographical region (such as Irish-Gaelic and Basque) or by a specific group of people (such as Yiddish), and those which are spoken by a minority in one country while being the majority language in a neighbouring country (such as Swedish in Finland, German in Northern Italy/South Tyrol and Danish in Schleswig-Holstein).
One cannot have any doubt about Fry's devotion and love for the subject: language as the song of the heart, as one of humankind's most precious immaterial treasures. In his programme he is focusing on minority languages that do not have the support of being the major national language anywhere. He travels to the Basque country of Spain, to the Irish-Gaelic region of Ireland and to Yiddish speakers in London and Israel.
And after a visit to Occitane-speaking environments in the South of France, he guides us to L'Academie Française in Paris. This venerable Academy of “The Immortals” not only keeps issuing decrees about which words are to be allowed in the French language and which are not; it is also highly instrumental in the intentional, systematic suppression of all regional languages of the country. The wiping out of the Breton language has been quite successful; it was carried out during the 19th and 20th centuries by means of systematic humiliation and harassment aimed at Breton speakers. And this policy is being continued ever since, the remaining targets being Occitane in Provence – the language of medieval poets and troubadours – and the Alsatian vernacular with its High German variety in Alsace; just not to mention the language in Corsica.
Fry manages to get a brief interview with the director of the Academy, a certain Mr. Marc Fumaroli – his surname ironically indicating his being of either Italian or Corsican descent. With his customary softness, avoiding any kind of hard-talk-style, Fry makes this elderly gentleman display himself in his stubborn monolithic arrogance and contempt. Anything but French is worthless, useless, in the French Republic. Full stop.
Behind the words and thoughts reflected by Stephen Fry one can feel the spirit of Johann Gottfried Herder, the German Enlightenment philosopher and ardent defender of linguistic and cultural diversity – even though his name is not mentioned by Fry himself. Maybe he has not even had Herder in mind. To Herder the wilful destruction of culture and language is to be seen as a crime – a crime against the human spirit. Language, being the immaterial expression of the culture of a people, or a group of people, the most indispensable form of incarnation of a people's soul and spirit, is always worthy of our protection and our respect.
Differently, though, in France. Not even in the heyday of Soviet Communist centralism minority languages were under such oppression as they have continuously been in the country of Molière and Proust. Total, monolithic conformity and centralism in terms of language is the established norm, not a deviation.
On the other hand, of course, not all extinct languages of the globe have been wilfully destroyed by authorities. War, socio-economical transition, migration, shrinking birthrates etc. have had the same outcome in many cases. And let us not forget that France does not stand alone as evildoer in this respect. What the United Kingdom did to the Irish and Sweden to the Sami in the past does by no means turn out to be more sympathetic. What is so embarrassing about France, however, is its persistence in maintaining linguistic monolithism as its official policy. By consequence, it almost goes without saying that France is the sole nation to refuse ratifying the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages.
Moreover, what France seemingly is not capable of realizing is that there is no contradiction at all between the existence of a small language and a parallel, greater lingua franca, spoken alongside with the mother tongue. There are numerous examples of this across the world: Ireland, Wales, Luxembourg, East African states, India, just to mention a few.
If all Europe would begin to walk “by Herder's hand” - as the Alsatian Robert Minder once suggested – it would be a much happier continent.