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Radio review: People Fixing the World, and Nazis: The road to power

20 January 2023

University of Adelaide

Professor Ghil’ad Zuckermann, of Adelaide University

Professor Ghil’ad Zuckermann, of Adelaide University

IN THE language of the Barngarla of South Australia, there is — as one might expect — a word for an emu. There is a separate word for several emus. And then there is a word for lots of emus. The form is called a “super-plural”, and is just one of the weird and wonderful aspects of a language that had reached near-extinction until the intervention of a linguistics professor. The project, conducted by Professor Ghil’ad Zuckermann, of Adelaide University, drawing on his expertise in Hebrew, was explored in People Fixing the World (World Service, Tuesday of last week).

The last fluent speaker of Barngala died in 1960; but, thanks largely to a dictionary compiled by a German Lutheran missionary in the 1840s, the fundamental elements of the language are still accessible. There are multiple ironies here, which Myra Anubi’s conscientious presentation was obliged to acknowledge: not least, that a document compiled — it was argued — to facilitate the suppression of indigenous culture should now provide an essential resource for its revival.

Nor has everyone in the Barngala community been comfortable with the intervention of an outside academic, teaching them how to sing “Head, shoulders, knees and toes” in their ancestral tongue.

Leaving aside these delicate questions, one would assume that the inherent worthiness of such a project required no additional justification. That so many languages and dialects are disappearing around the world should itself be a stimulus to action, whether or not the links to poor physical and mental health reported here are proven or provable. Fixing the world is a complicated business, but it is possible to overthink it.

In 2021, I reported favourably on Nuremburg (Radio, 3 September 2021), a large-scale docu-drama telling the many stories that lie behind the Nuremburg trials. Jonathan Myerson — writer and director — has now produced the eight-part series Nazis: The road to power (Radio 4, Thursdays, and on iPlayer).

It is every bit as good as the earlier series, and benefits from a brilliant cast, including Toby Stephens, Sir Derek Jacobi, and Juliet Stevenson. At the dark heart is Tom Mothersdale as Hitler; in our first encounter, a mildly spoken corporal, evolving over the first five episodes into a frenzied speaker and splenetic personality, the guttural Rs (so much more difficult to affect in English than German) growing in intensity.

For each stage of the story, we are guided by a different narrator, a close admirer of the emergent Führer. And it is Myerson’s singular skill to direct us through some murky and complicated history while maintaining a suitable balance between the docu- and the drama. You wouldn’t expect many laughs from this material, although the odd scene — for instance, the politics of lavatories, as explored during the Bavarian Soviet Republic of 1918 — invites a grim smile; as well as an authentic vision of the political and intellectual chaos in which Nazism was conceived and nurtured.

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