Planet Word.

Last year I posted about a language museum in Paris; now there may be one coming to Washington, DC, according to this piece by Kriston Capps:

The Franklin School in downtown Washington, D.C., has sat vacant since 2008, but the city abandoned the building decades earlier. Designed by Adolf Cluss, the architect who built the Smithsonian Institution’s Castle and its Arts and Industries Building, the revival-style gem survived many efforts to demolish it. More recently, it’s been the focus of everything from mayoral redevelopment schemes to an Occupy demonstration in 2011.

Now another group will take a stab at the historic Franklin School. On Wednesday, the city announced plans to turn the building into a museum of linguistics. Led by philanthropist Ann B. Friedman (wife of New York Times columnist Tom Friedman), “Planet Word” will be an interactive center dedicated to language arts, in the vein of the National Museum of Mathematics in New York, according to the city. […]

So what does one do at a linguistics museum? It’s not entirely clear yet. On the Planet Word site, founder Friedman invites future visitors to “[i]dentify accents, tell us how you say soda and hoagie, learn tips from professional dialect coaches, and climb a Tower of Babel or tunnel through a prepositional playground.” The museum could potentially occupy the space once claimed by the now-defunct Children’s Museum as the D.C. institution with the kid-friendliest programming.

Obviously this project is only in the beginning stages; it may never come to anything, and if it opens it may not be anything like what one would hope, but I can’t help but wish it well. Thanks, Trevor!

Update. See this Lingua Franca piece by Anne Curzan, who’s on the board of the museum and has a fair amount to say about it:

Rethinking K-12 language education in a more linguistically informed way is an ambitious undertaking. At its core is the key realization that linguistics is relevant to our understanding of the language we see and hear every day. My goal, which I share with students in my introductory linguistics course, is to see language incorporated into the curriculum in a much more exploratory way, where students are exploring how language works. As Kirk Hazen at West Virginia University has argued, students should be learning a little linguistics in early grades in the same way that they are learning a little geology, a little chemistry, a little biology, and so on. There is nothing more human than language, and students should learn about how language evolves, how dialects work, how they create new slang, how humans and computers learn language, and more — as they also learn the conventions of standard, formal writing (which right now too often gets equated with “what students need to know about language”). Kids love to play with language, and we could exploit that much more in the elementary- and secondary-school curriculum than we do.

This new museum promises to set the tone for language exploration for people of all ages. The description of Planet Word proposes “to make reading, writing, words, and language surprising, fun, fascinating, and relevant.” We hope to let people experiment with language technologies in a working language-research lab. Exhibits will feature language in all its variation, both spoken and written. The auditorium will host lectures on language, poetry readings, and the like. Most importantly, visitors will have the chance to play with language throughout the museum and seek answers to the questions they may bring (e.g., What makes a word a word? Do men and women speak differently? How could the New York Times dialect quiz pinpoint where I was from? How do puns really work?).


  1. “[i]dentify accents, tell us how you say soda and hoagie, learn tips from professional dialect coaches, and climb a Tower of Babel or tunnel through a prepositional playground”

    Hope there’s more to it than accents of English, though!

  2. tell us how you say soda and hoagie

    I assume this means what words you use for the referents, not what vowel you produce.

  3. But I don’t say soda and hoagie. I say “Coke” and “sub”. Yes, exactly. I thought it was the pronunciation of the vowels at first, too.

  4. ə de vivre says

    tunnel through a prepositional playground

    They’re gonna have problems with visitors getting stranded there.

  5. Heh.

  6. I wonder if they could join forces with the National Museum of Language who are out of College Park, MD, but who don’t have a home for their exhibits. ( )

  7. I’ve posted a comment to that effect back at the OP.

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