Language Museums: Celebrating the Culture of Words

11th May 2021
Entre les lignes Agency

The world is filled with museums devoted to objects, artefacts and curios. Aside from the most common museums based on history, science or art, there are museums of ships; museums of toys; even museums of umbrellas. We’ve written before about the pleasures offered by multilingual museum showrooms of all kinds. 

But did you know that there’s a rich, diverse collection of museums dedicated to a less tangible artefact – language itself? 

Ottar Grepstad, a linguist who heads up the Ivar Aasen Centre, the oldest language museum in the world, says that “language museums are museums of ideas and issues, more than museums of objects”. 

Language offers a unique perspective into histories, cultures and minds. Grepstad has recently established an International Network of Language Museums to help other enthusiasts of ideas and idioms to find one another. 

But language museums aren’t just for linguistics scholars or multilingual geeks (like us!). Language is art, culture, history, and politics combined. At the best language museums, you’ll learn as much about the stories of people and communities as about the particularities of linguistics. Language is for everyone – and language museums are for everyone. 

As curators of beautiful words, at Entre les lignes, we’re big fans of language museums. The art of translation goes beyond the words on the page to understand other cultures in and through their languages – and vice versa. Language and culture are in a dynamic, two-way dance; each influences the other, and they can’t be separated. 

We’re excited to tell you why language museums are so important to understanding this dance – and to share some of our favourites with you. 

Entre les lignes helps brands craft messaging across languages and cultures. Want to learn how we can help you with translation and transcreation? Get in touch today. 

Language museums offer unique insights 

The first language museum was established in 1898 in Norway, but since the 1990s, there’s been a boom, with new museums opening all around the globe. 

More and more people are understanding what’s special about museums dedicated to languages. Though many museums include aspects of language – especially literary museums, printing museums and history museums – we’ll be focusing on spaces devoted entirely to language use, and the benefits they offer. 

Tracing changes in language

Language and culture follow parallel, interrelated journeys. Language museums help us to understand how both language and culture change, granting us a deeper insight into how societies have adapted and evolved over time.

Many language museums explore the etymology of words and phrases, bringing older historical moments to life by showing how words developed from their ancient roots to their contemporary, popular usage. 

Did you know, for instance, that the word “raccoon” derives from a Native American language group Algonquian? The word arakhun (“scratches with the hands”) refers to the fidgety mammals, and through several centuries of colonial contact, a variant persists in the English language today. The National Museum of Language has many more examples of etymologies related to the animal kingdom.

And the Museo del Libro y de la Lengua in Buenos Aires tracks the development of the particular form of Spanish spoken in Argentina, offering a view of its colonial and indigenous history. 

Language museums also delve into social norms around language use, showing how our sense of which words are polite, insulting, or taboo shifts across time and space. 

Several language museums have set up exhibits specifically exploring how new technologies affect the way we speak, write, and read languages. These raise key questions on how apps and social media are shaping our spelling and word choices – and whether we can tell the difference between language produced by robots, and that written by real people.

Mundolingua in Paris has an interactive exhibition space devoted to language and technology that deals with coding languages, the science of linguistics, and experiments in voice recognition technology. 

Along similar lines, Planet Word, a museum of language in Washington DC, recently hosted an event called “Because internet”, that focused on how language in the internet age evolves in real-time.

Exploring living, spoken language 

Museums often get a bad rap as stuffy, forbidding institutions. 

But museums of language make a point of being interactive, fun, and playful. They don’t only explore official or high-culture texts and manuscripts, but are just as interested in the dynamic ways language is used (and misused) in ordinary life. 

Language museums are guardians of oral, as well as written, language. That means that visiting a language museum is a unique opportunity to celebrate the rich cultural babble of whispered gossip, shared jokes, community proverbs, colloquialisms and non-standard language use. Museums of language explore and enjoy works the way people actually speak them. 

Take a look at virtual exhibit The Dictionary of American Regional English to see how language museums preserve the different words, phrases and pronunciations of distinct groups of people who use the same base language.

Discovering new languages and cultures

Language museums celebrate the diversity of language and open a window onto different cultures, nationalities and societies.  

UNESCO has launched several initiatives to collect and protect “intangible cultural heritage” (ICH) – and they recognise language as a primary conduit of ICH. 

That’s why, at Entre les lignes, we don’t just translate words from one language to another. Instead, we rewrite and transcreate, shaping words to fit new cultures with all the intangible heritage they carry. 

Any act of translation is a meeting of cultures, as well as languages. Multilingual language museums, like the Taalmuseum, the National Museum of Language, and the Museum der Sprachen der Welt stage encounters between entire societies. 

But museums devoted to a single language are also sites of cultural exchange. They remind us that no language is an island  – languages are formed in relationship to others. They often tell stories of migration and multiculturalism, showing how diverse communities contribute to any linguistic tapestry. 

Single-language museums can also introduce you to linguistic cultures you may not know much about. The Dolomite Ladins, who speak a language derived from popular Latin are represented by the Museum Ladin, and the Yugambeh Museum in Australia tells the story of the aboriginal people of the Yugambeh region through their language. 

Even museums in our own native language(s) are spaces of cultural encounter. Learning about the roots of a language we’re familiar with deepens our connection with it, and seeing words out of their usual context makes us think differently, giving us a new lens to explore the language we use every day and how we use it. 

Promoting minority languages

Minority language museums have an important role to play in preserving endangered languages in both spoken and written forms and ensuring they never fully disappear. 

These museums showcase the beauty, value, and even usefulness of minority and regional languages. They can act as a form of cultural memory for disappearing languages or memorials to languages that have been erased. 

Museums of living minority languages also serve a political function, often recovering languages that have been suppressed or forgotten due to cultural shifts or colonial and dictatorial regimes. Language museums can constitute direct forms of language activism by affirming the importance of minority languages and encouraging their use across multiple communities. 

We might think here of the Paraguayan Ateneo de Lengua y Cultura Guaraní, which aims to preserve the Guarani language, or of the Belfast-based Cultúrlann McAdam ó Fiaich, a museum of the Irish language, that seeks to promote the cultural integration of Irish Gaelic in the historically divided context of Northern Ireland.  

Our favourite language museums 

Now that we’ve given you a taste of the range and diversity of language museums – and established why they matter – let’s focus on a few of our favourites.

Canadian Language Museum (Toronto, Canada)

Canada has an especially rich linguistic landscape. It’s a bilingual country, with French and English its two official languages, but hundreds of native languages have historically been spoken across its territories, many of which have been wiped out by French and English as colonial languages. 

Through interactive media, touring exhibitions, and digital collections, the Canadian Language Museum explores the linguistic contexts of French and English and attempts to recover and safeguard indigenous languages. They also aim to recognise the languages of recent immigrants to Canada, as well as heritage languages like Gaelic, which is spoken in areas of Nova Scotia. 

Some particularly interesting exhibitions have included Cree: The People’s Language, which traces Canada’s most widely-spoken aboriginal language and Read Between the Signs: 150 Years of Language in Toronto, which dived into the language on urban landscapes, like the words on street signs. 

Soon, they’ll launch the online exhibit Anthem: Expressions of Canadian Identity.

Museum of the Portuguese Language (São Paolo, Brazil)

The Museu de Lingua Portuguesa has an appropriate – and beautiful – setting in a railway station, representing a cultural hub of linguistic exchange, a site where immigrants arrive into a new culture and language. 

The Museum aims to be a living representation of the Portuguese language, exploring its historical path as well as how it’s spoken today in Brazil. It traces the path of Brazilian Portuguese from Lazio, in Ancient Rome, through several parts of Europe to Portugal, right through to its syncretic introduction into Brazil as a “mestiço” language that incorporates indigenous vocabulary and African words. 

The Museum also exhibits the cultural history of several proto-languages, representing the linguistic diversity of Brazil. 

The physical site offers a sensory journey, with lots of visual content and an interactive, playful feel. They try to honour Brazilian literature, too, with exhibits dedicated to writers like Clarice Lispector, Fernando Pessoa, and Jorge Amado. 

Tragically, the building was partly destroyed by fire in 2015, and it’s currently being reconstructed. Most of the cultural artefacts were saved, and the website currently provides virtual tours of the building, galleries of past exhibitions, and a newsletter.

National Museum of Language (Maryland, USA)

The National Museum of Language is a multilingual project devoted to the appreciation of world languages and the universal aspects of language. 

Since 2014, they’ve operated mainly as a mobile and virtual museum, with travelling programmes and online exhibits, though they plan to open a new physical site in the future. 

The museum is multidisciplinary in nature, traversing the realms of linguistics, science, business, technology, and politics. There’s a strong emphasis on community outreach both through digital collections and through tours of schools and other institutions. 

They pride themselves on their highly interactive, hands-on, multimedia methodologies, and also host events like language trivia nights. 

Their digital exhibit Philogelos: The First Joke Book, which displays over 200 jokes in ancient Greek, with accompanying illustrations, remains one of their most popular items. Another intriguing online project is Multilingual Digital Storytelling, a collection of video and audio children’s stories from dozens of different cultures. We’re particularly fond of the Japanese story, The Marvelous Furoshiki, and the Bosnian five-part tale of Hedgy the Hedgehog.

Esperanto Museum and Collection of Planned Languages (Vienna, Austria)

Esperanto is an artificially constructed language, designed in the late nineteenth century as a universal second language to improve international communication. It incorporates grammatical aspects of several widely-used languages as well as a range of vocabulary inspired by other languages. 

Though Esperanto never became universal as hoped (the word Esperanto means “one who hopes”), it remains the world’s most widely-spoken planned international language, with a thriving minority community of speakers around the world. 

Austria’s Esperanto Museum delves deep into the world of “planned languages”, explaining the history and linguistics of Esperanto and even teaching visitors some of the basics. They also have collections on other planned languages, like Volapuk, Ido and Interlingua. 

Particularly impressive is their extensive library of planned language materials, including manuscripts, sound recordings and posters. 

They also offer an interesting perspective on language more generally, encouraging visitors to understand the ways in which the natural languages we all use are also subject to planning and standardisation. 

The House of the Basque Language –  (Bilbao, Euskal Herria, Spain)

Euskararen Etxea offers a journey through the history and current situation of the Basque language (Euskara), which is spoken, mainly bilingually, by over 750,000 residents of the Basque territories across Spain and France. Basque is a minority language spoken by 28% of people in the Basque Country, and it was heavily repressed during the Francoist dictatorship in Spain. Since the 1960s, the Basque language and culture industry has been growing steadily. 

Euskararen Etxea aims to recuperate Basque as a valuable living language, focusing on Basque as it’s spoken across Euskal Herria, and incorporating regional dialects as well as standardised Basque. 

As well as a physical museum, they offer dynamic online tours and visits. The museum tells the story of how the Basque language has resisted over 6,000 years of history. It is the only surviving pre-Indo-European language in all of Western Europe, and it is structured very differently to the Romance languages spoken in France and Spain – although it uses Latin script and borrows some Romance vocabulary. 

Basque is a source of fascination for linguists, due to its unusual structure and lack of relationship with Indo-European languages. There are several hypotheses in the linguistics world around potential links with other languages, but none have been proven.  

The future of language museums

There’s a whole world of fascinating language museums out there to explore. But it’s still early days for museums of language, which are a relatively new phenomenon.

Hopefully, the future will see more museums dedicated to the languages of Africa and Asia in particular. Most of the world’s languages are spoken on these two continents, but they’re vastly underrepresented across the landscape of language museums. 

Experts say language museums are tending towards increased linguistic diversity – even single-language museums are increasingly emphasising cross-language pollination. 

As online and virtual technology advance further, we can expect to see more focus on the dual interactions between technology and language, including explorations of internet speak, SMS spelling, meme languages, coding languages, and Artificial Intelligence. 

Language museums will continue to grow in importance, giving us new perspectives on the languages we speak, providing valuable insights into languages and cultures we’re unfamiliar with, and preserving minority and endangered languages around the world. 

Entre les lignes helps brands craft messaging across languages and cultures. Want to learn how we can help you with translation and transcreation? Get in touch today.