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.