Language museum closes doors, moves online

by Caroline Selle

The National Museum of Language closed its physical space and moved online in September. Photo courtesy Caroline Selle.

The National Museum of Language in College Park is crammed into three rooms, all of which overflow with rolled-up maps and posters, stacks of books – and, at the moment,  moving supplies. Since 2008, the museum has resided on the second floor of an office building just off Baltimore Avenue. But on August 26, the physical space officially closed to the public. The lease is up, and the museum is moving out.

Its resources won’t be lost, say staff and volunteers. Online, the museum will continue to exist with open doors. And in the long term, said Executive Assistant Linda Thompson, the hope is to settle into another physical building. In the meantime, though, “we want to expand the [web] site, appeal to the public in as many ways as we can.”

Photo courtesy Caroline Selle.

Even in its state of disarray, the museum shocks and impresses with its comprehensive look at how languages affect people.  Photo courtesy Caroline Selle.

Thompson said there’s been a flurry of interest since the museum announced its physical and virtual moves, one that she and the other affiliated personnel wish might have come sooner. To the best of the employees’ and volunteers’ knowledge, there is no other museum like it in the United States, and only a handful around the world.

The last remaining exhibit is on Noah Webster, whose surname is memorialized with the ubiquitous Merriam-Webster dictionary. A narrow table, perpendicular to windows that give a glimpse of late summer trees, contains – you guessed it – an 1828 Webster dictionary, along with a quill, sample calligraphy, and a 19th-century spelling book.

There’s a framed quiz called, “Do you speak British or American?” and the poster providing the backdrop includes a comic strip with frames titled, “What Put Webster Under a Spell?” and “How Did Webster Frame Spelling?” It’s a look back at the start of American English, with its slight differences in pronunciation and spelling from its parent dialect.

It was just after the War of 1812, said Thompson, “that Americans really began to think of themselves as Americans. Their variety of English at that point was not the same as it was across the sea in Great Britain.” Webster recognized the differences and, in essence, wrote them down.

The National Museum of Language’s Webster exhibit displays a handwritten example of 19th-century calligraphy, created by Linda Thompson.  Photo courtesy Caroline Selle.

The National Museum of Language’s Webster exhibit displays a handwritten example of 19th-century calligraphy, created by Linda Thompson. Photo courtesy Caroline Selle.

Though the rest of the exhibits are packed away, Thompson can easily describe them. Parallel to the Webster exhibit was one on the French language, which is commonly spoken in nations on the North American, Asian, African, and South American, and European continents.

Alan Turnbull, a docent and former board member and trustee, was also happy to share his wealth of knowledge. Before he retired, Turnbull was a Russian-language expert at the Department of Defense.

He described an exhibit that displayed the differences between languages that use pictograms and ones that use alphabets. (Think Chinese or Japanese characters versus Greek or Arabic lettering.)

“We had a number of panels,” said Turnbull, but “I was always embarrassed there was no Cyrillic.”

That exhibit did have a painting created specifically for the museum by an Ethiopian man who made sure to include Amharic words in the art.

The museum was also a resource on artificial languages like Klingon (spoken by aliens in Star Trek) and electronic languages like HTML.

“Since our space is so limited, we’ve only had the option to do three or four major exhibit changes since 2008,” said Thompson.

But even in disarray, the museum spurs one question after another. How do you create a language? What are the origins of slang? Wait, there’s really a book called, The Anatomy of Swearing?

And, most importantly, what does our use of language say about us? Would-be museum visitors will have to find the answer online.

Though the physical space is closed, the museum’s resources can be found online at www.languagemuseum.org. The museum will continue its speaker series with an event on Native American code talkers, held at the College Park City Hall. on October 4 at 3 p.m.