A Visit to Planet Word

By Martin Morse Wooster: Filers coming to DisCon III will want to know about things to do outside of the Shoreham. Well, we now have a free museum devoted to words and language, Planet Word[1] which opened in Washington, DC last October.   I went to the museum yesterday, and here is what it is like.

This museum has big money behind it (the main hall is sponsored by Bloomberg Philanthropies) and they’ve spent a lot of money on tech.  You begin on the third floor in a room with a wall full of words in three-dimensional letters.  The audience can choose words and the narrator then explains where the words come from.  The fun fact you learn in this presentation is that the number one coiners of new words are teenage girls.

The walls on the third floor have interactive displays with little language lessons.  There is one devoted to constructed languages, with time given to Klingon, Dothraki, Esperanto, and the languages invented by Tolkien.

Speaking Willow Tree

The centerpiece of the third floor is a giant globe with booths where speakers explain their languages.  The ones I heard were the Philippine language Tagalog, Japanese, Arabic, and French.  The speakers give simple lessons (there’s a simpler way to say “good-bye” in Japanese than “sayonara”).  The French speaker assumed that her audience knew something about her language, so we learned how to roll our r’s in “crème brulee” and the secret French language variant Velran, which is the French version of pig-Latin.

Oh, and at least once per lesson the whole globe lights up and displays something like an object in the lesson (ice cream, an apple).

At this point the museum’s planners ran out of ideas.  The second floor has two exhibits.  There’s a library where you can see little animations of books displayed on the shelves.  There’s also a karaoke exhibit with the excuse that they show the rhyme schemes songwriters use.  It wasn’t for me but people were enjoying themselves singing Taylor Swift and Disney power ballads.

The second floor has the free souvenir you need to get.  It’s a photo booth, sponsored by the College Board, where you have your photo displayed next to a word high schoolers are supposed to know for their SATs.  My word was “aristocratic.’  I thought this was a cool idea.

Finally the first floor has an exhibit on how advertisers distort words in their ads.   It’s only worth seeing if you believe ads (and if you do, I have a bridge to sell you).

You should know I’m a guy who feels he has to see everything in a museum.  It took me 1-¾ hours to take in Planet Word.  If I were you, I’d spend 15 minutes more than I did at the giant globe and skip everything on the first and second floors except the photo booth.

If you’re seeing museums in Washington, your first choice is as many Smithsonian museums as you have time for.  Planet Word isn’t a bad second choice.  I’m glad I saw it.

[1] On the subway, take the Red Line south to Metro Center and then the Blue, Orange and Silver Lines one stop west to McPherson Square.  The museum is on the corner of 13th and K (in the subway station, you’re looking for “Franklin School” on the map).

4 thoughts on “A Visit to Planet Word

  1. So what’s the simpler Japanese goodbye? What comes to mind from my viewing of anime would be transliterated “ja, mata”, but I’m curious to know whether it was that or something else.

  2. David Goldfarb: I’m sorry, but i don’t remember the simpler Japanese words for “goodbye.” I wasn’t taking notes.

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