The District's New Language Museum Has Animated Books And Very Nerdy Karaoke Planet Word is a high-tech tribute to language, no prescriptivism allowed.
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The District's New Language Museum Has Animated Books And Very Nerdy Karaoke

The District's New Language Museum Has Animated Books And Very Nerdy Karaoke

The District's New Language Museum Has Animated Books And Very Nerdy Karaoke

The District's New Language Museum Has Animated Books And Very Nerdy Karaoke

Planet Word occupies the Franklin School Building in Franklin Square. Long Story Short Media/Courtesy of Planet Word hide caption

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Long Story Short Media/Courtesy of Planet Word

Planet Word might be the only museum in D.C. — or anywhere — where you can hear a booming-voiced narrator intone the word jorts. And that's just in the first few minutes of a stroll through the new free museum dedicated to language, which opens to visitors Thursday, with appropriate pandemic precautions.

Even before entering the museum, visitors are showered with words. An exhibit called the Speaking Willow Tree stands in the courtyard. Designed by Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, each frond of the tree ends in a small speaker that plays any of the hundreds of languages spoken around the world. At first, it sounds like a distant conversation that barely stands out from the sounds of traffic from nearby Franklin Square. But stepping under the tree en route to the door brings the sound into focus. Walking in, the floors of the lobby are inlaid with early forms of writing and art — from cave paintings to cuneiform symbols.

The museum is located in the historic Franklin School building at 13th and K streets, which underwent a $35 million restoration that grew contentious at times, as when some historic materials were lost, despite the building's status as an official National Historic Landmark.

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In an interview with the Washington Post, museum founder Ann Friedman later cited her lack of real estate experience for the bungled renovation. Friedman put up $20 million of her own funds for the museum; additional donations came from corporations including AT&T and Bloomberg, according to the museum. Throughout the building, pieces of wainscoting and other flourishes nod to the school's century-and-a-half history.

The museum experience starts on the third floor, with visitors making their way down through 10 galleries, each organized around a different history or use of language. The first gallery is a preview of the technology and interactivity that drive the museum's displays. Visitors sit in front of microphones and face a 20-foot wall of carved words of various sizes. A projection highlights certain words and uses animations to bring the wall to life, while a narration gives a quick history of English etymology and where our words come from. Occasionally, it becomes a choose-your-own-adventure, as the narrator encourages visitors to shout out words from the wall. When the computer hears a word like pop, burrito or smog it plays a quick lesson on onomatopoeia, Spanish origins or portmanteau (here's where you'll hear jorts, as an example of the latter).

On a recent visit, the language recognition ran about as smooth on Alexa or Siri on a good day, and it will continue to improve as its AI and the museum's staff process missed commands and update the system.

And while there's plenty to obsess on in Planet Word, a grammar scold won't feel at home. Friedman says it's key that the museum be descriptive, rather than prescriptive about language. "We're not saying, 'This is right and this is wrong, you should talk like this,'" she says. "It's really celebrating the amazing, fun, beautiful ways that people will use words in all different circumstances."

In the first gallery in Planet Word, visitors speak into microphones to control a projection on a large wall of words. Long Story Short Media/Courtesy of Planet Word hide caption

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Long Story Short Media/Courtesy of Planet Word

The invitation to speak with an outdoor voice inside a museum isn't limited to the first gallery. Building on the international theme, the next room features a giant globe made of lights, surrounded by screens on small stands. Faces on the screens engage you in conversation about a spoken or signed language. Talk to the Venezuelan screen, and you'll hear about the different ways people speak Spanish before being challenged to try a tongue twister that's heavy on rolled Rs.

Downstairs, a karaoke lounge offers songs by Drake, Dolly Parton, Outkast and others, with each performance preceded by a short lesson on the artist's wordplay (though while you can sing "Me and Julio Down By The Schoolyard," you won't learn what it's about). There's also a room that teaches the linguistics of jokes through a series of games. You can try to make a friend laugh or play with metaphor using visual aides (a shopping cart full of panes signifies "window shopping" while a knife in a bowl of Froot Loops is a "serial killer").

These rooms are all heavy on technology as a teaching tool. Without ancient artifacts or avant-garde artworks to display, the museum tries to find innovative ways to impart its ideas on language. A conversation with a computer about New Yorker cartoons demonstrates why AI isn't good at making jokes (though who knows how it compares to submissions to the weekly caption contest). A room where guests dip brushes into palette of adjectives and paint a scene to be hibernal or crepuscular teaches how to stack descriptors. The dazzle might distract a younger or less-attentive visitor, but the lessons aren't just buried under the style.

"My idea was maybe with technology and with sort of the 'wow' factor that technology can bring to a museum, we could ... make books and words in language sort of awesome and capture people's imagination," says Friedman.

The most photogenic gallery will quickly quiet anyone who has been laughing, singing and shouting their way through Planet Word. The library looks like a classic reading room with wood tables and shelves and dimmed lights. A center table with works from Ta-Nehisi Coates, Madeleine L'Engle, Jason Reynolds and others makes the texts interactive. Visitors choose a book, place it on the table and a projection puts an animation over the pages while a speaker plays a short narration or a commentary on the text. Reynolds explains a passage in his book, while former D.C. Councilmember William Lightfoot talks about what To Kill A Mockingbird means for lawyers. A nearby shelf opens into a quiet room that highlights poetry, with authors reading their works.

The final room of Planet Word lets exhausted but introspective guests hear from storytellers, artists and others about how language affects their life. Visitors can then share their own story, or head back to the lobby with a few new ideas on language.

"They should be more aware of the words they use and how they are heard by other people, more empathetic to people who don't talk or sound like them," Friedman says.

Planet Word is built for touching, talking and sharing: all things that are a little more fraught during the pandemic. Friedman says she'd hoped to use the museum's auditorium to host book talks, lectures and other literary events, but those will be virtual for the time being. The important thing was to get the museum open. In addition to field trips and virtual events, Friedman says the museum is working on literacy programs, a potential collaboration with Street Sense, and other community outreach.

"When you're creating something like this and you want to have impact, you want that impact to start as soon as possible," says executive director Patty Isacson Sabee.

Planet Word is located at 925 13th St. NW. Open Thursdays-Saturdays, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Registration required, 25 visitors allowed in each hour. FREE.

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