Adniti praemio dignum est

The National Museum of Language deserves an A-plus for effort

February 9, 2012

“Is this it?” asked a confused visitor to the National Museum of Language. The name implies a more magisterial setting than this low-ceilinged plot of green institutional carpet in a College Park, Md., office building. The answer, “There are a few displays across the hall,” seemed disappointing, and the man wandered away.

Do not judge the NML. It’s doing the best it can with what it has: a few rooms, not much funding, and knowledgeable, attentive docents for whom the museum is a labor of love.

Backstory: The NML opened in 2008, after 10 years of planning. It spreads the good news about language and language-learning.

Main Room: The NML goes straight to the big concepts. “Reading and writing are types of code-breaking,” the first placard says. Reading Us Weekly is an act of decryption! The studious guest will leave knowing the differences between pictographic, ideographic and logographic writing systems; that about half the languages that use alphabets depict only consonants; and that English speakers can thank Phoenician traders for spreading what became the Roman alphabet. One can learn to illuminate manuscripts, a skill that will give any résumé that special something. The NML is big on the importance of Latin in everyday life — do NOT call it a dead language.

Back Room: The NML has every right to capitalize on the cachet of “national,” as evidenced by the exhibit “Emerging American Language in 1812.” Changes in spellings and vocabulary helped Americans differentiate themselves from their former British overlords. Dictionary czar Noah Webster was a key player, adding Native American words such as “succotash” to the lexicon and pushing spelling reforms such as “color” for “colour” and “wimmen” for “women.” That one failed, as did “spunge” for “sponge.”

Gifts: Take our headline to heart ­ — it’s Latin for “to make an effort is worthy of a reward” — and donate.

National Museum of Language, 7100 Baltimore Ave., Executive Building Suite 202, College Park, Md.; 301-864-7071.
Holly J. Morris is Express' managing editor for features.
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