Corrected Dec. 14, 10 a.m.
Ann Friedman chooses her words carefully. She knows what they can do.
God created the world with a word, as the Torah explains. That was in Hebrew, of course. Nowadays, English is the lingua franca, the internet has accelerated the creation and spread of slang, popping into existence and disappearing like subatomic particles. Rap shapes the rhythm of discourse. Karaoke channels the music we love.
We live on Planet Word. That’s also the name of the museum in Washington that Friedman, a former elementary school reading instructor and ongoing philanthropist, founded and primarily funded.
“This is a museum that celebrates how we use language. There’s no right or wrong way,” she says. “We’re not saying that text speech is right or wrong — we’re saying, ‘Isn’t it fun?’”
The museum itself, which opened in October in the historic Franklin School, is fun. Like the illuminated manuscripts that tried to stimulate the medieval heart as well as head, Planet Word uses the methods of our time to delight. A visitor might think he had stepped into a video game, one with a gift shop.
“This is a museum built on voice recognition. There’s no explanatory signage — someone will talk to you,” Friedman says. “You’ll hear lots of voices, and in many cases, you can respond.”
We are in a language renaissance, says Friedman, 66, a member of Kol Shalom in Rockville, along with her husband, New York Times columnist Tom Friedman. There are new ways to punctuate written communication. Emojis convey tone when voice and faces can’t. Friedman is ecumenical. So is the museum. “We’re learning to communicate in all different ways.”
She grew up in Iowa. Her father made billions in the shopping mall industry. Ann attended Stanford and then the London School of Economics to study international relations. That’s where she met Tom Friedman. They married in 1978. Their two daughters were born in Jerusalem in the 1980s, when the family lived in Israel. They came to Washington in 1988 and Ann Friedman became a beginning reading and writing teacher in the Montgomery County Public Schools.
There’s a benefit to living elsewhere, she says.
“Other cultures, other languages — they do things differently. It doesn’t have to be the way we do it.”
It isn’t as immersive as walking through the Machaneh Yehudah market in Jerusalem. But if Planet Word does its job right, it will instill a little empathy and humility in its visitors. If we learn to listen to others, Friedman says, we will strengthen American democracy.
Even before visitors enter the building, they come to a babble tree, the “Speaking Willow,” with voices in many languages coming from 500 speakers hanging from metal branches. On the floor inside, a march of the alphabets — including Hebrew letters — leads from the entrance to the welcome desk. The elevator walls give the illusion that you’re surrounded by books.
In the second-floor library, the platonic ideal of a reading room, actual books generate animations on their pages along with spoken commentary. There’s even a secret door among the shelves that leads to a secret room, where a screen displays poetry recited by a voice that fills the tiny space.
A giant globe glowing with 5,000 LED lights is the centerpiece of The Spoken World, a spacious room in which 15 screens interact with visitors to offer a taste of 30 languages, including two types of sign language and the Piscataway language indigenous to Maryland and the District.
On one of the screens, a prerecorded Israeli named Noa will tell you about Hebrew and quiz you on your pronunciation of “L’chaim,” which she says you should say “like you’re at a birthday party or a wedding,” before parting company with “L’hitra’ot.”
So mind your words, Friedman says. “You can be whimsical with words. You can attack with words.”
At best, we can use words to be more civil, empathetic and worldly.
“My hope here is that Planet Word might lead you to say, ‘I want to learn about that language.’”
Planet Word is located at 925 13th St. NW. The museum is closed because of the health emergency. Reopening timing will be determined by public health conditions and guidance from local officials. Go to planetwordmuseum.org.
Corrections: An incorrect statement that Ann Friedman had an adult bat mitzvah in Israel was removed. At the time of writing, the museum was open by reservation. It has since closed due to the health crisis. And the Israeli named Noa was incorrectly described as artificially intelligent. A real girl made the video.