Mundolingua – Museum of Languages

By Alina Suchanski

Reading time: 12 minutes

Most animals in the world have a voice, yet only one species evolved to have a language. There are more than 7,000 languages globally, but do they all have the same importance geographically, economically, or socially? Is linguistic diversity an asset or a liability? The Museum of Languages, Mundolingua, in Paris, attempts to answer these and many other questions related to language. Alina Suchanski talks to the museum creator and owner, Mark Oremland.

“Words have a magical power. They can either bring the greatest happiness or the deepest despair.”
- Sigmund Freud

By Alina Suchanski

Reading time: 12 minutes

Most animals in the world have a voice, yet only one species evolved to have a language. There are more than 7,000 languages globally, but do they all have the same importance geographically, economically, or socially? Is linguistic diversity an asset or a liability? The Museum of Languages, Mundolingua, in Paris, attempts to answer these and many other questions related to language. Alina Suchanski talks to the museum creator and owner, Mark Oremland.

“Words have a magical power. They can either bring the greatest happiness or the deepest despair.”
– Sigmund Freud

Languages have shaped humanity for centuries and continue to do so to this day. Languages are not static; they constantly change and evolve. However, while some are thriving, others are endangered and, sadly, some are at the cusp of extinction. According to UNESCO, of the 7,000 living languages, 2,283 – about a third – are now endangered, with many having fewer than 1,000 speakers. Researchers estimate that by the next century, up to 90% of today’s languages will have no speakers and may become extinct. This is different to a ‘dead’ language which is “one that is no longer the native language of any community”, even if it is still in use, like Latin (UNESCO, 2021).

Because there are no new languages being ‘born’ anymore, with each one that becomes extinct, the world irreversibly loses some diversity.

An old stone building in Rue Servandoni in the heart of the French capital, Paris, houses one of the most unusual museums in the world. In fact, it’s the only museum of its kind whose subject matter is the language, or more specifically, the multitude of human languages.

Human fascination with different languages – their origins and how they influence another – goes back centuries and has led to the emergence of a language science called linguistics. The question arises: with language being an intangible phenomenon, how does one portray it in a museum? It took Mark Oremland, a New Zealander living in Paris, two decades to figure this out. He came up with the idea in 1993 when, looking for a museum of language or linguistics, he couldn’t find one. But it took twenty years from this ‘light bulb moment’ to Mundolingua Museum opening its doors to the public in 2013.

With a Hungarian mother and a Polish father, both of whom were Jewish, young Mark was exposed to different languages virtually from birth. He studied German and French at university and later obtained a good knowledge of Italian and Spanish.

The ability to speak five languages made him a polyglot (from Greek poly “many” and glôtta “tongue”), but not a linguist. So, he first enrolled at the Paris Descartes University (Université Paris 5 René Descartes) to study the science of language. Formerly known as the Sorbonne University, its campus happens to be in walking distance from the location of Mundolingua Museum. But that’s jumping twenty odd years ahead.

“Gradually over those twenty years, I started collecting pieces for the museum. The acquisition of these items accelerated exponentially in the last year before the museum opening,” Oremland says.

In 2013, a team of craftspeople, computer specialists, students, professors, and translators worked on building, organising, and presenting this material in the different spaces of the museum.

Oremland explains that “the aim was to present the academic knowledge about linguistics in a way that the general public would understand. The challenge was how to represent language concepts in a fun, 3-dimensional way.”

I visited Mundolingua Museum in 2015 and was surprised how its relatively small space was packed with so many interesting exhibits, interactive games, and fascinating facts. I only had a few hours to spare, but I could’ve easily spent a whole day there, learning and testing my knowledge of languages; listening to stories, myths, and legends from different cultures about the origins of their language; playing word games, and generally having fun.

Split into two levels (ground floor and basement), the museum covers 40 different subjects, presenting its information via touch screens accompanied by recordings, along with games and objects that illustrate the various subjects.

The international phonetic alphabet on display at the Mundolingua Museum in Paris

The ground floor is dedicated to Linguistics and Learning. The Linguistics section covers topics such as phonetics and phonology and non-verbal communication; discovering the meaning of words, lexicology, grammar, and syntax.

The Learning section looks at neurolinguistics (researching areas of the brain used for language and writing, and those used to understand and recognise words), and explains the difference between acquiring our mother tongue as opposed to learning another language. In an authentic language lab from the 1980s, one can listen to over 4,000 languages.

Johann Wolfgang Goethe, one of the greatest German poets of all times, once said: “He who knows no foreign languages knows nothing of his own.”

The ground floor connects to the cellar via a staircase that winds itself around a sculptor’s impression of the Tower of Babel. The myth of the Tower of Babel is how Christianity attempts to explain the diversity of languages in the world. The Bible claims that all people on Earth spoke the same language until the construction of the Tower of Babel began in the ancient city of Babylon. They wanted to build the tower tall enough to reach heaven. On hearing that, God jumbled up their languages, so people could no longer understand each other, and scattered them all over the world.

Languages of the World is the theme of most of the museum sections located in the basement. The centrepiece of the basement is a tree of world languages, whose branches represent families of languages (such as Indo-European, Australian Aboriginal or Mayan) and whose leaves correspond to the individual languages. You can learn about different groupings of languages, focusing on how sounds are produced by the human speech organs; for example, tonal languages (e.g., Mandarin), click languages (e.g., Xhosa – one of the official languages of South Africa and Zimbabwe), and whistled languages (e.g., La Gomera and El Hierro, Canary Islands). There is a section dedicated to Braille and sign languages.

One of the original Enigma machines can be viewed at the Mundolingua Museum in Paris

Mundolingua’s most prized possession is one of the original Enigma machines. This was a cipher device used extensively by the German military during World War II to encipher top-secret messages. The Enigma code was considered unbreakable until three Polish mathematicians succeeded in doing so and collaborated with Britain and France to produce their own Enigma ‘double’. An estimated 40,000 Enigma machines were constructed across Europe, Asia, and America. Today there are about 300 still existing, held in museums and by private collectors all over the world (Wikipedia). “This particular one comes from Vermont, USA. I bought it online and flew to America to pick it up and take it back to France,” Oremland says.

Another important item is a replica of the Rosetta Stone. Found in Egypt in 1799 by French officer Pierre-François Bouchard it has text engraved in ancient Egyptian hieroglyphic script and in ancient Greek. The Rosetta Stone was key in deciphering hieroglyphs. The original is held at the British Museum and is the most visited object there.

A lie detector, a Braille typewriter and a replica of the Dead Sea Scrolls are amongst other items of worth. The Dead Sea Scrolls are considered one of the most important finds in the history of archaeology and have great historical, religious, and linguistic significance because they include the oldest surviving manuscripts written mostly in Hebrew.

“Language is power, life and the instrument of culture, the instrument of domination and liberation.”
– Angela Carter, English poet, writer, and journalist.

When a dominant nation replaces the language and culture of the colonised nation (imperialism), languages can become extinct. In North America, English displaced native American languages. In South America, Spanish and Portuguese replaced most of the Mayan and other indigenous languages. In Africa, it was French and Dutch. In China, Cantonese and Mandarin became dominant to the detriment of other smaller communities of languages (ILS, 2019).

Often, it’s a deliberate strategy of the coloniser or invader to annihilate the subdued country’s language and culture by applying tactics such as political persecution, discrimination, banning the native languages, and even enforcing the translocation of whole communities.

In my native Poland – as recently as a century ago, when Poland was partitioned by Russia, Prussia, and Austria – books in the Polish language were burned, children were punished for speaking Polish at school, and Russian and German replaced Polish as the country’s official language.

Māori people in Aotearoa had similar experiences leading to a decline of Te Reo Māori to the point that by the mid-20th century, there were concerns that the language was dying out.

Linguists agree that for any language to be salvaged, the drive and effort must come from among the people speaking it. Pride in their language and culture, and a passion to preserve them are the deciding factors (ILS, 2019).

The Māori people of Aotearoa have that pride, and today, Te Reo Māori is experiencing a revival. In 1985, Māori leaders asserted that Te Reo was a taonga (treasure) that the Crown (government) was obliged to protect under the Treaty of Waitangi. Te Reo Māori was made an official language of New Zealand under the Māori Language Act 1987 (Ballara, 2021).

According to Mark Oremland, in modern linguistics, all languages are treated as equal and all have the same right to exist. “I avoid words like dialect or pidgin because they carry with them the idea of hierarchy. In modern linguistics, such concepts should not exist.

“Imagine a world without languages. When you try, you realise how fundamental language is for humanity,” he says.

 

Sources: 1. The World Atlas of Languages, UNESCO 2. Collins English Dictionary, 2nd edition 3. Enigma machine; 4. Dead Sea Scrolls, Wikipedia 5. Understanding Extinct Languages: When and Why They Die Off, International Language Services Inc. 6. History of the Māori language, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), nzhistory.govt.nz

Photos supplied

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