The World in Words

The World in Words
The World in Words is a podcast about languages and the people who speak them. What happens to the brain on bilingualism? Does it matter that so many languages are dying out? Should we fear the rise of global English? Is the United States losing its linguistic cohesion? Why are Chinese tech words so inventive? Why does Icelandic have so many cool swearwords? Patrick Cox and Nina Porzucki bring you stories from the world’s linguistic frontlines. Also at

The sci-fi of another language
Mar 13 • 27 min
In the West, we are used to sci-fi written by English-speakers who dream up English-speaking utopias and dystopias. Often in the final reel, humanity is saved by English-speaking heroes. So what should we expect from China’s newly-thriving sci-fi scene?…
A family divided by English
Oct 10, 2018 • 21 min
When American Lynne Murphy says ‘sure’ to her British husband, he thinks she means ‘not really.’ After 18 years together, they still disagree— and not just on ‘sure.’
Poetry thieves
Sep 5, 2018 • 36 min
Some people see British poet Ira Lightman as a champion of poets whose verses he valiantly defends. Others view him as a blowhard who delights in ruining other people’s reputations. Either way, the story of his poetry sleuthing might make you think…
The holes between the dots
Aug 8, 2018 • 26 min
Some people believe technology will render Braille obsolete, that blind people will choose talking apps and audiobooks over embossed dots. Maybe, but Braille has been written off many times before. Each time, it has come back stronger. We trace Braille…
How soccer became multilingual
Jun 19, 2018 • 15 min
Professional soccer used to export its English-language terminology, giving other languages words like ‘penalty’ and ‘goal.’ But now, the roles are reversed. English-speakers use expressions loaned from other languages to describe skill moves: ‘rabona,’…
How has Basque survived?
May 31, 2018 • 34 min
Basque is a language isolate. Spoken in a region that spans northern Spain across the border into southern France, it is not part of the Indo-European language family. It’s not related to Spanish or French or German or Greek or any known language. The…
Your brain on improv
May 24, 2018 • 22 min
Ever wondered about people who can improvise on stage? How the words seem to come so easily? Neuroscientist Charles Limb and comedian Anthony Veneziale did. First came the bromance, then Veneziale found himself improvising inside an fMRI machine.
My language is my home
May 17, 2018 • 21 min
Lea is a teenager born and raised in Japan. Her mother is Chinese, her father American. She speaks English, Mandarin and Japanese but isn’t sure which of them is her mother tongue. Karolina lives in Boston but grew up in several countries and speaks a…
Abandoning your mother tongue
May 9, 2018 • 18 min
Alina Simone was born in the Soviet Union to Russian-speaking parents and now lives in New York. She initially raised her daughter to speak both English and Russian. So why did she give up on Russian and send her daughter to a Chinese immersion school?
If you could talk to the animals
Apr 25, 2018 • 28 min
Do you talk to your dog? Does your dog talk back to you? Dr. Doolittle’s dream of talking to the animals is one many of us can share. But what do all of those howls and growls mean and is it really language? This week on the podcast NOVA’s Ari Daniel…
The Story of ‘X’
Apr 3, 2018 • 26 min
From X-rated to Gen X to Latinx, the meaning of ‘X’ has shifted while retaining an edgy, transgressive quality. We trace the meandering semantic route of ‘X’ through the 20th and 21st centuries, with help from Afro-Latinx writer Jack Qu’emi, retired…
The three-letter-word that rocked a nation
Mar 27, 2018 • 29 min
In 2012, a little known Swedish press published a children’s book that sparked a nationwide debate. The debate wasn’t about the plot of the book, nor the pictures, but concerned a three-letter word used by the main character of the story. That word was…
A British Mx Tape
Mar 19, 2018 • 27 min
The UK is obsessed with honorifics. Remember, this is the land of Barons and Earls and Ladies and Sirs and the ultimate HRH, “Her Royal Highness.” But even if you can’t claim HRH, selecting “Mr.” or “Mrs.” or “Miss” is a standard part of filling out many…
The secretive language of pro wrestling
Mar 9, 2018 • 32 min
In 1984, the professional wrestler “Dr. D” David Schultz smacked the TV journalist John Stoessel to the ground backstage at Madison Square Garden. Why? One word, kayfabe. If you’ve never heard of the word “kayfabe,” don’t worry. This week on podcast we…
Could Neanderthals talk?
Feb 21, 2018 • 23 min
Humans are the only creatures on Earth that can choke on their own food. Yes, that’s right. Because we have funky plumbing. There’s a crucial split in our throats – one path that leads to the esophagus and the stomach, and another that leads to our…
The rules of bilingual love
Feb 13, 2018 • 23 min
He wrote to her mainly in Swedish, and she replied in Finnish. The correspondence of “Finlandia” composer Jean Sibelius and his wife Aino is funny and touching. And their letters are a goldmine for the study of code-switching.
Ivanka, meet Stalin
Jan 30, 2018 • 28 min
In which we hear from another Ivanka, another Stalin and another Lenin. Ivanka’s brush with fame came thanks to Donald Trump’s carelessness on Twitter. But Stalin and Lenin were purposely given their names, by parents in the Indian state of Kerala. Do…
Losing your accent
Jan 12, 2018 • 18 min
English is spoken with countless accents by both native and non-native speakers. But a hierarchy persists: there are ‘good accents and ‘bad’ ones. So whether you’re from Thailand or Tennessee, you may want to get rid of your accent. We hear from a few…
The words of 2017
Dec 20, 2017 • 26 min
What are the words and images that best describe this past year? And why do some people think “whom” is obsolete? We talk with Buzzfeed’s copy chief Emmy Favilla and Cartoon Queen Carol Hills who monitors political cartoons from around the world.
My voice is my passport – verify me
Dec 13, 2017 • 26 min
Remember the 1990’s flick Sneakers with Robert Redford? Robert Redford’s character leads a group of hackers on a mission to steal a decoder from the NSA. And there’s a part in the film when Redford needs to bypass security to sneak into a building. Only…
Welcome to the American family
Nov 29, 2017 • 32 min
US politicians have been using the word, ‘assimilation’ for more than a century. How has it evolved? What does it mean in Trump’s America? And how is ‘assimilation’ understood differently in other countries like France? Nina enlists Rupa Shenoy, host of…
Speaking Yiddish to the dead
Nov 8, 2017 • 29 min
In 2000, American poet Jennifer Kronovet began taking Yiddish classes for just one reason: to translate Yiddish poetry into English.
Bash the Fash
Oct 25, 2017 • 32 min
“Antifa.” The buzzword of the summer, especially after Charlottesville. Reporter Lidia Jean Kott explores how “antifa” came into being in 1930s Germany— and how it was resurrected in 21st century America. WARNING: this episode has explicit language and…
Dubbing with benefits
Oct 11, 2017 • 28 min
Dubbed TV and movies suck, right? Those odd-sounding voices and that lamely-synchronized dialogue? In Germany, it’s not like that. Dubbing it a highly evolved craft, with actors who specialize in voiceover and writers who genuinely improve the dialogue.…
How to speak like an aliebn
Sep 27, 2017 • 28 min
When Twitter comedian Jonny Sun began to write his book, “everyone’s a aliebn when ur a aliebn too,” he had to write down the rules of the cutesy grammar of the language he invented.
Who are the People?
Sep 18, 2017 • 35 min
Germans do not agree what the word ‘Volk’ means. Does it denote ethnic Germans or people who live in Germany? The Nazis racialized ‘Volk’ and its derivatives. Now Germany’s New Right are reviving some of these terms.
Deciphering the Lingo of Pro-Trump Trolls
Aug 23, 2017 • 27 min
In the run up to the presidential election Cristina López kept coming across language on the internet that she didn’t quite understand; words and phrases like “meme magic,” and “red-pilled” and “nimble navigator.” These expressions kept popping up in…
Zappa for Germans
Aug 9, 2017 • 25 min
Who was Frank Zappa? Virtuoso guitarist? Modernist composer? Smutty lyricist? Anti-censorship activist? All of the above….and in much more the former East Germany. There his banned records fetched small fortunes among rebellious young men who dreamed of…
To Catch a Fortune Cookie Thief
Jul 24, 2017 • 25 min
This week on the podcast producer Lidia Jean Kott cracks open a case of fortune cookie theft. “Some men dream of fortunes. Others dream of cookies.” This is a real fortune cookie fortune. A prescient fortune it would turn out for Yong Sik Lee. Lee…
Grandmothers have the best curse words
Jul 12, 2017 • 28 min
This week on The World in Words we talk about swear words from around the world and the bad words our grandmothers teach us. We hear from swearologist Stephen Dodson and author Marilyn Chin. Plus, Nina Porzucki interviews her grandmother about the meaning…
‘Dialect’ versus ‘language,’ what’s the big deal?!
Jun 27, 2017 • 39 min
This week on the podcast we step gingerly into scalding waters to explore the question: What is the difference between a language and dialect? Linguists hate to define it. “As a linguist I will not engage in trying to define language and trying to define…
Vladimir Trump
Jun 13, 2017 • 22 min
Many Russians perceive Donald Trump as an American version of Vladimir Putin. It’s partly based on Trump’s bombastic rhetoric, but also on how his speeches and tweets are translated into Russian.
Straight Outta Siberia
May 24, 2017 • 15 min
Linguist Edward Vajda went to Siberia with a hunch. He returned with evidence linking a remote Siberian language with Navajo.
In Moldova, speaking the wrong language once had serious consequences
May 9, 2017 • 24 min
This week, The World in Words podcast visits the Moldova Authentic Restaurant in Newton, Massachusetts. Patrick Cox and Nina Porzucki talk with restaurant owners Artur and Sandra Andronic about their mother tongue. Also, what happens if you put a group of…
The words that divide Indian-Americans
Apr 27, 2017 • 31 min
Sonia Paul grew up California, the child of immigrants from India and the Philippines. No wonder she’s fascinated by the heated debates among Indian-Americans over how school textbooks characterize Hinduism and caste.
Elena Ferrante & Italy’s Linguistic Past
Apr 11, 2017 • 30 min
Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels have become a global hit. Their plot is rife with love and sex and the mob AND language. This week on the podcast we explore Italy’s linguistic history and the tensions between Italian dialects like Neapolitan and the…
How Christianese became a thing
Mar 29, 2017 • 19 min
Have you attended any “Matthew parties” lately? Or ever felt “too blessed to be stressed, too anointed to be disappointed”? If the answer is yes, you speak Christianese, a “religiolect” that linguists have recently started tracking.
Arabic’s Jewish dialect
Mar 16, 2017 • 23 min
The Arab world used to be home to hundreds of thousands of Jews who spoke their own variants of Arabic. Today, Judeo-Arabic survives only in exile. We hear stories of language and exodus from three Judeo-Arabic speakers now living in Montreal. Plus,…
‘Black’ is a French word too
Feb 28, 2017 • 23 min
Many French people favor the English word ‘black’ over the local equivalent ‘noir.’ Why? There’s a history behind it that dates back decades— in fact, two histories: the French version seeks to be colorblind while the American one recognizes race at every…
An Iraqi writer in America
Feb 14, 2017 • 21 min
Mosul-born Anoud first came to the US when Obama was president. Now she doesn’t dare leave the country. Written in English, her satirical fiction targets ISIS, the international community and even refugees.
A Kenyan language rises again
Jan 26, 2017
Ekegusii is spoken by about two million Kenyans but has been losing ground to Swahili and English. Now it is taught in some schools, thanks to local language activists assisted by American linguists.
Translating Trump
Jan 19, 2017
Trump hotels, Trump wine, Trump golf courses, Trump steaks – we’ve heard a LOT about how Trump has made millions from his name. In English the word “trump” connotes a certain grandiosity but how does his name translate into other languages? And more…
The first cousin of English
Dec 23, 2016
Are the 300,000+ Dutch people who speak Frisian stubborn? Maybe…and maybe that’s not a bad thing. We head to the Netherlands to hear from artists, writers, politicians and kids at a trilingual school.
What the Cuck?
Dec 14, 2016
WARNING: This podcast has explicit language and sexual content. This has been an election season of words: “bigly” or is it “big league,” “basket of deplorables” and you can’t forget “nasty.” But one word has recently caught a lot of people’s attention:…
The global rise of Swahili
Nov 22, 2016
Hakuna Matata. You may recognize this phrase. You may even find yourself humming the earworm-provoking song of the same title from Disney’s the Lion King. “It means no worries” goes the lyric. But Disney fails to mention that “Hakuna matata” means “no…
The Standing Rock Sioux’s other fight
Nov 18, 2016
Standing Rock is more than a social movement for clean water rights. It’s also where the Lakota language is re-inventing itself.
‘I’m Arab but I don’t speak Arabic’
Nov 14, 2016
The language you would expect to hear in the United Arab Emirates is Arabic. Yet in a place like Dubai, English is the language on the streets, cafés and malls. Many Emiratis struggle in their own mother tongue. When oil was discovered in this mainly…
How do you say ‘cancer’ in Mixtec?
Nov 9, 2016
Folks from Salinas, California like to remind you that their valley is the “Salad Bowl of the World.” Not that you can forget. When you drive around town, everywhere you look there’s fields growing lettuce, strawberries, and broccoli. A growing number of…
Should we learn in two languages?
Nov 3, 2016
We know much more about bilingualism than we did 18 years ago when Californians voted to ban bilingual education. What does the research tell us? And will it effect Californians’ upcoming re-vote on the issue?
Speak perfectly or don’t speak at all
Nov 1, 2016
The Keres language, spoken by the Laguna Pueblo of New Mexico, is dying. When younger tribal members tried to revive it, they were blocked by elders fearful that spiritual essence of the language would be lost.