Arts in Review

Learning about language with Helen Zaltzman

Once in a while I get bored of just listening to the same old podcasts that have been playing over the years. Although they have been successful and still produce unique and diverse content, it is always great to expand your horizons and open your mind to new ideas. That is exactly what I did when I approached a colleague of mine who I knew had a diverse repertoire of podcasts. They suggested I listen to a podcast series called The Allusionist, and so I did exactly that, and listened to the most recent episode that was aired on November 19, 2015, titled “Toki Pona. “

Published

on

By Sonja Klotz (The Cascade) – Email

The Allusionist: “Toki Pona” episode written and produced by Helen Zaltzman

Once in a while I get bored of just listening to the same old podcasts that have been playing over the years. Although they have been successful and still produce unique and diverse content, it is always great to expand your horizons and open your mind to new ideas. That is exactly what I did when I approached a colleague of mine who I knew had a diverse repertoire of podcasts. They suggested I listen to a podcast series called The Allusionist, and so I did exactly that, and listened to the most recent episode that was aired on November 19, 2015, titledToki Pona. “

Little did I know that I was going to be listening to 20 minutes of a linguistic analysis of a new language called Toki Pona. I usually do not make it a habit to research a podcast series prior to listening to it, in order to avoid preconceived expectations or assumptions about the content itself. However, now that I have listened to it, I have allowed myself to delve into of the context of this unique series.

Firstly, the series is written and produced by a very talented British woman known as Helen Zaltzman. After earning a degree in Old and Middle English, Zaltzman tried to pursue a career as an etymologist, but then discovered a more intriguing career as a podcaster.

I didn’t think that someone would actually be so fascinated with the origin of words and their histories that they would make a radio show out of it. As I began listening to the first few seconds of this episode, I felt a bit uncertain as to what exactly I was listening to. It began with soft background music, and a woman’s voice saying, “This is The Allusionist, in which I, Helen Zaltzman, open up language to see a tiny plastic ballerina turning around and around.” You can imagine my perplexity about her opening statement, asking myself, “How can someone ‘open up language?’”

Following her melodramatic introduction and outline of the episode’s agenda, she began to advertise for Oxford Games in the most casual and personal manner. This sales pitch almost convinced me that this was part of the episode itself, but imagine my surprise at finding out that I was not going to be hearing about Oxford Games for a half hour, but rather about the world’s tiniest language, consisting of only 123 words, five vowels, and nine consonants: Toki Pona.

As soon as I heard that this was the actual topic of the episode I began to shudder a bit, knowing full well that as much as I enjoy learning new or dead languages, I would not enjoy listening to the details of these linguistic developments, especially in the limited spare time that I have. With that said, I did enjoy listening to the awkwardly selected soft music that was constantly played in the background as a way to accent the diverse dialogue that occurred between Zaltzman, Sonja Lang (a linguist, and creator of Toki Pona), and Nate Dimeo, who is a fellow podcaster in his own right with a sheer interest in language learning.

At first I found the discussion to be highly academic, thinking that this kind of show would only appeal to a very select few linguist enthusiasts. I was surprised to find, as the background music transitioned from soft strings into “Eye of a Tiger” by Survivor, that I as a listener would experience Zaltzman’s and Dimeo’s personal journey of learning the language itself. Melodramatic, perhaps, but just wait …

Instead of feeling perplexed and discouraged about the content, and despite the awkward musical transition between classic rock and soft strings, I began laughing at the wit and satire that accompanied the hosts’ personal accounts of experiences with the language itself. Dare I say it, but not only did I learn about the world’s smallest language, I actually felt a part of the learning process.

… I liked it.

After all, everyone speaks a language, so what is the harm in unlocking some of the mysteries that lie behind the words we speak?

Zaltzman won my inner battle and has convinced me in her own satirical and wordy manner that learning new languages and understanding some of the linguistic structures within them is not just for language experts, but should be for everyone. As a listener you may shudder at the wordiness of the podcast, or at the sappy background music selection, but I urge you not to stop listening to the series or even just one of the episodes, because before you know it you will fall in love with your inner language nerd, and that is okay.

Click to comment

© 2018 The Cascade.