Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: The World in Words

Posted by Maximum Fun on 31st January 2010

FULL DISCLOSURE: As the astute among you have already realized, The World in Words [RSS] [iTunes] is a program from Public Radio International. The Sound of Young America is, of course, also a program from Public Radio International. While your Podthinker has not, in any way, been “strongarmed” into forcing his critical eye to describe a wide arc around other PRI podcasts, he would rather not go stirring up trouble by publicly slagging off one PRI show on the web site of another’s. If he didn’t have anything nice to say about a PRI podcast up for review, he’d simply not say anything at all.

Which means that this one must be good. It certainly takes on a more-than-suitable mission for podcasts, or for audio media of any kind, since they’re made up of little else but words. Plus, issues of language make for demonstrably successful subject matter: witness, for instance, the implausible popularity of Grammar Girl. But that show would seem to play more to listeners’ linguistic insecurity, where The World in Words aims squarely at their linguistic curiosity. Having sprouted off the surface of PRI’s megabehemoth news program The World, which contributors refer to as “the big show,” the podcast takes its sense of observant globalism and applies it to the variations and various strangenesses in how certain chunks of humanity talk to certain other chunks of humanity.

While language itself may strike some as an odd topic on which to spend half an hour a week, the show seems to impose no limits on its mandate within the realm of the spoken word. Host Patrick Cox presents segments on chop suey, Windows in obscure African languages, cockney ATMs, wine labels in Liverpudlian, which letters one can be jailed for using in Turkey and, naturally, the glory and pathos (mostly pathos) of Esperanto. These bites of verbal fascination are presented in what your Podthinker has come to call “High Public Radio” style, with its panoply of multiethnic and multinational voices, its chronological compressedness, its “sound-richness” and its mannered presenter. But being a podcast, it’s seemingly allowed a tad more breathing room for the unusual, such as when Cox plays a 1/8″ cassette from 1990 which contains an old college radio piece of his on the inexplicable plague of American Anglophilia. (Hint: it’s got to do with the way those lovable Brits — such as Cox himself! — talk.)

The show thus fulfills its mission of dishing out a bit of interestingness for everyone — if, indeed, it took up such a mission in the first place — but, like many podcasts spawned from mainstream public radio, it goes down a bit too smoothly for comfort. There’s room for more experimentalism, more risks taken, more time spent, a chance yet for the program to go, as the kids say, nxtlvl. But that aside, its certainly racks up more than enough points in the charm department, many of which are scored by the regular “Eating Sideways” segment, where Cox discusses the unusual phrases for normal things you find in seeming every language but English. Without this feature, I probably still wouldn’t know that the Danish refer to hangovers as, quite literally and appropriately, a bunch of lumberlacks sawing away inside one’s head. And without the main content of The World in Words, nor would I ever have heard Chinese teenagers phonetically reciting Obama’s acceptance speech, either.

Vital stats:
Format: neat language stuff
Duration: ~30m
Frequency: weekly, or just about
Archive available on iTunes: all

[Got a podcast to suggest for Podthoughts coverage or any other sort of question and/or comment for Podthinker Colin Marshall? colinjmarshall at gmail.]