Sometimes a dictionary is too heavy to carry around for some light reading and too daunting to listen to as an audiobook. For all your language needs from etymology to grammar to more creative ways to curse, check out our recommendations below for the best language podcasts.
A newer podcast, The Vocal Fries has two female hosts talking about language—and it takes its name from a speaking condition many unfairly accuse female podcast hosts of having. With this tongue-in-cheek spirit, many Vocal Fries episodes cover issues of gender in language as well as other very contemporary topics like trans language and regional dialects on the US-Mexico border.
Start with this episode: “Uppity Women” (July 15, 2017)
2. The Allusionist
The Allusionist is hosted by Helen Zaltzman, a hilarious British podcasting goddess whose voice is the embodiment of a warm, fuzzy, patterned cardigan. This is the perfect introduction to all other language podcasts: Zaltzman selects a focused topic in each 20-ish minute episode and traces the word’s history and traditions using humor and an excellent storytelling arc.
Start with this episode: “Word of the Day” (May 1, 2016)
3. Lexicon Valley
Often times, an actor on your favorite series is replaced and it’s never the same. (Cough, Becky on Roseanne, cough.) On Lexicon Valley, Slate’s long-running linguistics podcast, they experienced that same actor shift (in this case, host shift). The show has been quite different but equally great in its two incarnations: In earlier episodes, beginning in 2012, the show was hosted by the curmudgeonly and often-bickering John Garfield and Mike Vulolo, who often focused on endearingly old-timey issues (old NYC expressions, hobos, Woody Guthrie). Since 2016, the show has been hosted by popular linguistics professor John McWhorter, who takes on slightly more controversial issues—from racialized ways of speaking to challenging Strunk & White’s legacy.
Start with these episodes:
- With John H. McWhorter: “Why Do People in Old Movies Talk Like That” (October 18, 2016)
- With Bob Garfield and Mike Vuolo: “So You Just Got Eighty-Sixed From a Bar. Why That Number?” (December 14, 2015)
4. That’s What They Say
That’s What They Say is distributed by Michigan Radio’s NPR affiliate and is led by radio host Rina Miller and professor Anne Curzang. Though this is a relatively new podcast, we definitely recommend adding it to your playlist. Many episodes specialize in old English roots—the Renaissance’s traditions on pronunciation and Latin influences—as well as standard but fun offerings on inexplicable English grammar quandaries.
Start with this episode: “Are there inflixes in English? Abso-freaking-lutely.” (January 14, 2018)
5. Grammar Girl
Grammar Girl knows her grammar . . . that’s a big statement coming from the dictionary. Mignon Fogarty is the founder of the podcast (as well as of the extremely popular website Quick and Dirty Tips), and while her advice toward grammar isn’t always dirty (you should check out the Bob Garfield episodes of Lexicon Valley for that), it’s always quick. Her episodes provide no-nonsense, clear, and engaging looks at grammar concepts as well as listener questions and real-world applications.
Start with this episode: “Apostrophes: Ruth’s Chris and Carl’s. Jr” (October 6, 2017)
6. 6 Minute Grammar
What is it with grammar podcasts and minimalist utilitarianism? Much like Grammar Girl, this podcast presents super-quick episodes focused on specific grammar topics, like tenses and contrast devices. The charming British hosts switch off between episodes, so if you’re not into just one person correcting your grammar, give 6 Minute Grammar a try.
Start with this episode: The most recent—all episodes are switched out every 30 days!
Public Radio International keeps up their high-quality offerings with The World in Words, which handles spoken and recorded language trends across the globe. Recent episode offerings have taken listeners from India to Yiddish scholars to Twitter; if you’re a globe-trotter or history nerd, you’ll definitely want to check this one out.
Start with this episode: “Is there an art to dubbing movies and TV? Yes, and Germans have mastered it.” (October 11, 2017)
8. A Way With Words
A Way With Words has been a weekly radio show since 1998, and it’s got language cred in spades. Speaking of “in spades”: much of this podcast is focused on slang, sayings, and common expression origins. It also features language news, quizzes, and the sort of banter between its cohosts that 20 years of broadcasting together provides.
Start with this episode: “Bun in the Oven” (February 5, 2018)
You’ve got to admire Animalogy‘s sole dedication to animal-related words. Host Colleen Patrick-Goudreau shows the true meaning of words you think have to do with animals (piggyback) and words you had no idea were of critter origin (berserk). Check the website’s fine print, and you’ll find that her podcast may be a promotion for her vegan lifestyle brand—but hey, free advertising is a price we’re willing to pay for more linguistic knowledge.
Start with this episode: “Ingrained: A Crush of Color” (March 18, 2017)
Okay, it’s not technically a language podcast—but Omnibus is so funny, we couldn’t resist. Jeopardy! champ Ken Jennings and rocker John Roderick co-host this comedy podcast with the premise that the world has ended, and they’re leaving an encyclopedia for the world to refer to after the apocalypse. As with any good encyclopedia, the entries are eclectic, comprehensive, and define words and phrases you had no idea existed. (You’ll never think of Paris the same way after learning the meaning of Paris Syndrome.)
Start with this episode: “Gadsby” (December 26, 2017)
This podcast is like taking a Linguistics 101 course, and some professors even assign episodes as homework in their college classes. The hosts come at language from an intersectional perspective so a lot of their examples are very thoughtful and inclusive. Check it out if you’re an inspiring lexicographer or if you’re just a language nerd like us!
Start with this episode: “Sounds You Can’t Hear”