Linguistics and English Language

Language evolution and artistic practice

Research into language evolution inspires the arts

Singing Glass art installation at Dundee Design Festival 2018. Photo by Tommy Permann.
Singing Glass installation at Dundee Design Festival 2018.

What was the problem?

Language is embedded in all our lives, but how much do we know about how it evolved? In particular, what was the role of cultural evolution in this process?

Linguistics research at Edinburgh has shown that language evolution is driven by the way we learn language over many generations.

However, these findings rely heavily on computational modelling and laboratory experiments, which can make it difficult for the public to engage with the research. 

What did we do?

Professor Simon Kirby, Director of the Centre for Language Evolution, has used high-profile talks, media appearances, and art exhibitions to examine and deepen the relationship between artwork and research.

In 2011, FOUND art collective and Simon Kirby won the LIST award for outstanding contribution to Scottish art.

Examples of Kirby's artistic collaborations are listed below:

Singing Glass (2018)

Singing Glass is a light-responsive sound installation which uses a shop window in Dundee’s city centre as a resonating speaker, allowing light-related words to be sung to passers-by. It is the second iteration of Sing the Gloaming and was created for the Factory Shop exhibition at Dundee Design Festival.


What can phonaesthemes tell us about language evolution?

Most language is made up of arbitrary links between a word's form and its meaning. Phonaesthemes are exceptions to this: they are words where a particular form (or sound) is paired with a similar meaning. In the English language, there are many phonaesthemes beginning ‘gl-‘ which relate to light, for example, glimmer, glitter, glow, gleam, glisten and gloaming. We don’t currently know for sure why phonaesthemes exist, but one theory is that they are a natural product of the winding paths that words travel down through history as they are shaped by the process of cultural evolution.

Sing the Gloaming (2017)

Sing the Gloaming is an art installation featuring a series of glowing sculptural objects with concealed tape decks which play vocal recordings of light-phonaesthemes and form a spatial representation of their evolution as per Cuskley and Kirby's research (2013).

The installation was part of Sanctuary, a 24-hour site-specific public art laboratory in Galloway Dark Sky Park. Visitors at Sanctuary explored and listened to how the words related to one another in Sing the Gloaming. The sound installation and video of the recording have brought this work and contextual information on Kirby’s work to 2300+ people.

A short documentary about the project is available to watch:

Artist residency (2017)

Artist and composer Hanna Tuulikki began a Leverhulme Trust funded Artist in Residence programme with Kirby’s research group, spending 2 days a week embedded in CLE over 9 months. The residency allowed Tuulikki to explore how concepts from Kirby’s research, such as iterated learning and the emergence of structure, could be applied in new artistic contexts. 

At the end of the residency, Tuulikki produced a fully sketched out plan for a new multi-disciplinary performance artwork, HOST, plus accompanying video installation, which draws directly on core principles of Kirby’s work on language evolution: improvisation, interaction, iteration.

Concrete Antenna (2015)

How can a place come into being?

Concrete Antenna is a sound installation in the new Edinburgh Sculpture Workshop tower, incorporating material from linguistic archives alongside recordings of demolition, birdsong, fishing boats, and train whistles to evoke the building’s industrial heritage and coastal location.

The installation led to a spin-off album (Score Tae The Toor) released by Random Spectacular in 2016 and showcased on BBC 6 Music, the Wire, Mojo, BBC Radio Scotland and BBC Radio 3 (where it was Late Junction record of the week). 

Score Tae The Toor’s release was accompanied by a limited edition book featuring a collection of writers’ responses to the installation. 

Collaborations with FOUND

Collaborations with FOUND (an Edinburgh-based band and arts collective) allowed artists, the public, and researchers to creatively explore the relationship between humans and cultural products.

#UNRAVEL (2012)

Is your memory as reliable as you think?

#UNRAVEL is a collaboration with celebrated lyricist Aidan Moffat, which invites visitors to play records and hear stories from a Narrator’s past. Despite the seemingly reliable nature of records, the stories heard by visitors change, responding to the audience, environment, and online opinion. The message is that memory is unreliable and constructed through interaction. It is these changes and reconstructions that occur through repeated interactions which Professor Kirby cites as crucial for language to evolve.

#UNRAVEL received a £42,000 Creative Scotland Vital Spark award (2011). It was exhibited at Inspace (Edinburgh), the Glasgow International Festival of Visual Art, Glasgow's Sonica Festival and the TEDGlobal exhibition. 

End of Forgetting (2010)

How should we live in a world where the Internet records everything, forgets nothing?

End of Forgetting is a sound installation which explores the possibility that the exponential increase in digital storage capacity might lead to a new cultural transition, by effectively lifting limitations on what can be remembered. The device remembers every sound it hears, just as every photo and status update we post can be stored forever online. The sounds that the device hears and "remembers" are mixed with audio clips uploaded by anyone onto the internet, which are also added to its memories. Visitors can turn the device's wheel to access its seemingly infinite memory.

The installation was shown as part of the Material Rites exhibition at the Royal Society of British Sculptures. 

Cybraphon (2009)

How do social media "likes" affect your mood?

Cybraphon is an autonomous, emotional, robotic band, similar to a Victorian orchestrion. Cybraphon’s emotional state is driven by an obsession with its own online celebrity and online fans: the more likes and attention it gets, the happier its mood (and music) becomes.

This artwork, now a permanent exhibit at the National Museum of Scotland, engages audiences with questions about social networks, how we perceive them, and how online interactions shape the way we communicate face to face. 

BAFTA Scotland Best Interactive award

Cybraphon won the BAFTA Scotland Best Interactive award in 2009, the only time a piece of device art has won a BAFTA.

What happened next?

The collaboration with FOUND began when the group enlisted Professor Simon Kirby's computational expertise. Kirby's study of language evolution meant he had developed innovative techniques to implement iterated learning in a laboratory setting. He then worked with FOUND to adapt these techniques in order to create interactive artworks.

Further collaborations with artists such as Rob St John, Tommy Perman, and Hanna Tuulikki followed.

These collaborations led to a further and deeper exchange of ideas around cultural evolution, iterated learning, and evolutionary transition. As a result of these discussions, both artists and their audiences have been able to explore, through art, questions about how cultural transitions and changes arise, and the effects these might have on language. 

 Kirby’s computing expertise around iterative or responsive technology underpins many of our projects such as the BAFTA award winning Cybraphon

Tommy Perman

About the researcher

Professor Simon Kirby (Professor of Language Evolution, Director of the Centre for Language Evolution)

Research area


  • The British Academy
  • Creative Scotland
  • Economic and Social Research Council
  • The Leverhulme Trust

Related study programmes