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Evolution of language in 24 hour art installation

A Linguistics professor has teamed up with local artists to create a sound installation for Sanctuary 2017

Linguistics research at Edinburgh will be part of an installation charting the evolution of English words whose meaning is linked to the concept of "light".

The piece is a collaboration between Simon Kirby (Professor of Language Evolution ) and Edinburgh-based artists Tommy Pernan and Rob St John.

Pairing word form and meaning

Phonaesthemes 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, gloaming...

The installation "Sing the Gloaming" sees a collection of sung vocalisations of these ‘light words’ recorded onto cassette tape loops. A set of tape decks will be housed in glowing sculptural objects installed across a small area of the Galloway Dark Sky Park. Their spatial arrangement will subtly map the linguistic evolution of light words from the Proto-Indo-European "ghlei-".

The loops will repeat through the night, slipping in and out of resonance and rhythm until the tape deck batteries are drained, somewhere around dawn.

Art lab and experimental space

The installation is part of Sanctuary: an public art event in Galloway Forest Dark Skies Park (23-24 September 2017). The event features 25 artists as well as workshops and talks, and attracts 1000s of visitors to explore sound installations, videos, light projections, sculpture, and experimental radio transmissions.

The aim to create a temporary creative community to explore technology, art, culture, and environment. Visitors are able to camp overnight in order to experience the amazing skies of Galloway Forest Dark Skies Park, which benefit from minimal light pollution.

Researcher-artist collaboration

Simon Kirby is Professor of Language Evolution at the University of Edinburgh, and elected Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. He is Director of the Centre for Language Evolution in the School of PPLS. Simon’s research focuses on the origin and evolution of language. Simon has collaborated on a range of widely exhibited artworks, winning a Scottish BAFTA in 2009.

Tommy Perman is an artist, designer and musician who works in a variety of media including visual art, performance, sound and music. He has a particular interest in combining new digital technologies with traditional techniques and materials. His work has been shown at a number of major art institutions including the Royal Scottish Academy, Edinburgh and the CCA, Glasgow and in major art festivals such as the Glasgow International, Edinburgh International Festival and Edinburgh Art Festival. 

Rob St John is an artist, writer and academic. His interdisciplinary work often involves landscape writing, art-science collaboration, sound recording and film-making, and has been shown at Tate Modern, London, Edinburgh Sculpture Workshop and Stour Space, London, alongside numerous publications and releases. 

More information

Sanctuary event

Centre for Language Evolution

Simon Kirby

Tommy Perman 

Rob St John