Language Wall

December 12, 2007

greatapelanguage3.jpgBy substituting a visual scheme for an auditive one we can, as it were, lay our cards on the table, and see them, not merely as separate cards but as related members of the pack…the graph…permits one to organise and to bring out and relate items which seem otherwise scattered and insignificant.
– Lewis Mumford, essay ‘Graphics’ in letter to Geddes 26 July 1923 

This is a proposal for a ‘language wall’ visually representing all the languages spoke in Dundee and surrounding regions from the earliest known to the present day. It is based on an earlier project in the Edinburgh Room of the Outlook Tower. The ‘Edinburgh Room’ in the Outlook Tower contained over the years a plethora of teaching aids and tools for learning, from a relief map of the entire city and region of Edinburgh and Lothian to various globes and spheres to outline the geography of the neighbourhood be it local or celestial. 

The earlier language wall (circa 1906) was a wall-mural of the history of the languages of Scotland represented in a sweeping coloured-coded graph surrounding the entire walls, starting from pre-Pictish, Gaelic, Norse, Doric, Scots, French, Latin, and English amongst many others. It was a visual representation of cultural history.

The 21st C Language Wall would be the same but would doubtless explode into a celebration of the many languages spoken today, from Urdu to Polish as well as indigenous languages and others variously defined. Geddes is often accused of being a poor communicator (often derided as an impenetrable writer and a confused and rambling speaker), he was in fact a populist at heart, dedicated to ‘civic museums’, pageants, multi-media representation of ideas, murals, decorative arts, inspiring buildings and gardens and bringing life to his ideal of urban and social renewal. This populist urge is contrasted with his scathing account of academics (‘futilitarians’) and book-based learning which he dismisses as ‘death to ideas’.

 He argued that: “Large views in the abstract depend on large views in the concrete”, and this is the intention of the language wall project which should be manifested on a large scale (at least 100ft wide) and digitally back-projected. Mumford wrote that, for Geddes: “Thought does not imply divorce from activity or responsibility; into it has gone not merely the studies of the scholar and scientist, but the feelings of the lover, the husband, the father, the friend, and the experience of the artist, technician, planner.” 

The Language Wall project is  an expression of visual thinking and the ideal of promoting ‘large views in the concrete’ in this respect promoting both cultural history and contemporary multicultural awareness. It is both about an intervention into public space, as well as ongoing cultural renewal and internationalism.  

It’s envisaged that this project would draw in research from and interaction with geographers, historians, language experts, local community and minority cultural groups as well as working with visual artists and new media workers to create the end project. 

Mike Small, Beyond Text proposal December 2007

* the image shows signs used to train Apes in animal language research


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