100 mots à sauver

Presented at Bronx Art Space (Bronx, NY) as part of a collective exhibition in July 2013. 

"Rare are the people who are moved by the disappearance of words." writes Bernard Pivot. Yet, as he contends, they are much closer to us than birds, insects and other threatened creatures whose danger of extinction stirs – as it should – much emotion and debate. I was inspired by Bernard Pivot’s book “100 mots à sauver” (100 words to save) for this work in which I display and preserve one hundred words from the French language that are threatened with extinction. Each word is hand-written on a microscopic strip of paper in a small point size and placed in a miniature glass bottle, inspired by Japanese artist Ryuta Iida’s “Poem Glass.” The container is a found tin box, as those formerly used in libraries and offices for alphabetical ordering. This box is meant to bring about questions regarding data preservation, archival work and its physicality in the digital era,  as well as about the role of paper in literacy today. 


This project is a way to represent in visual and palpable form the disappearing artefacts of our language, the most basic signs of written and oral communication, words. As the semiotician Ferdinand de Saussure wrote, language precedes thought; words are the vehicle through which our ideas take shape; ideas are not pre-existing and thoughts are vague and indistinct from each other without language. 


With 100 mots à sauver, I explore the following questions: if we posit that a language is an ecology, what are the implications of the extinction of words? What kinds of words are lost and why? How can this be materially represented, what are the implications of such a representation on language itself? What is my own relationship to those words ?


I am conscious not only that there are many more words that are endangered and in many more languages than French. What is more,  entire languages themselves are threatened for geopolitical reasons. I chose the French language because it is the one that I have the strongest emotional and literary attachment to. I grew up learning French as a way to be in the world, as the language that most people spoke around me in Montreal, as opposed to Romanian, what as I child I perceived as the  secret mother-tongue to communicate with  my parents.  I am also conscious that Bernard Pivot’s process of selection, of choosing only one hundred words, is also a kind of segregation; it is perhaps the product of a literary, or emotional, and specifically French bias (as opposed to Quebecois or any other francophone dialect),  which I also reflect on. 

Works cited

Pivot, Bernard. 100 mots à sauver. Paris: Albin Michel, 2004. Print. Le Livre De Poche.

Easthope, Antony, and Kate McGowan, eds. “Ferdinand De Saussure, from Course in General Linguistics (1916).” A Critical and Cultural Theory Reader. Second ed. Toronto: University of Toronto, 2004. 5-11. Print.