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Phonethica – Coincidental Social Definitions

Franz Thalmair

The contradictory overlap between diversity and similarity of languages and their corresponding cultures is the initial point for the project PHONETHICA by Takumi ENDO and Nao TOKUI.

More than 6.5 billion people on our planet share approximately five to six thousand languages. Nevertheless, every single individual owns a speaking equipment, which enables him/her to produce the same sounds in every corner of the world. Consequently, there exists some coincidental similarity within the different idioms. Looking at languages in this specific way, it must be concluded that phonetic rather than semantic aspects of languages result in an overlapping of language phenomena in different cultural backgrounds.

The multifaceted research on so called homophones — words that are identical in sound and sometimes even spelling in various languages but carry a different meaning — is the basic idea behind PHONETHICA. Still, the project doesn’t understand itself as a protective tool for disappearing languages. It is rather meant as a database for a wider social movement, originating from one single point of common “understanding”. Anyhow, the project developer Takumi ENDO would especially like “native speakers of minority groups, linguistic researchers and children all over the world” to use PHONETHICA.

The idea for PHONETHICA was already created in Paris and Tokyo in 2004. The investigations on the matter began with a wide range of interviews with scientists and artists, as well as with the development of an algorithm (SEAP), a language database (WODI) and a multimedia encyclopaedia (SOME). All three technical features, finally combined to the software PHMS (Phonethic HomonyM Search), are based upon IPA, the International Phonetic Alphabet, used for the phonetic standardisation of any spoken language. Since then, PHONETHICA has been developed and presented to the public in form of the interactive installation RONDO, at the moment displayed in Tokyo as an annual permanent installation. At the very beginning of 2007, PHONETHICA will be published as an online tool for a broader public.

If any given word is submitted to the interface of PHONETHICA by a user, it will be translated into the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) and compared with all entities of the language database WODI. If one or more words share approximately the same sound-information as the submitted word, the result is located and shown to the user in form of three dimensional graphics, including a variety of layers.

The title PHON-ETHICA already hints at the vast amount of informational material, which gets to be distributed via PHMS besides phonetics: socio-cultural knowledge, the culture and race of the people who speak the languages, the environments in which they live, the types of food they eat, the kinds of songs they sing, their history, religion, economic and political situations. Furthermore, information on grammar, vocabulary, orthography, phonology, writing and numbering systems of the concerned language is available.

Our society’s fragmentation of knowledge has led Takumi ENDO and Nao TOKUI to create this new form of multimedia encyclopaedia. Topics are no longer explained by static definitions as it is the common case in regular dictionaries but rather via an organic synergy between technology and art. Takumi ENDO, the project’s director, argues: “The implication of this project is the possibility of creating an alternative (counter) value system in a world which has become too structured by entrenched and fixed systems of meaning.” With PHONETHICA the artists are — in some respect — creating their own multimedia cultural code which is at “the search for the perfect language” (Umberto Eco) and thereby perhaps returning the user to Babel.


About Takumi ENDO, director –
Takumi Endo is a composer and a media artist. He began his activities in 1993 and his works have been presented all over the world from Japan to Austria. Currently he is based in Paris.

About Nao TOKUI, co-director/programming –
Nao Tokui is an artist, dj and engineer at the International Media Research Foundation in Tokyo. He explores new relationships between music and human beings with focus on generative algorithms and the computer-human-interaction.

Project blog:
Display in Tokyo:
Video presentation (YouTube):