Sarah Hulsey, “Asterisms”

Asterisms, 2017. View of book closed.
Asterisms, 2017. View of book open with title page, part of colophon.
Asterisms, 2017. From top: Chinese Consonants, English Consonants, Arabic Consonants.
Asterisms, 2017. Top left to right: Chinese Vowels, Hindi Vowels. Bottom left to right:
Portuguese Vowels, Russian Vowels.
Asterisms, 2017. View of book open. Visible woodcuts left to right: Bengali Consonants,
English Vowels.


Sarah Hulsey
Somerville, Massachusetts

letterpress, woodcut
9″ x 18″ x 0.5″
9″ x 6″ x 0.5″

My work is concerned with the hidden, structural beauty of language. Language is
a deeply human trait that we use in every aspect of our lives, though its workings are
largely mysterious to us as speakers. From a very young age our minds are in a highly
receptive state, listening for the patterns, rhythm, and regularity of which all languages are
composed, but by adulthood we no longer notice these things. My work draws attention
back to those patterns deep in our minds and the rich, varied beauty they contain.
Asterisms: A Phonemic Exploration borrows the conventions of modern star charts
in order to embody groups of linguistic sounds as constellations, or “asterisms,” as
astronomers now call the traditional shapes traced among the stars. The book represents
the phonemes (sounds) of the ten most widely spoken languages in the world, which
together account for the first languages of almost half of the world’s population (3.4
billion speakers). Each language is given a consonant chart and a vowel chart in the guise
of a star map; positions of the “stars” are based on the sound’s position on the
International Phonetic Alphabet chart, with the symbol’s size correlated to the frequency
of the sound in that language. Connecting these symbols are woodcuts forming novel
asterism shapes inspired by older, more primal ways of tracing patterns in the sky. The
charts of Asterisms serve both as accurate maps of phoneme systems—revealing
commonalities and divergences across languages—as well as imaginary paths of joined
sounds. Taken together, they draw connections between the sounds of language, that
most fundamental human ability, and the vast expanse of the night sky, shared by all of
the earth’s inhabitants.