Our Precious Words Cassie Limb and Jane Hodson

Metalinguistic representations may enter public consciousness and come to constitute structured understandings, perhaps even ‘common sense’ understandings – of how language works, what it is usually like, what certain ways of speaking connote and imply, what they ought to be like.
- Jaworski, Coupland, Galasinkski (2004)

Jane Hodson (academic) and Cassie Limb (artist) worked together to devise an activity that would get people talking about their favourite words and making beautiful artwork out of them. We wanted to engage people in talking about their own language, what it means to them and how they feel about it.


The ‘Precious Words’ were created by covering black card with PVA glue, placing foam letters on top to spell out the word, and then sprinkling fluorescent sand over the top. When the letters were removed, the word was formed by the blank spaces in the sand.


We took ‘Precious Words’ to a range of community events around Sheffield and into schools in Rotherham, enabling interactions between family and friends through the sharing of favourite words. These discussions uncovered surprises and new insights for participants as well as the researchers. At one event three generations of the same family came together to spell a particularly tricky word. At another event teenagers used ‘rude’ words to test the boundaries of the activity, before settling down to make some beautiful artworks with great care and patience. Below are recordings of some of our participants talking about their favourite words.


“I have a dinosaur book that’s why I like it.”

“When I was little and I used to do writing, there were some words you could write really neatly. Called was one of the words I always liked writing.”

“I’ve picked Paris because it’s my name and I love my name. It’s who I am.”

“My partner is from Wiltshire. When he came to Sheffield his work colleagues used to say ‘let’s go and have our snap’ and he’d not have a clue what they were on about.”

Jane Hodson

I’m interested in metalanguage, that is “talk about talk”. Metalanguage is what happens when language is not just the means of communications, but also the topic of communication. In ordinary life we all do metalanguage all the time, and it has been estimated that up to one-tenth of utterances at family mealtimes are metalinguistic (Aukrust 2004). We’re using metalanguage whenever we comment on how someone speaks, checks that a listener has understood us, clarify the rules of conversation or ask about the meaning of a word. Metalanguage includes things like “what do you mean?”, “don’t interrupt me”, “talk properly”, “what a lovely thing to say”.

Cassie Limb

Creating experiences where others have a moment to connect, with others & themselves, through the use of sand, letters and lights, it’s a kind of engineering, through the selection of the ‘familiar’ (sand) for the instant ‘have a go’, as well as being engaged through the sharing of the personal ‘favourite word’, these bring together a new sense of ownership of their language, connections to what it represents and deeper insights to those closest, sharing this moment, a moment where no one can ever be told they are wrong, a moment when each gets heard fully with total acceptance, how ever young or old, the moment a seed inside is given all it needs to grow, true inner confidence, acceptance and insight the basis for a being to thrive.