Linguistic landscape

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A trash can in Seattle labeled in four languages: English, Chinese, Vietnamese, Spanish.

Linguistic landscape is the "visibility and salience of languages on public and commercial signs in a given territory or region" (Landry and Bourhis 1997:23). Linguistic landscape has been described as being "somewhere at the junction of sociolinguistics, sociology, social psychology, geography, and media studies".[1] It is a concept used in sociolinguistics as scholars study how languages are visually used in multilingual societies. For example, some public signs in Jerusalem are in Hebrew, English, and Arabic (Spolsky and Cooper 1991, Ben-Rafael, Shohamy, Amara, and Trumper-Hecht 2006).

A grocery store sign in Dallas, TX in three languages English, Amharic, and Spanish.
Sign legally required to be in English and Spanish in Texas.

Development of the field of study[edit]

Studies of the linguistic landscape have been published from research done around the world. The field of study is relatively recent; "the linguistic landscapes paradigm has evolved rapidly and while it has a number of key names associated with it, it currently has no clear orthodoxy or theoretical core" (Sebba 2010:73). A special issue of the International Journal of Multilingualism (3.1 in 2006) was devoted to the subject. Also, the journal World Englishes published a themed issue of five papers as a "Symposium on World Englishes and Linguistic Landscapes: Five Perspectives" (2012, vol. 31.1). Similarly, an entire issue of the International Journal of the Sociology of Language (228 in 2014) was devoted to the subject, including looking at signs that show influences from one language on another language. In 2015 an academic journal devoted to this topic was launched, titled Linguistic Landscape: An International Journal, from John Benjamins. There is also a series of academic conferences on the study of linguistic landscape.[2] A comprehensive, searchable Linguistic Landscape Bibliography[3] is available.[4] A 2016 special issue of Manusya (22, 2016)[5] begins with a history and summary of the field.[6]

Because "the methodologies employed in the collection and categorisation of written signs is still controversial",[7] basic research questions are still being discussed, such as: "do small, hand-made signs count as much as large, commercially made signs?". The original technical scope of "linguistic landscape" involved plural languages, and almost all writers use it in that sense, but Papen has applied the term to the way public writing is used in a monolingual way in a German city[8] and Heyd has applied the term to the ways that English is written, and people's reactions to these ways.[9]

The languages used in public signs indicate what languages are locally relevant, or give evidence of what languages are becoming locally relevant (Kasanga 2012). In many multilingual countries, multilingual signs and packaging are taken for granted, especially as merchants try to attract as many customers as possible or people realize that they serve a multilingual community. In other places, it is a matter of law, as in Quebec, where signs cannot be in English only, but must include French (Bill 101, Charte de la langue française). In Texas, some signs are required to be in English and Spanish, such as warning signs about consuming alcohol while pregnant.

Bathroom sign in French restaurant in USA, spelling "Toilets" to convey a French aura, but understood by unilingual English speakers.

In some cases, the signs themselves are multilingual signs, reflecting an expected multilingual readership. In other cases, there are monolingual signs in different languages, written in relevant languages found within a multilingual community. Backhaus even points out that some signs are not meant to be understood so much as to appeal to readers via a more prestigious language (2007:58).

Information in English, Bible verse in German, Texas

Some signs are spelled to convey the aura of another language (sometimes genuinely spelled as in the other language, other times fictionally), but are still meant to be understood by monolinguals. For example, some signs in English are spelled in a way that conveys the aura of German or French, but are still meant to be understood by monolingual English speakers.

The study of linguistic landscape also examines such patterns as which languages are used for which types of institutions (e.g. country club, hospital, ethnic grocery store), which languages are used for more expensive/cheaper items (new cars or used cars), or which languages are used for more expensive/cheaper services (e.g. pool cleaning or washing machine repair). Also, linguistic landscape can be studied across an area, to see which neighborhoods have signs in which languages. For example, Carr (2017) examined the languages of three cities in Southeast Los Angeles in her dissertation.[10]

Linguistic landscape can also be applied to the study of competing scripts for a single language. For example, after the breakup of the Soviet Union, some signs in Mongolia were erected in the traditional Mongolian script, not just Cyrillic (Grivelet 2001). Similarly, in some Cherokee speaking communities, street signs and other public signage is written with the Cherokee syllabary (Bender 2008). Also, license plates in Greek Cyprus have been printed with Greek or Roman letters in different eras.[11]

Multilingual gravestone: Welsh, English, French

The study of the linguistic landscape can also show evidence of the presence and roles of different languages through history.[12][13] Some early work on a specific form of linguistic landscape was done in cemeteries used by immigrant communities,[14] some languages being carved "long after the language ceased to be spoken" in the communities.[15]

In addition to larger public signage, some who study linguistic landscapes are now including the study of other public objects with multilingual texts, such as banknotes in India which are labeled in over a dozen languages.[16]



  1. ^ Sebba, Mark (2010). "Review of Linguistic Landscapes: A Comparative Study of Urban Multilingualism in Tokyo.". Writing System Research. 2 (1): 73–76. doi:10.1093/wsr/wsp006. 
  2. ^ "Linguistic Landscape 7 - 7-9 May 2015, UC Berkeley". Retrieved 9 December 2016. 
  3. ^ "Zotero - Groups > Linguistic Landscape Bibliography > Library". Retrieved 9 December 2016. 
  4. ^ Troyer, Robert A. 2016. "Linguistic Landscape Bibliography". Zotero. 
  5. ^ "Manusya :: Journal of Humanities". Retrieved 9 December 2016. 
  6. ^ Huebner, Thom (2016). "Linguistic landscape: History, Trajectory and Pedagogy" (PDF). Manusya: Journal of the Humanities. 2016 (22): 1–11. 
  7. ^ Tufi, Stefania; Blackwood, Robert (2010). "Trademarks in the linguistic landscape: methodological and theoretical challenges in qualifying brand names in the public space". International Journal of Multilingualism. 7 (3): 197–210. doi:10.1080/14790710903568417. 
  8. ^ Papen, Uta (2012). "Commercial discourses, gentrification and citizens' protest: the linguistic landscape of Prenzlauer Berg, Berlin". Journal of Sociolinguistics. 16 (1): 56–80. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9841.2011.00518.x. 
  9. ^ Heyd, Theresa (2014). "Folk-linguistic landscape". Language in Society. 43 (5): 489–514. doi:10.1017/s0047404514000530. 
  10. ^ Carr, Jhonni (2017). "Signs of Our Times: Language Contact and Attitudes in the Linguistic Landscape of Southeast Los Angeles". eScholarship. 
  11. ^ Dimitra Karoulla-Vrikki. 2013. Which alphabet on car number-plates in Cyprus? Language Problems and Language Planning 37.3: pp. 249–270
  12. ^ Jam Blommaert. 2013. Ethnography, superdiversity, and linguistic landscapes: Chronicles of complexity. Multilingual Matters.
  13. ^ Ramamoorthy, L. (2002) Linguistic landscaping and reminiscences of French legacy: The case of Pondicherry. In N.H. Itagy and S.K. Singh (eds) Linguistic Landscaping in India (pp. 118–131). Mysore: Central Institute of Indian Languages/Mahatma Gandhi International Hindi University.
  14. ^ Doris Francis, Georgina Neophytu, Leonie Kellaher. 2005. The Secret Cemetery. Oxford: Berg.
  15. ^ p. 42. Kara VanDam. 2009. Dutch- American language shift: evidence from the grave. LACUS Forum XXXIV 33–42.
  16. ^ Larissa Aronin and Muiris Ó Laoire. 2012. The material culture of multilingualism. In Durk Gorter, Heiko F. Marten and Luk Van Mensel, eds., Minority Languages in the Linguistic Landscape, pp. 229–318. (Palgrave Studies in Minority Languages and Communities.) Basingstoke, England: Palgrave Macmillan.


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