The Linguist

The Linguist 59,4 - Aug/Sept 2020

The Linguist is a languages magazine for professional linguists, translators, interpreters, language professionals, language teachers, trainers, students and academics with articles on translation, interpreting, business, government, technology

Issue link:

Contents of this Issue


Page 23 of 35

24 The Linguist Vol/59 No/4 2020 FEATURES How does the choice of language on public signs affect the messages conveyed? Stefania Tufi explores the importance of linguistic landscapes T he Linguistic Landscape (LL) has brought the systematic scrutiny of written language in the public space into the realm of sociolinguistics – the study of language in society. It is about understanding the social role of written inscriptions and material artefacts that surround us in our daily lives. It sounds straightforward, but it reflects very complex and sophisticated actions that we perform as language agents – and language practices are never simple. Educators in language matters engage in discussions about communication with their students regularly, in a dialogue that aims to deconstruct the baggage that language choice comes with. Monolingualism is one such ideology. We tend to take it for granted that each nation-state should have its own language – in the singular. School curricula do not normally engage with the notion of societal multilingualism, nor do they talk about the regional and minoritised languages that are recognised and supported by the government of their country. Ask any child which language they speak in their country and they'll usually give you one; educational legacies are difficult to dismantle. The reality, however, is that multilingual practices are the normal state of affairs in all parts of the world, and that language policy is not necessarily transparent to the passer-by. I have used images (above right), collected in several parts of Italy, to illustrate these points. Image 1 is of a hotel in a border area, where German is the co-official language with Italian. Bilingualism in public signage is usually adhered to, but there are examples of monolingual German signs in key areas of the town, communicating the higher degree of importance attached to German locally. For the vast majority of residents, a German variety is their first language. The absence of Italian on this sign (its invisibility) is noteworthy – the hotel owners have opted to use German interspersed with English in an attempt to address a cosmopolitan clientele while making a statement about ethnolinguistic identity. The viewer will not decode the sign in isolation; it is on a typically Alpine building, characterising the local architectural landscape, and it includes non-verbal, semiotic aspects, such as the silhouette of the three peaks of Lavaredo, one of the best-known mountain groups in the eastern Alps. The colours are also relevant, the green establishing a connection with the surrounding natural landscape (image 2). The four stars are synonymous with a high-quality establishment, while the use of 'family' in the name contributes to self-presentation (preservation of traditional values), verbally constructing an environment that welcomes families and provides homely comforts. This integrates fundamental cultural tenets (the idea of the German Heimat; 'homeland/ home') into the running of a business. The merging of family values with business ethos is further reinforced by the fact that this sign is not free-standing or attached to the building – it is painted on it and therefore an integral and permanent component of the establishment. This basic LL example provides the opportunity to look into the verbal and semiotic materialisation of spaces of living – something that is inextricably linked to the human experience. LL, however, is concerned with the linguistic construction of space, and to what extent writing performs functions that go beyond simply indexing the presence of an individual or a group in a given context. After an initial emphasis on the documentation of visual communication in urban environments, LL investigations have increasingly become more complex and have integrated the view that space is not just a backdrop or canvas for writing purposes. On the contrary, space is a dynamic actor in meaning-making processes and an interlocutor in the dialogic communication process. It is directly implicated in the process of layering, for example, and in acknowledging developments across time. A street named twice The act of reading and decoding LL will lead to different understandings depending on the reader – the life experience of each person will attach different meanings to different signs. Meaning, however, is socially constructed so that groups who share cultural experiences ascribe similar meanings to given facts. A visitor glancing at the road name pictured in image 3 will notice that two languages feature, and will probably appreciate the aesthetic aspect of the sign: the blue framing and the signature on the bottom right-hand corner claiming authorship. Even those who SIGNS OF LIFE

Articles in this issue

Links on this page

Archives of this issue

view archives of The Linguist - The Linguist 59,4 - Aug/Sept 2020