Linguistic landscapes: an introduction

2 minutes to read
Article
The Editors
08/11/2016

 

The term linguistic landscape refers to all visible semiotic signs in public space. This not only includes printed, written, carved, sprayed or otherwise visible language that occurs in the physical world but also pictures, colors, logos, graphs and other meaningful signs. It’s the ensemble of such semiotic signs that constitutes the linguistic landscape of a given locality.

 

Visible semiotic signs offline and online

Linguistic landscape data in principle can be found everywhere where people leave visible signs. In the offline world this includes notice boards, traffic signs, billboards, shop windows, posters, flags, banners, graffiti, menus, T-shirts, tattoos, etcetera. One could however also consider the publicly accessible online world as part of the linguistic landscape. This means that also Facebook, Twittter, Instagram, Blogs, Websites etcetera can be places where linguistic landscape data can be found. An important difference between signs that one comes across in the physical world and signs that can be found on the Web is that the latter might be fake. They might have been created for making fun on the Internet only, without referring to actual places in the offline world.

The unit of analysis in linguistic landscaping is the sign, i.e. one specific specimen of visible language that one find in public online or offline space. One picture can contain several signs and one sign can be captured in several pictures at the same time.

 

Linguistic landscape analysis as a diagnostic

Jan Blommaert claims that linguistic landscape analysis offers a first diagnostic of the language situation of a certain area (street, village, building, country, online environment). This might include questions of multilingualism, dominance of languages, language policies. In a linguistic landscape analysis the focus can be on questions such as:

  • How many and what languages occur on signs in a specific public space
  • Are the signs monolingual, bilingual, multilingual and in what ways, i.e. what combinations of languages do occur
  • Are different languages used for different contents and in different domains
  • In what forms do signs occur (notice boards, traffic signs, billboards, shop windows, posters, flags, banners, graffiti, menus, T-shirts , Facebook, Twittter, Instagram, Blogs, Websites)
  • What about the language in terms of normativity: orthography, handwriting conventions, lexicon, syntax, literacy level

 

Indexicality

Answering such questions leads to a first and general sociolinguistic descriptions of the linguistic landscape under investigation. A next step would include a more in-depth analysis and interpretation of the signs. A central notion in doing so is the notion of indexicality. This means looking at deeper layers of meaning connected to the signs that can explain what they refer to in addition to their referential meaning. These layers of meaning might be connected to the three arrows that each sign has: a backward arrow, pointing at the past, i.e. at the producers of the sign in a specific historical time and space and the conditions of production; a forward arrow, pointing at the future, i.e. at the addressees of the sign and the conditions for uptake; and a sideways arrow, pointing at the present, i.e. at the specific emplacement of the sign among other signs (Blommaert & Maly, 2016).

 

References

Blommaert, J. (2013). Ethnography, Superdiversity and Linguistic Landscapes. Chronicles of Complexity. Bristol: Multilingual Matters.

Blommaert, J. and Maly, I. (2016). Ethnographic linguistic landscape analysis and social change: A case study. In Arnaut, K., Blommaert, J., Rampton, B. and Spotti,M. Language and Superdiversity. New York: Routledge.