ELLA 2.0

Linguistic landscape studies (LLS) emerged during the first decade of the 21st century as a new branch of sociolinguistics, aimed at documenting and analyzing publicly displayed language samples in a given area. Such samples include shop signs, posters, billboards, traffic signs, graffiti and other inscriptions visible to (at least part of) the public. Thus, a small post-it stuck on a letterbox and saying "John, I'll be back in 10 minutes" would not typically be the kind of data treated in LLS; while a handwritten sign on a window saying "fresh carrots to give, just knock the door" would be included for it addresses the public.

Linguistic Landscape Analysis

In a first stage, LLS was used in order to gain an indicative view of the number of languages actively used in a geographical area, and - from that - a view of the communities residing in or using that area. If in a neighborhood, we observe public signs in Turkish, German, English, Chinese and Italian, it is not unreasonable to suggest that these languages are effectively used there by people knowing these languages. Thus, the presence of these languages would allow us to infer that, in that neighborhood, at least five ethnolinguistic groups were present. Thus, from observable public language samples, we moved in LLS towards insights into multilingualism (five languages are being used) and ethnolinguistic diversity (five groups of speakers are in the area).

LLS used in this indicative sense is certainly a very useful research instrument, as it offers researchers a quick and relatively easy access to first-line insights into patterns of multilingualism and sociocultural diversity, on the basis of pretty hard evidence. At the same time, this kind of LLS was shown to have severe limitations, and this led to the development of Ethnographic Linguistic Landscape Analysis (ELLA: Blommaert & Maly 2014). LLS in its traditional mode, it was argued, was based on a synchronic "snapshot" of sociolinguistic reality, while signs, when viewed ethnographically could reveal vastly more information about social action and social change.

The principles of ELLA 

Principles of ELLA were outlined in a polemical text from 2016 criticizing mainstream linguistic landscape studies. The principles are paraphrased here, and observe that they have to do with fundamental methodological options regarding what it is that we study when we examine linguistic landscapes. The backdrop here is ethnography, not linguistics.

In an ethnographic approach to linguistic landscapes, signs are seen as traces of multimodal communicative practices within a sociopolitically structured field which is historically configured. Note three major points here:

  • Ethnography is intrinsically historicizing, because any form of effectively performed (and ethnographically monitored) communicative practice can only be made meaningful because of its (Bakhtinian) histories of production and uptake by nonrandomly positioned actors. Contrary to what is widely assumed, ethnographic research is the exact opposite of synchronic, snapshot-based inquiry. 
  • The theoretical backbone for the first point can be found in the neo-Whorfian, Hymesian and Silversteinian tradition of linguistic anthropology – not elsewhere, for its roots (like those of any intellectual enterprise) are not accidental nor freely exchangeable. What was said above about the meaningfulness of the sign is an exact empirical reformulation of that central concept in this tradition: indexicality. Failing to grasp that point, and its theoretical implications, renders dialogue about it rather pointless.
  • In addition, the effort is driven by an ethnographic understanding of social “structure” as dynamic, fragmented and essentially stochastic, i.e. “chaotic”: while the general vector of change can be determined, the actual outcomes of processes of change are relatively unpredictable, even if they appear “logical” post factum. Random aggregates of processes generate nonrandom outcomes, and change is the “system” we observe. Note that this is a departure from established Durkheimian-Parsonian understandings of “structure” as that which dominates the “large” (“macro”) processes in social life and does so in an enduring way. Practically speaking: “structure” can reside in the exceptional, the near-invisible, rather than in the dominant. The politics of a place is not readable in a self-evident way from the volumes of particular signs displayed in that place

The crucial point, thus, is that ELLA addresses a linguistic landscape not as a linguistic object informing us just about languages and their distribution, but as an ethnographic object informing about social actions and their historical dimensions.

From offline to online: ELLA 2.0

LLS as well as ELLA in first instance focused exclusively on offline landscapes and confined their conclusions to what could be said about language in a particular, physical geographical space. As said, conclusions could be drawn about populations living and acting in that given area.

One fact was overlooked, however. In any physical geographic location, "offline" public signs often contain pointers towards online actions too. We can see this in the following poster, in which hashtags such as #refugeewekend2018 take us from an offline message displayed in physical space to an online area of activism, community formation and information exchange. 

from offline to online

When such leads from offline to online spaces are followed, we enter into a very different sphere of social action, in which "local" events appear as fundamentally connected with translocal ones, involving very different actors, communities and forms of action. This is the program of ELLA 2.0.

Read also: Linguistic Landscapes: An Introduction.