The Sociolinguistics of Space and Semiotic Landscapes: An Introduction

Sociolinguistics is the study of the relationship between language and society.  Can social structure, social context, social ideas, values and identities influence the way we can and do use language?  And conversely, can our ways of speaking and writing shape how society organizes itself, how we manage our relationships with one another, and how we self-present to the world. So we might look at the social constrains on language in places like classrooms and the way that certain kinds of language use allow people to exert power over others due to the status that they bring. But over more recent times there has been a shift in attention to the way that language can be placed in space, such as shop signs or the writing found on advertising billboards, or in university and school buildings which also has a role in inscribing identities and ideas into these locations and so helping to structure the kinds of social interactions that take place within and in relation to them (see Figure 1).  Humans’ social and material environments, we might say, form a kind of information order.

Figure 1: 'I II Teaching in HKU' Poster 'the University of Hong Kohg. The language and imagery of culture' and 'experience' economy permeate discourse of university education.
Figure 1: ‘I [icon of a heart] Teaching in HKU’ poster, University of Hong Kong. The language and imagery of ‘culture’ and ‘experience’ economy permeate the discourse of university education.
In recent decades Sociolinguistics has witnessed nothing short of an explosion of publications in the area labeled ‘linguistic landscapes’, the term attributed to Landry and Bourhis (1997), accompanied by the following definition that is still used by many:

‘The language of public road signs, advertising billboards, street names, place names, commercial shop signs, and public signs on government buildings combines to form the linguistic landscape of a given territory, region, or urban agglomeration’ (p. 25).

Landry and Bourhis’ work emerged from the tradition of the Social Psychology of Language and was primarily concerned with the presence (or not) of specific languages (language codes) as indices of ethnolinguistic vitality.

A number of other approaches have come to prominence since, of which Scollon and Scollon’s (2003) geosemiotics – ‘the study of the social meaning of the material placement of signs and discourses and of our actions in the material world’ (p. 2) – has probably been the most influential to date. Their work has broadened the remit of linguistic landscapes analysis beyond the presence or absence of particular language codes in public spaces to include the analysis of displayed texts’ multimodality, materiality, emplacement and interaction order (cf. Stroud and Mpendukana, 2009). Here meaning lies not so much in language itself but the rich and complex texture of everyday contexts where it can be found.  So we can only understand any text or instance of language use by understanding both the social and physical word in which they are located.  Signs derive their meaning for us through their relations to other signs in their social and material environments (Figure 2). This has prompted some researchers to replace the term ‘linguistic landscapes’ with ‘semiotic landscapes’, i.e. ‘in the most general sense, any public space … with visible inscription made through deliberate human intervention and meaning making’ (Jaworski and Thurlow, 2010: 7).

Figure 2: 'I amsterdam', Amsterdam. At Tourists "emplaces" himself in Amsterdam through his interplay with an advertising slogan.
Figure 2: ‘I amsterdam’, Amsterdam. A tourist ‘emplaces’ himself in Amsterdam through his interplay with an advertising slogan.

Another related strand of Sociolinguistic research on language and space has drawn its inspiration from the work in humanistic geography, ‘enregistration’ of dialects, and linguistic anthropological work on indexicality (Johnstone 2004, 2010; Johnstone, Andrus and Danielson, 2006).  This can involve the study of the linguistic indexing of ‘the local’ through different kinds of performances such as the display of dialectical use of language on t-shirts, postcards and souvenirs (Figure 3).

In this sense space is not so much physical but fuses with culture and the order of information.  Authors such as Entrikin (1991) and Johnstone (2004) show that what we come to experience as ‘home’, and ‘belonging’ are experiences mediated by forms of semiotic framing in place.

Figure 3: ‘Greetings vrum Zummerzet’ postcard. Sommerset dialect from the West of England is put on display as an authenticating index of the ‘local’ alongside the image of a man to be imagined as a typical dialect speaker.
Figure 3: ‘Greetings vrum Zummerzet’ postcard. Sommerset dialect from the West of England is put on display as an authenticating index of the ‘local’ alongside the image of a man to be imagined as a typical dialect speaker.

We create our identities and our sense of place in part through the process of geographical imagining, the locating of self in space, claiming the ownership of specific places, or by being excluded from them, by sharing space and interacting with others, however subtly and fleetingly, for example, as strangers in a large city (Simmel, 1997). For example, Szerszynski and Urry (2006) demonstrate how highly mobile, middle class professionals, who have come to live in a rural area in the north of England, experience their new environment in more romanticised, cartographic ways – more landscape than land – in contrast to their sedantrist, working class neighbours, with their stronger sense of immediate objects and concrete characteristics of the same terrain.

The multiplicity of space is often conceived of in terms of ‘scale’. Linguistic resources operate at different levels of multiple, layered and stratified scale validity, from the most global to the most local, with a number of intermediate ones: neighbourhood, town, city, region, nation state, etc. (Blommaert, 2010). Different scales produce different patterns of normativity or different orders of indexicality that congeal into recognizable social categories, i.e. registers associated with particular social groups or places. For example, linguistic features working with a local scale-level will be seen as producing a sense of locality while those working within a global scale-level will be seen as producing a sense of globality (Figure 4).

Figure 4: ‘I I I Dębki ‘ and ‘Dębki • Lubię to’ [Dębki like] t-shirts. Symbolic added value of these t-shirts is derived from the displayed, commodified writing which combines the place name of a small Polish seaside resort (localized by the use of the specifically Polish lettering ‘Ę’) with the global imagery of English and elements of the visual discourses of tourism/commerce [heart] and the internet [like].
Figure 4: ‘I [icon of a heart] Dębki ‘ and ‘Dębki [icon of ‘I like it’] Lubię to’ [Dębki like] t-shirts. Symbolic added value of these t-shirts is derived from the displayed, commodified writing which combines the place name of a small Polish seaside resort (localized by the use of the specifically Polish lettering ‘Ę’) with the global imagery of English and elements of the visual discourses of tourism/commerce [heart] and of the internet [like].
The contributions to this special issue predominantly orient to two complementary scales or dimensions of space: the local and the global. Barbara Johnstone overviews her long-term investigation into the enregisterment (Agha, 2007) of the features of the Pittsburgh dialect into a way of speaking, Pittsburghese, indexing the ‘local’ through stylization and performance; acts of language (dialect) awareness brought about by globalization – increased geographic and demographic mobility of Pittsburghers as well as the changes in the economic landscape of the city. Kasper Juffermans reviews two recent books discussing similarly localizing forces acting on language – specifically different ‘World Englishes’ – and illustrates how English can be conceived of as a form of local practice in the context of Beijing. Adam Jaworski argues that the present-day usage of punctuation marks and diacritics in commercial typography has become an enregistered set of features that, when combined with other multimodal and material resources across a number of commercial domains, indexes spaces as ‘global’.

Jones introduces his own work which has primarily focused on how communication technologies affect attention structures, applying this model to face-to-face conversation.  What he means by  ‘attention’ here is a social activity, something that we do along with other people. This is a useful way to think about discourse in place as it draws our attention to the way that attention is the result of interaction among physical environments, social relationships and the memories, skills, goals and plans of individual social actors.  When we operate in mundane everyday settings, we respond to how the signs around us connect with and influence our experience of social interactions in that space and our historical sense of the accumulation of meanings that they carry.  This model can be applied to forms of communication such as social media as well as to talk in a shopping centre.

An extensive, up-to-date bibliography on linguistic/semiotic landscapes has been compiled by Rob Troyer at Western Oregon University and can be found at the following address: http://www.wou.edu/~troyerr/linguistic_landscape_biblio.html

References

Agha, A. 2007. Language and Social Relations. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Blommaert, J. 2010. The Sociolinguistics of Globalization. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Entrikin, J. N. 1991. The Betweenness of Place: Towards a Geography of Modernity. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Jaworski, A. and C. Thurlow. 2010. Introducing semiotic landscapes. In A. Jaworski and C. Thurlow (eds) Semiotic Landscapes: Language, Image, Space. London: Continuum. 1–40.

Johnstone, B. 2004. Place, globalization, and linguistic variation. In Carmen Fought (ed.) Sociolinguistic Variation: Critical Reflections. New York: Oxford University Press. 65–83.

Johnstone, B. 2010. Language and geographical space. In P. Auer and J. E. Schmidt (eds) Language and Space: An International Handbook of Linguistic Variation. Vol. 1: Theories and Methods. Berlin: De Gruyter Mouton. 1–18.

Johnstone, B., J. Andrus, and A. E. Danielson. 2006. Mobility, indexicality, and the enregisterment of ‘Pittsburghese.’ Journal of English Linguistics 34: 77–104.

Landry, R. and R. Bourhis. 1977. Linguistic landscape and ethnolinguistic vitality: An empirical study. Journal of Language and Social Psychology 16: 23–49.

Simmel, G. 1997. Simmel on Culture: Selected Writings. Edited by D. Frisby and M. Featherstone. London: Sage.

Stroud, C. and S. Mpendukana. 2009. Towards a material ethnography of linguistic landscape: Multilingualism, mobility and space in a South African township. Journal of Sociolinguistics 13/3: 363–386.

Szerszynski, B. and J. Urry. 2006. Visuality, mobility and the cosmopolitan: Inhabiting the world from afar. British Journal of Sociology 57/1: 113–131.

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