Multilingual street scene – a mirror of society?

Today, city streets are filled with written language: nameplates, neon signs, traffic signs, official notifications and advertising posters. The diversity of languages is also significant. As we can see from the headlines of the tabloids and stories of “funny signs” circulating in the social media, these linguistic expressions often catch our attention. Moving from wondering about individual texts to studying the combined total visibility of languages – linguistic landscape – also opens up new aspects for a linguistic.

In general, two layers can be identified in the linguistic landscape: the official and the private. This is also the case in Finland, the topic of my doctoral thesis, with its bilingual cities and their linguistic landscape. In general, the private, particularly commercial linguistic landscape is much more diversified than the official one. When we think about the situation in Finland, multilingualism has its base in the country’s long bilingual history. The Finnish linguistic landscape is fundamentally based on the Language Act, and the visible multilingualism or monolingualism is often influenced by legislative measures. From the status aspect of a minority language, it may be like winning the lottery having the language put on official and public signs – or allowing the use of the language in the first place.

However, the vitality of a language is determined by it being used in private communication. Are there local users of a certain language or is linguistic diversity welcomed in the local attitudinal atmosphere? In addition to its informative attributes, the visible use of language holds a significant symbolic value, so it is no wonder that visibility-related questions often cause strong reactions both for and against the issue. Visible use of language can be seen to also have a dark side: when a local minority language is harnessed for marketing and tourism as a symbol of “authenticity”, its real users may in fact feel estranged.

The linguistic landscape is not an independent reality separate from people, but rather a significant part of the linguistic interaction in a community. First of all, when signs are put out, the actors’ choices are influenced by a number of factors ranging from the language policy to personal attitudes. At the same time, when we are faced with languages in the street they influence our ideas of the linguistic community – and the way we use language.

Therefore, the linguistic landscape can be seen as a mirror of society, showing the researcher the attitudes and ideologies hidden behind the language use.

How is the linguistic landscape visible in our everyday life? Naturally, we take advantage of the information provided in the signs when we navigate the city using the visible names, for example. We also draw conclusions (perhaps unconsciously) about the roles of different languages. For example, if we are in a café and all the signs are in two languages, we can expect to be served in both languages. Then again, imaginative store names that may not resemble any language at all, or replacing multilingualism with English, may alter the relationship between the linguistic landscape and the real language use.

The linguistic landscape is by no means the only factor influencing our idea of the visibility of languages: from time to time, the increased visibility of the English language, for example, is discussed both in Finland and abroad. The effect of globalisation, not the English language alone but the names used in international trade, etc., add colour to the linguistic landscapes around the world. However, research shows that the visibility of foreign languages in a community may not be as extensive as the current debate might lead us to believe. With diverse linguistic landscapes, it is easy to focus on what is different, foreign to oneself – or, in fact, on what one expects to see.

For researchers, exploring linguistic landscapes opens up new opportunities for exploring societal multilingualism but it also brings new challenges. In addition to linguistics, this research requires knowledge of geography, politics, semiotics and ethnology. When we add the survey of visible language use to the material gathered from interviews and questionnaires of language users, we are able to approach questions of the use and status of languages as well as attitudes and ideologies related to languages.


Väinö Syrjälä