It turns out that this Saturday they open a new pop-up store in the center, and in two weeks the Christmas market begins , and what better time than Christmas to have a gourmet experience like the one advertised by a department store. The italics accuse us of the foreign origin of these terms that many of us, as readers, already identify as our own. They are part of our daily lives, especially in urban contexts.
Pop-up store or gourmet experience are examples of the current linguistic landscape that is so much to talk about, and not only for those of us who are dedicated to language. We define it as the set of linguistic expressions that are in our environment. We will refer here to written expressions, but the range is much broader (symbols, pictograms, sounds, etc.).
Often, the function of the message determines the context in which these expressions are found, but the combinations of messages in public or private spaces are infinite, hence the complexity (and attractiveness) of the linguistic landscape.
Multilingual linguistic landscapes
Thus, on the one hand, we have signage in two or more languages in bilingual, multilingual contexts or in those places where the presence of tourists or commercial flow is high (Office de tourisme, departures , centro cittá , etc.). The context and symbolism that usually accompanies these terms complement the information that the written words offer and facilitate the interpretation of the messages.
Secondly, the linguistic landscape reflects the interest of companies and brands in making their products and services known, and leading us to consume them. Here we find examples that come to us from advertising and that, with greater or lesser ingenuity, use another language as a call for attention.
Bilingual word games
Sometimes, word games are created by combining two or more languages, as in the case of ¿ Do you come out or come in? This question, addressed to the customer from the window, plays with the ambiguity derived from the same linguistic sign that can be interpreted in Spanish (verb to leave) or in English (sales). The context and information about clothing discounts help construct the relevant meaning.
This practice has been taken to unexpected extremes in terms of extension and impact, such as in the case of prioritizing the use of English over Spanish when labeling establishments in Spain and informing about their products.
At the end of 2022, a journalistic investigation sounded the alarm in this regard: on Gran Vía in Madrid, 65% of the establishments “have English names or use messages in that language without translating it, as if it were another native language.”
We can ask ourselves if this is another consequence of the globalization present in the center of many large cities. Is this linguistic choice justified by tourism in the central area or by the majority use of English as an international language?
The example of Madrid’s Gran Vía reflects a common situation that languages in contact currently experience in numerous urban centers. However, the obvious presence of English, a language of international prestige, generates all kinds of reactions, also negative, regarding the status of languages, linguistic domination or even possible assimilation.
However, the visibility of some languages over others is not directly related to the presence of said linguistic groups in a given context, but rather reflects the choice to use a language for different reasons: internationality, aesthetics or prestige, among others.
Personal linguistic landscape
The linguistic landscape does not always respond to a message issued by a group; Thus, the labeling, graffiti and urban art that we find in public spaces show this. In these cases, choosing one language or another as a means of individual expression is part of personal identity and the need for communication in a specific situation, at a specific time.
The examples we find around us can be more or less explicit: Shame ; create ; star ; love , and reflect issues of all kinds (personal, social or political, among others): better together, freedom, forza Napoli, peace and love …
In almost every urban corner we find examples of linguistic landscapes where different languages gradually take over the space around us. If we pay attention to neighborhood stores, for example, we will see posters and signs in Arabic or Chinese, unthinkable a few decades ago.
We don’t understand them, but we give them meaning and unintentionally give the store or restaurant more authenticity. The languages of these establishments also reflect the incorporation of different population groups that speak other languages, making our society an increasingly multilingual and multicultural place. Sociolinguistics and demolinguistics give a good account of these processes.
In short, the presence of different languages in our environment invites us to understand the world in another way, to make sense of what surrounds us from a perspective that is based on cultural and multilingual diversity.
We ask ourselves: where is the linguistic landscape going? Now is a good time for us to find answers. We can do it because, as one brand said a few years ago:
It is autumn. You are power.
Author Bio: Beatriz Lopez Medina is a Training Teacher for Bilingualism and Teaching of Foreign Languages. Quality Technician in Higher Education at the Complutense University of Madrid