Selling the city: The symbolic economy of linguistic landscapes

Jennifer Leeman (1), Gabriella Modan (2)

1: George Mason University, Fairfax VA, US 2: Ohio State University, Columbus OH, US


The framework of linguistic landscape analyzes the material manifestations of language – street signs, shop windows, billboards, etc. -- in a geographic area (e.g., Landry & Bourhis 1997, Ben-Rafael et al. 2006, Backhaus 2006). This approach often conceptualizes both speech communities and spaces as static entities. Further, linguistic landscape research often assumes a one-to-one mapping between languages and people, with more frequent material manifestations said to reflect or promote greater status or ‘ethnolinguistic vitality’. In this paper, we rethink this approach by promoting a contextualized, historicized and spatialized perspective which highlights that landscapes are not simply physical spaces but are instead ideologically charged constructions. We draw from cultural geography and urban anthropology theory to analyze how written language interacts with other features of the built environment to construct commodified urban places – cities for sale. Specifically, we examine the linguistic landscape of Washington DC’s newly gentrified Chinatown, where recently established commercial establishments, consisting primarily of non-Chinese owned national and international chains, use Chinese language signs as design features targeted towards people who neither speak nor have ethnic ties to that language.

Along the lines of Malinowski’s (1923) concepts of context of situation and context of culture, we link micro-level analysis of individual Chinese-language signs to macro-level socio-geographic processes of spatial commodification. In the old Chinatown, businesses used Chinese to convey ideational content to readers of Chinese or to sell Chinese products. In the new Chinatown, ethnicity is indexed by Chinese writing and commodified as a conveyor of distinction (cf. Urciuoli 2003). Like other features of the built environment, Chinese writing is used in public/private redevelopment initiatives to create a unique neighborhood 'brand' to draw tourists and consumers. The language of the Other is used to convey an air of exoticism and cosmopolitanism, to sell brand name cosmetics, clothing and cuisine. Thus, rather than a marker of Chinese ethnolinguistic vitality, Chinese writing in Chinatown’s landscape is appropriated by powerful groups and commodified to benefit large corporations, the neighborhood’s primary business owners.

DC’s Chinatown demonstrates the importance of attending to the specific situational and cultural contexts where material manifestations of language occur. Although examining the relative frequency of different languages in the landscape may provide some insights, it must be accompanied by an analysis of their use, function, and history. Only by considering these factors can we truly understand the larger sociopolitical meanings of linguistic landscapes.


Backhaus, P. (2006). Multilingualism in Tokyo: A look into the linguistic landscape. International Journal of Multilingualism, 3(1):52-66

Ben-Rafael, E. et al. (2006). Linguistic landscape as symbolic construction of the public space: The case of Israel. International Journal of Multilingualism, 3(1):7-30

Landry, R, and R. Bourhis. (1997). Linguistic landscape and ethnolinguistic vitality: An empirical study. Journal of Language and Social Psychology, 16(1):23-49

Malinowski, B. (1923). The problem of meaning in primitive languages. In C. K. Ogden & I. A. Richards (Eds.), The Meaning of Meaning. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul. 296-336

Urciuoli, B. (2003). Excellence, leadership skills, diversity: Marketing liberal arts education. Language and Communication, 23:385-408

Session: Paper session
Linguistic Landscape 2 / Contact
Saturday, April 5, 2008, 13:45-15:15
room: 06