The languages of signs in Dutch shopping centres

Loulou Edelman

University of Amsterdam, Netherlands, The


In public space much written language can be found: on shop signs, street signs, posters, etc. For “the visibility and salience of languages on public and commercial signs”, Landry & Bourhis (1997: 23) used the term ‘linguistic landscape’. They observe that the linguistic landscape has a symbolic function in that the presence or absence of a language on signs can symbolize the strength or weakness of an ethnolinguistic group relative to other language communities.

In the Netherlands in addition to the national language Dutch, many minority languages are spoken: immigrant languages such as Turkish, Arabic and Sranan, and the indigenous language Frisian, for example. The question addressed in the present study is how this language diversity is expressed in the linguistic landscape.

This paper is based on a quantitative investigation of the linguistic landscape in ten shopping centres: five in Amsterdam, the capital city where immigration and tourism lead to a diverse population, and five in the province of Friesland, where both Dutch and Frisian are official languages. These locations were chosen as they differ maximally in their ethnolinguistic composition, so locations where many immigrants live are included as well as locations where few immigrants live. All the signs in the survey areas, a few thousand in total, were photographed and coded according to non-linguistic features (e.g., government or private sign, commercial domain) and linguistic features (e.g., languages and scripts used).

The results show that in both Amsterdam and Friesland Dutch is the most common language in the linguistic landscape, followed by English. Minority languages are seldom used, even in areas where these languages are widely spoken. In comparison to other immigrant languages, Turkish is well represented despite the fact that the Turks were not the largest minority in the investigated areas.

The relative importance of language as a symbol of identity differs per ethnic group (Smolicz, 1981). Turks seem to attach more value to their own language than other groups of immigrants, and Extra et al. (2002) report that in the Netherlands the Turkish language is very vigorous. This is expressed in the linguistic landscape. Thus, the presence of Turkish on signs symbolizes the relative strength of the Turkish immigrants as an ethnolinguistic group in the Netherlands.

Extra, G., R. Aarts, T. van der Avoird, P. Broeder & K. Yagmur (2002). De andere talen van Nederland - thuis en op school. Bussum: Coutinho.

Landry, R. & R.Y. Bourhis (1997). Linguistic Landscape and Ethnolinguistic Vitality: An Empirical Study. Journal of Language and Social Psychology, 16, 1, 23-49.

Smolicz, J. (1981). Core values and cultural identity. Ethnic and Racial Studies, 4, 1, 75-90.

Session: Paper session
Linguistic Landscape 1
Saturday, April 5, 2008, 09:00-10:30
room: 07