Resemiotizing Linguistic Landscape: A Case Study of Washington, DC’s Chinatown

Jia Jackie Lou

Georgetown University, United States of America


A fast-growing body of research (e.g. Goter 2006) has directed our attention to linguistic landscape, an understudied area of language use in the past. Visual language on public display, such as street signs and shop signs, reflects language policies (e.g. Hult 2006), highlights the interdependence between language and its material context (Scollon and Scollon 2003), and indexes social change (Pan and Scollon 2000). This paper contributes to the discussion through a case study of Washington, DC’s Chinatown, where the minority group struggles for existence through constructing a bilingual streetscape. Taking a social semiotic approach (Hodge and Kress 1988), the current study situates the linguistic landscape of Chinatown in a historic flow of texts and interactions, in order to capture the conflicts and negotiations in the social process of its resemiotization (Iedema 2003).

Data for this project consist of photos of shop signs in Washington’s Chinatown, the Chinatown Design Guidelines Study, and field notes from the author’s participant observations in community events. Instead of focusing on what constitutes the linguistic landscape of Chinatown, the study aims at understanding how the linguistic landscape came about.

The focus of this discussion is the construction of boundary. In the Chinatown Design Guidelines Study, boundary is listed as one of the key areas that needs intensification of Chinese characteristics. While suggested approaches include installing stone gates with welcome banners and stone columns with information maps, the only measure that was implemented in practice is commercial signage in Chinese characters. As all storefronts, including those of Western businesses, within the boundary of Chinatown, are required to carry Chinese shop signs, the dotted boundary lines in the guidelines were thus translated into streets separating Chinatown’s bilingual landscape from the monolingual landscape of the rest of the downtown area. Such linguistic construction of boundary was also noticed in local interactions. For example, on Chinese New Year, staff at the community center greeted visitors with mandarin Chinese at the entrance, even though most of them did not understand the language.

However, not everything was successfully resemiotized from the design into material existence. Other more substantial suggestions made in the guidelines, such as a mixed-use center with traditional Chinese roof and bus shelters in Chinese styles, remain unrealized, as they are in conflict with dominant discourse systems of commercial development and transportation authority.

Thus, connecting design guidelines with current linguistic landscape and social interactions situated in Chinatown, we can see not only what is there but also what is not there and why. Tracing the resemiotization process of linguistic landscape provides us with a window into what has survived and also what has been deleted during the social process of struggles and negotiations.

Session: POSTERS: Focus on variation, migration, minority languages
Thursday, April 3, 2008, 12:45-15:45
room: foyer