19.1760, Review: Sociolinguistics: Backhaus (2007)

Mon Jun 2 20:14:30 UTC 2008

LINGUIST List: Vol-19-1760. Mon Jun 02 2008. ISSN: 1068 - 4875.

Subject: 19.1760, Review: Sociolinguistics: Backhaus (2007)

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Date: 02-Jun-2008
From: Mark Irwin < mark_irwin at mac.com >
Subject: Linguistic Landscapes


-------------------------Message 1 ---------------------------------- 
Date: Mon, 02 Jun 2008 16:12:26
From: Mark Irwin [mark_irwin at mac.com]
Subject: Linguistic Landscapes
E-mail this message to a friend:

Announced at http://linguistlist.org/issues/18/18-808.html 

AUTHOR: Peter Backhaus
TITLE: Linguistic Landscapes
SUBTITLE: A Comparative Study of Urban Multilingualism in Tokyo
SERIES: Multilingual Matters 136 
PUBLISHER: Multilingual Matters 
YEAR: 2007

Mark Irwin, Faculty of Literature & Social Sciences, Yamagata University

The ''linguistic landscapes'' of the volume's title refer to the language on signs
and, as its subtitle suggests, this is a detailed study of the language found on
signs in several sample zones of the world's largest metropolis, Tokyo. The
sociolinguistic sub-discipline of the linguistic landscape is a relatively new
one, dating back to a study carried out in Brussels in 1978, and it is outlining
the theoretical underpinnings and previous approaches to the field with which
the first half of the volume concerns itself. In Chapter 1 (''Introduction'', 1-3)
the author points out that, while cities have always been places of language
contact offering fruitful results for sociolinguistic study both variationist
and multilingual, the written language of the world's great metropolises has
been until recently largely ignored. ''Every urban environment is a myriad of
written messages on public display: office and shop signs, billboards and neon
advertisements, traffic signs, topographic information and area maps, emergency
guidance and political poster campaigns, stone inscriptions, and enigmatic
graffiti discourse. These messages bring together a variety of languages and
scripts, the total of which constitutes the linguistic landscape...'' (1).
Backhaus's analysis of a Tokyo ''myriad of public messages'' makes up the second
half of the volume.

Chapter 2 (''Semiotic Background and Terminology'', 4-11) takes a theoretical look
at the semiotic properties of language on signs: a public sign has meaning only
in combination with its referent; unless interpretable a public sign has, in
general, no meaning. The author discusses the Peircian notions of index, icon
and symbol with reference to public signs, and Wienold's (1994) concept of
'inscriptions': ''written uses of language which do not have a recognizable
emitter and are not meant for special receivers'' (8). A number of recent
differing definitions of 'linguistic landscape' and 'linguistic landscaping' are
examined, with Backhaus defending his decision to follow the more frequently
cited formulation for the former of Landry & Bourhis (1997): ''the language of
public road signs, advertising billboards, street names, place names, commercial
shop signs, and public signs on governmental buildings'' (9).

Chapter 3 (''Previous Approaches to the Linguistic Landscape: An Overview'',
12-53) is a lengthy one and, as its title suggests, summarizes previous research
in linguistic landscape studies. The author makes two important points: that the
relative youth of the discipline has meant that earlier studies have often been
conducted in ignorance of similar research; and that interest has been
particularly high in the linguistic landscapes of cities containing more than
one distinct language group. The remainder of the chapter provides a detailed
overview of this body of work, which includes studies carried out in Brussels,
Montreal, Jerusalem, Paris, Dakar, Lira (Uganda), Rome and Bangkok. Also
reviewed are four earlier studies on the Tokyo linguistic landscape which have
examined script use on business and shop signs, language use in multilingual
signs and Braille stickers and plates on public transportation. 

Reflecting on the issues explored in previous chapters, Chapter 4 (''Summary'',
54-63) offers some general observations on previous research and then considers
the ''three basic questions informing the study of the linguistic landscape''
(57): linguistic landscaping by whom? (official versus non-official items);
linguistic landscaping for whom? (who is the ''presumed reader''?); and linguistic
landscape quo vadis? The chapter closes with a discussion of some methodological
issues: quantative versus qualitative approaches, counting issues (the sign as
one item versus semantic-based 'information units', 'cases', etc.) and issues of

Chapter 5 (''Case Study: Signs of Multilingualism in Tokyo'', 64-140) makes up the
second half of Backhaus's volume, the pun in its title belying the author's
conclusions. The survey area for the case study was composed of the two-sided
street space located close to the entrances of 28 stations on Tokyo's Yamanote
Line, a circular railway line connecting the metropolis's multiple centres.
These criteria allowed 10 of Tokyo's 23 wards to be sampled, with the street
space covering a variety of different environments. A little under 12,000 signs
were sampled, of which a total of 2,444 were categorized as 'multilingual'.
These were then analyzed and discussed according to the languages they contained
and their combination patterns, the differences between official and
non-official signs ('top-down' versus 'bottom-up'), their geographic
distribution, part writing (availability of translation or transliteration),
code preference, visibility, idiosyncrasies, and layering (the coexistence of
older and newer versions of a given type of sign).

The author's conclusions are presented in the final chapter, Chapter 6
(''Conclusions'', 141-146). In answer to the ''three basic questions'' posed in
Chapter 4, his findings show that the multilingual linguistic landscaping of
Tokyo tends towards non-official 'bottom-up' signage ('by whom?'); that the
target group is non-Japanese in the case of signs providing translations or
transliterations, but Japanese otherwise ('for whom?'); and that, although
''Tokyo is a city that still predominately functions in one language'' (145),
''signs of multilingualism'' (ibid.) are evident ('quo vadis?'). Returning to the
title of Chapter 5, Backhaus claims that the city's linguistic landscape ''can be
read as reflecting the ongoing changes in the Japanese language regime... It can
be seen that the country's much-quoted monolingualism is about to lose its
relevance in a globalizing world. The uncontested role of Japanese as the
national language and its ideological underpinning as the essence of being
Japanese now increasingly face pressure, both from above and below'' (146).

Backhaus's volume is a welcome contribution not only to the study of linguistic
landscapes and landscaping, but also to language contact and multilingualism in
Japan. Of particular value is the detailed review of previous research presented
in Chapter 3, which reveals a field with ample potential for future study and
ample scope for future theoretical debate. 

The categories according to which the multilingual sign corpus was analyzed in
the case study in Chapter 5 can, in this sense, be seen as merely the tip of the
iceberg. This reviewer, for example, found the author's analysis by
''idiosyncrasy'' (116-130) particularly stimulating. Any long-term English
native-speaker resident of Japan will be only too excruciatingly aware of how
her language is used, abused and misused on a regular basis - here Backhaus
attempts to analyze this kind of language. He notes ''double representations on
toponymic signs'' (e.g. 'Rikugien Garden' = 'Rikugi Garden Garden'), which he
claims, probably correctly, is an ''officially promoted strategy'' (117); the use,
non-use, and misuse of capitals (e.g. 'floor Guide'); orthographic errors (e.g.
'Alcohl'), many triggered by having been back-transliterated from Japanese
transliterations of original English borrowings (e.g. 'Accusesari');
morphosyntactic idiosyncrasies, especially with respect to the plural (e.g. the
ubiquitous 'LETTER POSTCARD' found on Japanese post boxes), the past tense of
verbs (e.g. the 'CLOSE' for 'closed' found frequently on shop doors) and
determiners (e.g. 'A Fire Extinguisher'); and semantic idiosyncrasies due to
English words being used in their borrowed Japanese sense. This analysis is
applied not just to English, but to Japanese (when transcribed in Braille or the
Roman alphabet), Chinese and Korean as well. That other analyses and
categorizations of idiosyncrasies may be possible, and such analyses and
categorizations applied not just to multilingual signs in Tokyo but elsewhere,
is a pleasing prospect. 

_Linguistic Landscapes_ is clearly structured, well written and requires little
or no prior theoretical knowledge of linguistic landscape issues. It is
virtually free of errors and typos, having clearly benefited from ruthless editing.

Landry, R. & Bourhis, R. (1997). Linguistic landscape and ethnolinguistic
vitality. _Journal of language and Social Psychology_ 16, 23-49.

Wienold, G. (1994). Inscriptions in daily life. In Sabban, A. & Schmitt, C.
(eds.), _Der sprachliche Alltag. Linguistik - Rhetorik - Literaturwissenschaft:
Festschrift für Wolf Dieter Stempel_, pp. 635-652. Tübingen: Niemeyer. 

Mark Irwin is an associate professor at Yamagata University, Japan. His research
interests include the historical linguistics, sociolinguistics, historical
sociolinguistics and historical phonology of Japanese. 


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