L is for Linguistic landscape

11 03 2012

I took the photos (below) in one 20-minute walk from home to the gym last week. (You may need to click on them to see the details of their texts).

They all feature language, or better, languages, and are typical of the multilingual ‘linguistic landscape’ that is Barcelona – or, for that matter, any large cosmopolitan centre in the 21st century.  Barcelona may be an extreme case of public multilingualism, given the fact that it is the capital of a region that already has two official languages, as well as being a major tourist centre. Nevertheless, as English extends its (some might say insidious) global reach, there must be few places in the world where public signage and advertising hoardings don’t intermix languages. (An exception is/was Libya, where the law proscribes anything but Arabic).

The term linguistic landscape (LL) is a relatively recent one, and

refers to the visibility and salience of languages on public and commercial signs in a given territory or region. It is proposed that the linguistic landscape may serve important informational and symbolic functions as a marker of the relative power and status of the linguistic communities inhabiting the territory (Landry and Bourhis, 1997: 23).

In a recent collection of papers, Shohamy and Barni (2010: xiv) add that, ‘the notion “linguistic landscape” … includes any written sign found outside private homes, from road signs to names of streets shops and schools.  The study of LLs focuses on analysing these items according to the languages utilised, their relative saliency, syntactic or semantic aspects’. (Elana Shohamy gave a memorable plenary on this very subject at the IATEFL Conference in Cardiff in 2009).

This kind of analysis – or a simplified version of it – is not beyond the reach of English language learners. As I have blogged elsewhere this week, learners have the means (e.g. their mobile phones) and the opportunities (unless they live in Libya) to collect examples of signage in English, or English mixed with a local language, in their own context.

In a recent article, Peter Sayer (2010: 152) describes how he documented and classified the uses of English in the linguistic landscape of Oaxaca, Mexico, and adds that such a study ‘can easily be reproduced as a classroom project, with the students taking on the role of “language detectives”‘, thereby becoming more aware of their own sociolinguistic context.

The photos they bring to class could become the focus of the following questions:

  1. Where was this photo taken?
  2. How many languages can you see?
  3. What is the relative status of the languages? How can you tell?
  4. Who wrote the text? For whom?
  5. Why is (some of it) in English?
  6. Is there a translation? Why/why not?
  7. Is it correct?
  8. Is there anything you don’t understand?
  9. Is there anything you would like to remember?

Particularly interesting is the way that the use of English indexes specific discourses, such as the aspirational culture of brand-name consumer goods. But it can also frame the language of dissent and resistance. Here, for example, is a piece of graffiti spray-painted on the rocks at a beach (Canet de Mar) north of Barcelona. It says ‘NO MORE GUIRIS IN CANET’.  (Guiri is a fairly pejorative Spanish word for tourist).

It intrigues me that, while the language chosen to frame the message is English (easily intelligible to foreign visitors), the author uses a Spanish word (guiri) that most tourists would not understand.  Which raises the question: for whom was the message written – and why? Clearly, there is an intertextual element – the use of English in graffiti is widespread, and the NO MORE-frame is a recognisable feature of the discourse of protest. At the same time, the use of the word guiris serves to exclude a wider readership – reflecting (intentionally or not) the way that the writer seems to wish to exclude tourists from Canet. The interplay between the global and the local – through the use of an in-group expression embedded in an international catchphrase  – captures the essence of the message, making it less an expression of out-group-directed protest and more an expression of in-group-directed solidarity.

Such are the language affordances provided by the linguistic landscape!


Landry, R. and Bourhis, R. (1997) ‘Linguistic landscape and ethnolinguistic vitality: an empirical study’, Journal of Language and Social Psychology, 16,  1.

Sayer, P. (2010) ‘Using the linguistic landscape as a pedagogical resource’, ELT Journal, 64, 2.

Shohamy, E. and Barni, M. (2010) Linguistic Landscape in the City, Bristol: Multilingual Matters.

F is for Forensic linguistics

11 12 2011

A while back I got the following email, signed by a friend (let’s call him Gary):

Hope you get this on time,sorry I didn’t inform you about my trip in Spain for a program, I’m presently in Madrid-Spain and am having some difficulties here because i misplaced my wallet on my way to the hotel where my money and other valuable things were kept. presently i have limited access to internet,I will like you to assist me with a loan of  1,500 Pounds to sort-out my hotel bills and to get myself back home.

I have spoken to the embassy here but they are not responding to the matter effectively,I will appreciate whatever you can afford to assist me with,I’ll Refund the money back to you as soon as i return,let me know if you can be of any help.I don’t have a phone where i can be reached.

Please let me know immediately.

My initial reaction (“Wow, poor Gary!”) was quickly replaced by the suspicion that – despite having been signed by Gary and sent from his email address – this wasn’t Gary’s ‘voice’.  Although there were a number of expressions (such as ‘I don’t have a phone where I can be reached’) that, on an initial reading at least, lent a certain crediblity to the email, a closer analysis suggested that it may have been written by a non-native speaker: wordings such as ‘I will like you to assist me’ lack both idiomaticity and the appropriate degree of informality, while some collocations are just plain wrong (‘I hope you get this on time’; ‘my trip in Spain…’). Moreover, there are a number of orthographical features that are not typical of an educated native speaker (‘1,500 Pounds’, ‘sort-out’). All in all, I smelt a rat.

What I was doing was a form of ‘forensic linguistics’, i.e. using linguistic evidence in the identification (if not the solution) of a crime. To solve the crime using the methods of forensic linguistics, I would have needed to match ‘Gary’s email’ against a sample of texts written by likely suspects, looking for shared features of phrasing, word choice, and spelling.  In an excellent introduction to forensic linguistics, Olsson (2004, p. 116) notes that

“The aim would be to establish a norm of lexical similarity or identity between each text in each pair of texts: what percentage of words do the two excerpts have in common?  Previous experience suggests that two texts of approximately 250 words in length with 30 percent (or more) of lexical words identical to each other are unlikely to have been produced independently of each other”.

As it happens, a Google search for just one sentence from this fake email (“I will appreciate whatever you can afford”) produced around 33 million results.  It seems that this email – with local adaptations – has been doing the rounds for a few years now, and a surprising number of people have been fooled by it – see, for example, this site.

(It’s odd that no one has seen fit to tidy up the grammar and phraseology along the way).

My interest in forensic linguistics was first piqued by a paper by Malcolm Coulthard (1992) in which he recounted his role as an expert witness in the trial of the ‘Birmingham Six’. Coulthard was able to use linguistic arguments to show that a statement allegedly made to the police by one of the accused was in fact a fabrication: the police had simply cut-and-pasted chunks of a previous interview into a statement format.  Coulthard was subsequently to use the techniques of forensic linguistics to earn a posthumous pardon for Derek Bentley, wrongfully hanged for murder in the 1950s¹.

Since then forensic linguistics has matured into a discipline in its own right (you can now do an MSc in it) and it is regularly enlisted in cases of doubtful or disputed authorship such as wills, confessions, emergency calls, hate mail, suicide notes, blackmail demands, and literary plagiarism.

Given the public fascination both for crime and for language, it surprised me, at the time, that crime fiction seemed not to have produced a single detective whose specialism was forensic linguistics – a kind of Hercule Poirot of textual alteration. Accordingly, I set about trying to redress this lack, and drafted a few chapters of a novel whose protagonist was a laddish academic specialising in pragmatics at an unnamed London university who is recruited to solve a case of kidnap and extortion at a large private language school in Covent Garden. I duly sent it off to a number of publishers, adding an explanation as to the nature and importance of forensic linguistics. Result: I accumulated so many rejection slips that I seriously considered writing up a paper on their generic features. And still, ten years on, crime fiction cannot lay claim to a single forensic linguist – as far as I know.

If I am wrong, please let me know immediately. (But I don’t have a phone where i can be reached).

¹”Linguist Malcolm Coulthard showed that certain patterns, such as the frequency of the word “then” and the grammatical use of “then” after the grammatical subject (“I then” rather than “then I”), was not consistent with Bentley’s use of language (his idiolect), as evidenced in court testimony” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Derek_Bentley_case)


Coulthard, M. 1992. ‘Forensic discourse analysis’. In Coulthard, M. (ed.) Advances in Spoken Discourse Analysis. London: Routledge.

Olsson, J. 2004. Forensic Linguistics: An introduction to language, crime and the law. London: Continuum.

Illustrations by Quentin Blake, from Broughton, G. (1968) Success With English. Harmondsworth: Penguin.