Linguistic Landscapes and the Concept of Public Space*

posted Nov 1, 2014, 9:38 AM by Nicky Guinto   [ updated Nov 1, 2014, 11:25 AM ]

Research on Linguistic landscape (LL) has opened wide doors for social researchers to describe and study the politics of language use and multilingualism within specific physical environments (Gorter, 2006; Lin, 2010). Gorter echoes Landry and Bourhis’ (1997:25) definition of LL, which served as guiding definition by pioneering scholars who explored different LLs and extensively cited in their respective studies, as follows:

The language of public road signs, advertising billboards, street names, place names, commercial shop signs, and public signs on government buildings combines to form the linguistic landscape of a given territory, region, or urban agglomeration. 

Huebner (2009) regards this definition as a “compelling construct” (70) that allows for the documentation of identities, values and relationships in a particular area. From this, Scollon and Scollon (2003 cited by Pan, 2010) developed an analytical position called geosemiotics which is “the study of meaning systems by which language is located in the material world” (68). 

However, Shohamy and Waksman (2009) open notions of expanding the definition of LL to incorporate all those exhibited and interlaced “discourses” that are perceivable by the senses. They define LL as “texts situated and displayed in a changing public space which is being redefined and reshaped”(314).

Central to their radical notion of LL is the concept of public space, within which the idea of linguistic landscape is anchored. The notion of LL draws from the earlier concept of “public sphere” of Jurgen Habermas (1974), a German sociologist who defines it as a domain in which public opinion is formed (presupposing a reasoning public) and made accessible to all citizens. Needless to say, as a site for public opinion, public sphere, and in the case of LL research, public space is bound by the inevitable fluidity of temporal and social constructs.

Ben Rafael (2009) describes public space as “every space in the community or the society that is not private property” (41). He considers LL as a symbolic construction of the public space which inescapably opens questions on “collective identity” and “power relation” (46). Shohamy and Waksman agree that public space is a dynamic environment, which is shared yet unequal, contested, and negotiated. As a shared domain, particular linguistic landscapes, according to them, present identities, relationships, and histories of a particular geographical as well as virtual boundary(ies). Texts in these spaces, they continue, serve multiple layers of social and communicative functions such as promoting, informing, notifying, signing, indexing, creating realities, perpetuating identities, and affirming identities.


Ben-Rafael, E. (2009). A sociological approach to the study of linguistic landscapes. In E. Shohamy & D. Gorter (Eds.), Linguistic landscape: Expanding the scenery. New York: Routledge. 302-312.

Habermas, J. (1974). The Public Sphere: An Encyclopedia article (1964). New German Critique, (3). 49-55.

Huebner, T. (2009). A framework for the linguistic analysis of linguistic landscape. In E. Shohamy & D. Gorter (Eds.), Linguistic landscape: Expanding the scenery. New York: Routledge. 70-87.

Lin, P. (2010). Dissecting multilingual Beijing: The space and scale of vernacular globalization. Visual Communication, 9(1). 67-90.

Shohamy, E. & Waksman, S. (2009). Linguistic landscape as an ecological arena. In E. Shohamy & D. Gorter (Eds.), Linguistic landscape: Expanding the scenery. New York: Routledge. 313-331.

* This is part of a paper I wrote about Linguistic Landscapes which I will be presenting in the 12th Philippine Linguistics Congress to be held at the University of the Philippines-Diliman on November 26-28, 2014. If you wish to read the whole paper, you can send me a message on whichever means convenient to you. My contact information can be found in The Mastermind tab.

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