Academic journal article The Geographical Review

Language, Identity, and the Scriptorial Landscape in Quebec and Catalonia*

Academic journal article The Geographical Review

Language, Identity, and the Scriptorial Landscape in Quebec and Catalonia*

Article excerpt

How a cultural identity is communicated in a given territorial space raises a central issue of the linkage between the bases of that identity and its concrete manifestation. Nation-states with long histories of political independence are characteristically self-assured and matter of fact about how they communicate their national identity. At the opposite extreme are minorities who do not have the autonomy to set cultural policy or even to bound their space. In the continuum between those poles are territories still in the process of consolidating a cultural hold on their space. For them the path toward asserting identity is self-conscious and often facilitated by legal codification. Language is now often considered the most important factor in defining who this group is. If language rights now underpin demands for autonomy, that linkage has not always been assumed. Until the late eighteenth century, language was viewed as being a natural object of divine origin, not a phenomenon controlled by human will (Schieffelin, Woolard, and Kroskrity 1998). A dramatic change in thinking came with the writings of Johann Gottfried von Herder (1744-1803), the first scholar to articulate a view of language as more than interactive communication. Herder characterized language as the genius of a particular people and a part of their essential identity (Barnard 2003). That perspective led to the view that language imparts a certain way of seeing, feeling, and even, perhaps, behaving. Tolerance of linguistic aspirations builds on that particularism and became part of the postmodernist agenda of the late twentieth century. Many issues in the geography of language are essentially an outgrowth of the Herderian perspective. Various scales of analysis are involved, but the specifics of different localities may be what bring the spatiality of language into sharpest focus.

IDEA OF THE SCRIPTORIAL LANDSCAPE

The visible human imprint on the land remains the most grounded way to understand the cultural hold on space. Building styles, field patterns, and settlement arrangements imply larger meanings and representations about place, culture, and identity. One of the most obvious, but also most overlooked, landscape signatures is the word writ large to inform, guide, advertise, or simply proclaim. Whereas speech or the spoken language is time bound, transient, prolix, and improvisational, graphic expression is space bound, durable, formal, succinct, and planned. Just as speech belongs to the individual, written language is shared. The intense visuality of the written word also has the powerful ability to communicate basic facts to the person who can read it and even intimidate those who cannot.

Signs, inscriptions, banners, and graffiti together constitute part of the encompassing cultural landscape. Aside from their stationary positioning, these visual components manifest substantial differences. Graffiti, ad hoc scribbles on a hard surface, may be used to define turf, shock bourgeois sensibilities, or record social or individual protest. Banners, on paper or cloth, are mostly ephemeral forms of publicity. Inscriptions, carved in stone or etched in metal to last for the ages, use formal language to inform posterity. Lastly, there are exterior signs, the most numerous and consistently visible elements of the scriptorial landscape in most places. (1) Their wording is grammatically elliptical, typographically clear, and often meant to be legible from a distance. Some are mass-produced, but when skilled artisans construct a one-of-a-kind sign, its semipermanence justifies its cost. Concentrations of signs, sometimes called "signscapes," are positioned in central business districts, along commercial strips, and near crossroads.

Written signs have a long history, but not until the advance of literacy and technology in the twentieth century did the scriptorial landscape emerge as a pervasive phenomenon. Especially in the Western world, higher numbers of educated people have increasingly sensitized societies to words on display around them. …

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