Language Conflict in Post-Soviet Linguistic Landscapes

By Pavlenko, Aneta | Journal of Slavic Linguistics, Fall 2009 | Go to article overview

Language Conflict in Post-Soviet Linguistic Landscapes


Pavlenko, Aneta, Journal of Slavic Linguistics


Abstract. In this article it is argued that the study of linguistic landscapes (public uses of written language) can benefit from viewing them as dynamic phenomena and examining them in a diachronic context. Based on the changes in the post-Soviet space since 1991, five processes are identified and examined with regard to language change and language conflict. It is further argued that the study of linguistic landscape offers a useful tool for post-Soviet sociolinguistics and for Slavic sociolinguistics at large, and examples are provided of the insights afforded by such inquiry.

1. Introduction

When we arrive in a new country, public signs, ads, and billboards are often the first form of contact we have with the language and script of the place. If the country is multilingual, each instance of language choice and presentation in the public signage transmits symbolic messages regarding legitimacy, centrality, and relevance of particular languages and the people they represent (Shohamy 2006). It is only recently, however, that the study of linguistic landscape, i.e., public uses of written language, has emerged as an independent area of sociolinguistic investigation (e.g., Backhaus 2007; Gorter 2006c; Landry and Bourhis 1997; Scollon and Scollon 2003; Shohamy and Gorter 2009).

To date, only a few studies have examined post-Soviet linguistic landscapes (e.g., Brown 2007; Sadikhova and Abadi 2000; Sloboda 2009; Yurchak 2000). Consequently, the present paper has two interrelated aims. My first aim is to highlight potential contributions of the linguistic landscape approach to the study of language and identity politics in post-Soviet states. My second aim is to show that linguistic and social changes that have taken place in post-Soviet states can offer important contributions to the study of linguistic landscape. I will begin with an overview of theoretical and methodological underpinnings of this area of research. Then, I will discuss linguistic landscape phenomena central to the processes of derussification and language shift in post-Soviet countries. I will end with the key questions that need to be asked with regard to linguistic landscapes in future work on multilingualism in post-Soviet states.

2. Linguistic Landscape: Theory and Methodology

The study of linguistic landscape has come to prominence in the field of sociolinguistics only within the last decade (for an overview, see Backhaus 2007). A foundational article by Landry and Bourhis (1997) defines linguistic landscape as "the language of public road signs, advertising billboards, street names, place names, commercial shop signs, and public signs on governmental buildings" (25). But what makes public signage worthy of investigation? Coupland (forthcoming) argues that as visualizations of modernity, linguistic landscapes can bring different qualities of contemporary urban experience into focus, including different manifestations of language conflict. And indeed most research in this area has been conducted in multilingual societies and communities, including Israel (Ben-Rafael et al. 2006; Spolsky and Cooper 1991; Suleiman 2004), Quebec (Landry and Bourhis 1997), Basque country (Cenoz and Gorter 2006), and Wales (Coupland forthcoming).

To examine these complex negotiations, researchers commonly gather a representative collection of public signage from a particular area, placing each picture in the context of time and place in which it was taken (see Barni and Bagna 2009 for a discussion of the uses of software in this data collection). These items are then analyzed quantitatively and qualitatively, in terms of the frequency of appearance of specific languages; the order of their appearance in multilingual signs; the relationship between presumed translation equivalents in such signs; the prominence of particular languages as seen in the uses of order, font size, and color; spatial location and mobility of the signs; material the signs are made of; and the primary function of the signs, e. …

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