Linguistic Landscape

Linguistic Landscaping in Timor-leste*

In recent years sociolinguists have turned their interest from mainly oral language use to visible linguistic phenomena in the public space (Juffermans, 2010). These linguistic phenomena, or rather semiotic signs, using a variety of scripts, pictures, colors, shapes, materials, etc., constitute what in the meantime has become known as the ‘linguistic landscape’ of a given area, be it a shopping mall, a street, a neighborhood, a city, a province, a country. This means, as Blommaert (2013) put it, that sociolinguists when doing fieldwork no longer only carry field notebooks and sound recording equipment but also digital photo cameras with which they document selected linguistic landscapes.

The concept of ‘linguistic landscape’ has been coined by Landry & Bourhis (1997) who in their study of ethnolinguistic vitality showed that language in public space can be considered a major indication of language attitudes, especially in linguistically diverse and contested regions. The linguistic landscape of a given area includes, among other things, the language of road signs, notice boards, advertising, product information, billboards, notes, street names, place names, commercial shop signs, façade names, posters, banners, border signs, signs on government buildings, etc. Examples of linguistic landscape studies in this tradition are collected in Gorter (2006) and Barni & Extra (2008). In addition to the more or less official uses of written language, linguistic landscape studies nowadays also focus on graffiti, moving texts (e.g. on cars and clothes), tattoos and all sorts of other inscriptions in the public space (see e.g. Shohamy & Gorter, 2009; Shohamy, Ben-Rafael & Barni, 2010). Most linguistic landscape studies focus on urban environments but, more recently, less urban and rural spaces are also investigated.

Juffermans (2010) observes that most of the first generation linguistic landscape studies are rather descriptive in nature and proposes an ethnographically informed approach. Blommaert (2013) also makes a plea for a broader perspective on linguistic landscaping. He first considers linguistic landscaping as a quick and easy toolkit for detecting or diagnosing the major sociolinguistic features of an area. This includes questions such as: is the linguistic landscape monolingual or multilingual and, if multilingual, which languages are represented there? From this first diagnosis, one can then move into a more in-depth investigation of local sociolinguistic regimes and especially the forms and functions of literacy therein, professionally produced as well as grassroots, i.e., elite literacies and writings from ordinary people and local communities. Finally, according to Blommaert, linguistic landscaping can give a historical dimension to the sociolinguistic description of public spaces since it reflects earlier stages and historical developments of literacy use.

As of 2015 contributions on linguistic landscaping can be found in the new peer reviewed scholarly journal ‘Linguistic Landscape. An international journal’, published by John Benjamins and edited by Elana Shohamy and Eliezer Ben-Rafael.


Barni, M. & G. Extra (Eds.) (2008). Mapping Linguistic Diversity in Multilingual Contexts. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

Blommaert, J. (2013). Ethnography, Superdiversity and Linguistic Landscapes. Chronicles of Complexity. Bristol: Multilingual Matters.

Gorter, D. (Ed.) (2006). Linguistic Landscape: A New Approach to Multilingualism. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.

Juffermans, K. (2010). Local Languaging. Literacy Products and Practices in Gambian Society. PhD Thesis Tilburg University.

Landry, A. & R.Y. Bourhis (1997). Linguistic landscape and ethnolinguistic vitality: An empirical study. Journal of Language and Social Psycholoy 16, 1, 23-49.

Shohamy, E. & D. Gorter (Eds.) (2009a). Linguistic Landscape. Expanding the Scenery. New York: Routledge.

Shohamy, E., E.Ben-Rafael & M. Barni (Eds.) (2010). Linguistic Landscape in the City. Bristol: Multilingual Matters.

*The above introduction to linguistic landscaping in Timor-Leste is based on Chapter 3, ‘Bahasa Fataluku dalam Lanskap Linguistik Lautém’ (Fataluku in the linguistic landscape of Lautém) of Edegar da Conceição Savio’s PhD thesis Studi Sosiolinguistik Fataluku di Lautém (A Sociolinguistic Study of Fataluku in Lautém); forthcoming 2015.