Banal cosmopolitanism

By October 31, 2017Globalization

Multilingual “Welcome” sign in a shopping mall in Munich, Germany

Have you recently seen a “welcome” sign? They constitute a strange genre: ever more ubiquitous on the one hand, yet utterly false and insincere – how can you be “greeted” by a piece of stuff? – on the other.

Whenever I see one of these “welcome” signs, I am reminded of an anecdote told by a colleague who had travelled in Japan in the 1970s: he had visited Japan for an academic conference and added a few days of sightseeing. For the latter, he had rented a car to drive around the countryside. It was the days before GPS and mobile phones and satellite tracking; all he had was an old-fashioned paper map. The map had all the place names in the Latin script while the signs he saw next to the road were all in Japanese. Illiterate in Japanese, he had no way of matching a name on the map with a name on a sign.

Sure enough, he got lost. Because some signs had the place name in both Japanese and Latin scripts, he just kept on driving in the hope of finding such a bilingual sign to regain his bearings. To his mounting frustration, the only non-Japanese signs he encountered for a long time said: “Welcome!” He knew he was “welcome” but he didn’t know where – or even what – it was he was welcomed to …

Multilingual “Welcome” sign in a heritage village in Abu Dhabi, UAE

A similar story is unlikely to happen today. Not only because of the advent of GPS and Google maps but also because directional signage outside the Anglophone world and particularly in countries that do not use the Latin script has become bilingual and largely follows the Vienna Convention on Road Signs and Signals. Article 14 stipulates that “The inscription of words on informative signs […] in countries not using the Latin alphabet shall be both in the national language and in the form of a transliteration into the Latin alphabet reproducing as closely as possible the pronunciation in the national language.” As more and more countries have become signatories mono-script directional signage outside the Latin-script world have largely become a thing of the past.

Multilingual “Welcome” sign in a shopping mall in Los Angeles, California

In fact, it is not only directional signage that has become bi- or multilingual but the same is true of “welcome” signs, which must be one of the most multilingual genres on the planet.

Any self-respecting institution today says “welcome” multilingually in a show of banal cosmopolitanism.

“Banal cosmopolitanism” is based off the much better-known concept of “banal nationalism”, a frequent topic here on Language on the Move. Banal nationalism refers to the mundane discourses – flags, maps, national references, etc. – that enact national belonging in everyday life. Similarly, banal cosmopolitanism refers to mundane discourses that enact globalization in everyday life. Banal cosmopolitanism is apparent in the “mediatization and consumption of spatially distant places, signifiers of cultural diversity, and opening up of lifestyles to new experiential spaces and horizons” (Jaworski, 2015, p. 220).

One linguistic form that banal cosmopolitanism may take is the excessive use of new letterforms, punctuation marks, diacritics, and tittles, as Adam Jaworski shows in a 2015 paper entitled “Globalese.” Their use, particularly in brand and shop names, serves to create “novel, foreignized, visual-linguistic forms increasingly detached from their ‘original’ ethno-national languages” (p. 217). Detached from their national and local linguistic context, they point to somewhere else, somewhere in the realm of the global.

English “Welcome” graffiti in Ramsar, Iran

Multilingual “welcome” signs are another such mundane index of globalization and banal cosmopolitanism. Multilingual “welcome” signs feature prominently in consumption spaces – as the examples from shopping malls show and tourist destinations show. However, they are not exclusive to those and are increasingly popular also in universities and similar institutional spaces that want to mark themselves as internationalized, diverse and inclusive.

That all this indexing of cosmopolitanism is indeed “banal” and only runs skin deep is best exemplified by those multilingual “welcome” signs that get one or more of their versions wrong. And I don’t mean home-made signs in developing countries that get their English spelling wrong. What I mean are huge signs professionally produced on durable materials that scream “welcome” in dozens of languages – certainly more languages than the designers of the sign could master or could be bothered to verify the translation for.

The versions that go wrong most frequently are those that use right-to-left scripts.

Multilingual “Welcome” sign, University of Limerick, Ireland

If a designer gets the Arabic and Persian translation of “Welcome” from Google Translate and then copies and pastes it into a selection of other translations, their word processor is likely to re-order the letters from left to right; as happened in this sign at the University of Limerick.

As a result of this linguistically-uninformed process, the Persian version, for instance, which should be “خوش آمدید” is scrambled to read something like the equivalent of “emoclew”; a line later (2nd before last), half of the word, “آمدید” has been repeated, leaving a truncated version similar to “come”; again scrambled to actually spell something like “emoc”.

Examples such as these are not at all rare: in a previous post, we featured an apron that combines both banal nationalism and banal cosmopolitanism in one item and where the Arabic version of “Australia” is spelled backwards.

So who are the recipients of these multilingual “welcome” signs? The signs are intended to send a message of cosmopolitanism, internationalization, diversity and inclusion – but it’s a message that is intended for the dominant population so that they can feel good about themselves. If a reader were not to speak English, the multilingual “welcome” featured here are just as useful as they were to the driver lost in the Japan. And if you are a reader of one of the languages that come in the garbled version, it’s adding insult to injury.

Correction: An earlier version of this post stated that the University of Limerick’s “Welcome” sign was intended to welcome members of an international conference devoted to multilingualism. That was incorrect. Attendees of that conference posed beneath the banner and shared it on social media – that’s how I came across the image – but the banner was not associated with the conference.

Reference

Jaworski, A. (2015). Globalese: A New Visual-Linguistic Register. Social Semiotics, 25(2), 217-235. doi: 10.1080/10350330.2015.1010317

Author Ingrid Piller

Dr Ingrid Piller is Professor of Applied Linguistics at Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia. Ingrid’s research expertise is in the fields of intercultural communication, bilingual education and the sociolinguistics of language learning and multilingualism in the contexts of migration and globalization.

More posts by Ingrid Piller
  • MonyCRole

    This is interesting because whoever tries so hard to use the multilingual method, like the multilingual “welcome” sign, to present his/her embrace of internationalism and inclusion, he/she might cause further violation to non-native readers. This is also true because, for several times and in many occasions, such as menus in restaurants, signs in shops and even some official files by famous institutions, I have encountered Chinese that are obviously copied from Google translation and grammatically incorrect. Rather than feeling grateful for their using my mother tongue to help me understanding, I could not help wondering how much it will take to hire a professional translator or spend some time on inquires to the Chinese speaking group, avoiding more misunderstandings and confusion from the incorrect Chinese. It might sound too sensitive and troublesome but if the multilingual method does not achieve what it should do, why do we use it?

    From this article, I learn that not the method and its users are to blame. After all, they begin from a good purpose of making messages in multilingual form, convenient for a wider group to receive them. Instead, how the method is realized is. In order to maximize its effect, more attention to the used languages should be taken.

  • Robert Phillipson

    I used the concept ‘banal linguicism’ in some detail in an article many years ago (initially at a conference organised by Ruth Wodak, and with Norman Fairclough and Teun van Dijk present) but rather sparingly since. It is unfortunate that I have rather neglected this in more recent work, because as the text on banal cosmopolitanism shows, it is the repeated banalities that tend to be internalised uncritically. The Arabic written backwards is a clear case of banal linguicism, of linguistic ignorance.

  • salmat

    I will never look at a welcome sign the same way again! My favourite example from Jaworski’s article is the use of the word ‘Together’ in the logo for the EU’s 50th birthday celebration. The use of two diacritic signs (an umlaut and an accent) were intended to incorporate ‘European-ness’ to the sign, however they could not take away from the fact that an English word was chosen to convey the meaning. I will enjoy looking around to find further examples of the different ways scripts and visual cues are being used to create meaning.

  • Thanks, Wamut! I don’t doubt the symbolic value of multilingual signage per se. Your examples of Arrernte in Alice Springs or Arabic in Sydney are excellent examples of multilingual signage that serves to (symbolically) recognize the legitimacy of these languages in these spaces.

    What I was trying to point out is that random multilingual signage is not inclusive just because it is multilingual; a clearer example is at http://www.languageonthemove.com/multilingual-mismatch/, which describes a German-English-Italian-French multilingual parking ticket in the Sydney suburb of Auburn, where the most frequently spoken home language is Arabic, followed by English, Turkish, Mandarin, Cantonese and Urdu. The multilingual parking ticket does nothing to recognize the actual languages spoken by actual people in that space and is thus no more or less inclusive than a monolingual English sign would be. Ingrid

  • Thanks, JZzzz, for the images! The linguistic landscape of Macau is fascinating indeed. Some reflections from my visit to the city can be found at http://www.languageonthemove.com/multilingual-macau/

  • Thanks, Xi Yang! You raise an important point about multilingual prohibition signs that exclude speakers of those languages from polite society (or brand them as “uncivilized barbarians”, as you say) while, on the surface, including them linguistically. I’ve explored the issue with regard to multilingual toilet signage at http://www.languageonthemove.com/toiletology/ and multilingual prohibitions more generally at http://www.languageonthemove.com/multilingual-prohibitions/

  • Min Wu KIM

    In retrospect, I saw many signs that added Korean version of interpretation and could be viewed as banal cosmopolitanism for commercial purposes. They were mostly produced by commercial restaurants in China and South-East Asia where Korean travellers were one of the main sources of the customers. Obviously, the translation of the original local language to Korean takes an effort, but the incorrect Korean translation, which seemed to be a product of an automatic translation program, was not helpful as well as resulted in the impression that they were not serious enough in helping Korean customers. I think, it is a good attitude to attract and appeal to people in the name of cosmopolitanism, but they also should understand that if the attempts are not viewed as sincere and serious, the result can be counter-productive.

  • X_C_X

    Perhaps tourism is one of the main genres that allow multilingual signage happens. Looking at the development of the sign of scripts in most of tourist spots in mainland China, we see three phrases. The first phrase is that when all the tourist sign script is merely Chinese; The second period appears with the emergence of English script on the signs; Nowadays in China, there are four scripts including Chinese, English, Japanese, and Korean (see the pictures below). What happens to those scripts from monolingual to multilingual on the signs of tourist spots in mainland China not only conveys the message that there is an increasingly diversity of visitors but illustrates the significantly inclusive care for those people. Besides the field of tourism, the phenomenon takes place in a number of other fields as well, such as hostpital. https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/f7debee7c573ca2b3e90d58109a16aea99b55f2925bcb4996c0e1550db0c6875.jpg
    https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/caebb52694795aac7f9cf4e329dbd0fe400a26b99e68bf9c8bc695990d509516.jpg
    https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/2932ec5c26e562c58e86d80e90330bea35b926a7e9d346b6147a2fc890fc9a5e.png https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/e539f6746799c4b1d2ef26ae6eb1f6533db4345efbe2df10a6e694a2542b048e.jpg

  • Good point! I hadn’t thought about these signs in terms of banal cosmopolitanism before although I’ve also got some examples in the my collection (e.g., this sign at Hamburg University: http://www.languageonthemove.com/bridging-language-barriers-symposium-abstracts/). As far as banal cosmopolitanism goes these signs maybe point to the problem of too much choice, which is known to result in dissatisfaction (as in Barry Schwartz’ book “The paradox of choice”).

  • Kaniz Rahman

    “Banal cosmopolitanism” is definitely a new term for me. Even though I am aware of the welcome signs I was not aware of the term. It gives a good sense of multilingualism. These signs always make me think about how one expression is has so many different ways saying in different language. It also gives a sense of warmness as having signs of strictly in one language specially in the airport might give a quick sense of being in a foreign land which can create anxiety and the waiting cultural shocks can be bigger.
    One more interesting thing just crossed my mind while reading this one that how I keep asking my new friends from different country and linguistics background how they write and say welcome, thanks, hello in their language so that I can be able to read few sings and have a taste of multilingualism.

  • MeganLouise

    I have not ever considered this concept of banal cosmopolitanism when reading welcome signs and now that it has been brought to my attention i can definitely understand how it can be perceived in the wrong way depending on the native language of the viewer. However (as others have touched on) when i have travelled in the past i do feel a sense of relief when i see something written in english as it makes me feel as though i won’t be completely lost/helpless when trying to find the information i am looking for.