English, the non-language

Installment #2 in the mini-series on multilingual signage

Much of the signage that can be found in contemporary public spaces is commercial. It is a form of advertising, and language choice in commercial signage such as shop names is a good indicator of the values associated with a particular language. The basic idea is that the connotations of the shop name are such that they will attract potential customers. From a multilingual perspective, the interesting signs are those where a language other than the default choice – the official language of a particular place – is used. In much of the non-English-speaking world, English signs, of course, hold pride of place and English has come to be widely associated with modernity, progress, globalization and consumption. Whereas languages other than English mostly index ethnic stereotypes, English indexes a social stereotype (as I discussed in detail in this review article). What that means is that English is not used to conjure up some archetypal American or British quality in the same way that French or Italian are used to imbue a business with some stereotypical French-ness or Italian-ness.

The association of English with consumerism is perfectly encapsulated in this shop sign at Munich airport. Munich is the capital of Bavaria, one of the states in Germany’s federal structure. The German word for “Bavaria” is “Bayern” and the first syllable of “Bay-ern” is pronounced just like English “buy.” The shop name “Buyern” is thus a neat word play. Bavaria’s national color blue against the background of the national rhombus pattern reinforce the national association. As someone who grew up in Bavaria and had a certain reference for the national symbolism instilled in my childhood, my gut reaction to this sign was one of dismay and offense.

English in this sign clearly bears no relationship whatsoever to any English-speaking country. Rather, it associates English with the national symbolism of a non-English-speaking country, Bavaria, and presents that nation as an object of consumption. The products for sale in this shop are all kinds of souvenirs: Bavarian souvenirs, German souvenirs, European souvenirs, airport souvenirs, Christmas souvenirs (I took the picture in November last year) and other stuff whose only purpose it is to be bought. Buy!

English makes this place – just like pretty much any other airport – a non-space of gratuitous consumption, gratuitous travel, and gratuitous national imagery. English is the language of globalization, that’s for sure; but it’s the globalization of nothing, as George Ritzer tells us. Does that make English the language of nothing? Non-people in non-places buying non-things in non-service encounters and using a non-language?!

ResearchBlogging.org Piller, I. (2003). ADVERTISING AS A SITE OF LANGUAGE CONTACT Annual Review of Applied Linguistics, 23 DOI: 10.1017/S0267190503000254

Ritzer, G. (2007). The globalization of nothing 2 Thousand Oaks, CA, & London: Sage

About Ingrid Piller

Dr Ingrid Piller is Professor of Applied Linguistics at Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia. Over the course of her international career, she has also held appointments at universities in Germany, Switzerland, United Arab Emirates and USA. Ingrid’s research expertise is in Intercultural Communication, the Sociolinguistics of Language Learning and Multilingualism, and Bilingual Education. She is particularly interested in the ways in which linguistic diversity as it arises in the contexts of globalization and migration intersects with social inclusion and global justice.
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4 Responses to English, the non-language

  1. Henrik says:

    Very neat logic, but perhaps one flaw? Is it British English or American English? Reading your topic, you make several references to England and English, and this is where I think the error lies. The underlying commercialism is American in origin, not English, and that’s a pretty important distinction to make! Also, after WW II, much of German culture was replaced by American culture with a large number of American soldiers, airmen and their families based in Germany for many decades. Even a country as successful as Sweden was between 1945 and 1975 looked to America for “cultural inspiration” and adopted the American consumer lifestyle.

    So please, could we please refrain from tainting England and English by confusing it with what is essentially USA, American culture, commercialism and American (AmE)?

  2. Jenny Zhang says:

    I don’t think “Buyern” – the English shop name in Ingrid’s discussion, has much to do with England and America or British and American varieties of English, per se. Though promoted by British colonization and American commercialization, English has already become a global language, the language of economic globalization. In many non-English speaking countries or regions, we can see a prevalence of signs in English as displayed on shop windows, commercial signs, posters, official notices, leaflets and flyers, etc. English (not necessarily British or American English or culture) is often perceived, in those areas, as being more modern and prestigious than local languages. In this case, the English shop name sign located at Munich airport as a tourist and transnational space might serve both informational and symbolic functions. On the one hand, there might be a need to communicate with tourists via a lingua franca; on the other hand it also symbolizes foreign tastes, fashions or even prestige. Certainly, the sign will be offensive if it positions Bavaria as “an object of consumption.”

  3. Mira-chan says:

    Yep, thats true. Its is very common scene here in the UAE, most shops have an english sinage though the name is actually arabic.

  4. Pingback: Multilingual Macau | Language on the Move

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