Over the next few weeks my introductory sociolinguistics students are doing a group work task in which they explore the linguistic landscape in their suburb and relate the visibility of languages in public space to the linguistic profile of their suburb as it appears in the census data published by the Australian Bureau of Statistics. I can’t wait to see the outcome of their research and, in the meantime, will run a little mini-series on the burgeoning study of linguistic landscapes to accompany their work.

I’m starting this mini-series with this graffiti, which I found truly startling when I first encountered it as it invests English with magic, religious feeling, and love. The graffiti “I kees love” (which I think should be “I kiss love”) and “I love you” appears on an imamzadeh, a shrine, in the Alborz Mountains in Northern Iran. The only way to reach this shrine is on foot or on horseback. The closest hamlet – all but deserted and inhabited only in summer time – is a three hours’ walk away. Traditionally, the shrine has been the goal of pilgrims who have family matters that they want to pray over. I walked that path last year. It’s an amazing hike through stunning scenery and solitary mountain wilderness. Imagine my surprise when after a long hike – one of those that are exhausting as they are exhilarating – we arrived at the shrine to be greeted by English graffiti! Here I was in a remote corner of one of the most isolated countries on earth (if you look at Iran through Western eyes, that is): to read “I kees love” and “I love you.” The sentiment expressed seemed quite appropriate to the magic and mysticism of the place. That the sentiment is expressed in English instead of Persian came as a surprise: for the writer, English must have been the language of love and now the magic of English is inscribed in that holy place!

It also turns out that Iran is far less distant than we like to think …

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
  • “I kees love” is an admirable message in any context. Is “I love you” written in Farsi under the English?

    And is that an energy saver light bulb? I kees it!

  • Ingrid Piller

    The Persian writing underneath “I love you” seems to be the writer’s name, something like a tag line, as far as I can tell.

  • Vahid

    Dear Ingrid,

    Thank you for the nice post!
    The sentence under the English ‘I love you’ is, in fact, in Arabic not in Farsi/Persian!
    It is semantically equivalent to the English “Blessing comes only from God.”
    Now that the meaning of this Arabic sentence has become clear, I think the graffiti (I love you) serves a different function from the one you mentioned. “I love you” seems to me to be at the service of ridiculing the holiness of the place unless we suppose the writer of both sentences to be one/the same person.

    Aloha,
    vahid

  • Khan

    Dear Ingrid

    Thanks for an extremely interesting post inviting me to think how magical the spread of English has been and the magic is so effective and pervasive. I wonder if the writer ever realised the meanings expressed by the graffiti will be interpreted so differently by people coming for diverse cultural backround. For one thing is sure that the semiotic presence of English on a holy shrine is magic!

    • Sumaiya

      Dear Ingrid

      Thanks a lot for sharing this picture. It is quite amazing to see the use of multiple languages saying different things in the Holy shrine. It shows that people from multicultural background visits that shrine and can interpret the graffiti accordingly. The words show that the writer must have expressed his feelings in English and wrote his name in Arabic (as mentioned in one of the comments) as he knew more than one language. And as said by Sir. Khan, the presence of English on a Holy shrine is magic!

  • Jenny Zhang

    For me, the author was “dead” when the text was produced. It is pointless to argue what the “true” intention of the mysterious graffiti is. But it’s interesting indeed to see how a same text in English is subject to multiple interpretations from people with diverse cultural backgrounds. Maybe, we shall come back to those primary questions in discourse analysis: Who is the interpretor? In which context a particular interpretation is given? For what purposes?

  • The graffitist wrote the sentences
    which were of most priority to him.
    He could do this in many other places but resorting to holy shrines means he is faithful to God even in this heart-breaking situation. And he asks for God’s bless to reach to his/her beloved.
    The other interpretation from his reason for writing in this place is that it was the only place where his beloved attended without being questioned.
    His choice of language indicates at least their authorities won’t understand about the meaning.
    Love for the writer may mean celestial and by this graffiti s/he is expressing his feelings toward God or Imamzadah.
    And many other interpretations which are just matter of probability not certainty…

  • Nancy

    Graffiti in English seems to be an important way for non native speakers to express themselves. The school near my house in Argentina is always covered with English words…..I wish they were expressing love more than the other four letter words that appear!

  • Farzana Lodhi

    Dear Ingrid,

    The graffiti on the shrine confirms that English is a language of soul to soul.The purest of the pure thoughts can be expressed in English text without much struggle and without any limitation of boundaries.Its a language of invisible to visible and vice -versa.

    Lodhi

  • Arshad Baig (Karachi, Pakistan)

    Dear Ingrid,

    Thanks for sharing this picture. It really compelled me to think. Language is really a magic through which we make several solution for a single task. I have a similar opinion as Razieh has mentioned. No one is aware about the real intention of the graffitist. This graffiti reveals the internal state (psychological, emotional, mental, etc.) to another person. May be he is so devoted and religious man that he is expressing his love for God, and also possible that this is the place where his beloved meet with him without any obstacles of the material world.

    Arshad Baig

  • Asma Fatehali (Karachi, Pakistan)

    Thanks for sharing this graphic. I was just reflecting is it the magic of English or the shrine because article is revealing that people are going there to pray and resolve their problems. No doubt they have written in English “I love you” which gives the impression that they want to express their love in a script common to world.

  • Thank you very much for this acute observation of yours. What I liked most is not only the inscriptions on the shrine, but also the benign mood the article is filled with, the description of the place and all the difficulties a person has to overcome in order to get there.