Monday, 14 November 2016


Last week, I handed in my first forensic linguistics assignment. It was a critical review of a paper* about signs – as in street signs – which have some kind of legal force: no entry, private property, etc. It’s a bit of a left-field sort of paper which didn’t seem to bear much relation to anything we’ve studied so far, nor to anything that I’ve yet found in the forensic linguistics literature. Its only connection seemed to be that it’s about language and the law.

When I first read through the paper, I was a bit flummoxed about where to start. The main field it seemed to draw on was something called linguistic landscapes. So I had a flick through some of the linguistic landscapes literature it cited … and was really none the wiser! To be honest, it was pretty impenetrable stuff, full of vague, abstract concepts described in dense academic language ('geosemiotics' anyone?!) and never really seemed to get to the point. In my applied linguist’s brain, I kept asking “But what are the implications of all this theorizing? What does it actually mean to real people in the real world?” ... and judging by some of the comments in the margins, I wasn't the only one ...

I felt like I needed to get a handle on the topic in terms I could relate to. Then I remembered that I’d seen the phrase linguistic landscape before … Every now and then, photos of signs pop up on my Facebook feed, posted by various ELT colleagues who are part of a group call MULL, Map of the Urban Linguistic Landscape. I tracked down the group and couldn’t see much more in it than a collection of occasionally amusing signs. Then I spotted that the group had been set up by Damian Williams, a fellow ELT writer who I happen to have been in contact with recently. So I dropped him an email to ask what MULL was all about.

Meanwhile, in that way that when something comes to your attention, you start seeing it everywhere, I spotted #linguisticlandscapes on Twitter in a tweet about an ELT conference talk. So I searched for the hashtag and lo and behold a flurry of tweets came up, including a number from a conference, LL8, in Liverpool earlier this year. I clicked through to the programme and browsed through the titles and outlines for some of the sessions. Some of them looked really fascinating, but also incredibly diverse – here’s a taste of a few:

Comic murals in Brussels’ linguistic landscape
Beijing in Africa: a new dimension in the LL of Addis Ababa
It won’t be quiet: the inner and outer linguistic landscape of Rēzekne’s most famous kebab restaurant
I was sort of starting to get a feel for what the area was about, then I heard back from Damian. He very enthusiastically passed on links to the website that accompanies MULL, an article he’d written and a reading list. His intro on the MULL website really helped to bring together what I’d been reading and by that point, a lot of the same ideas (and the same names) were starting to recur.

This took me back to some of the academic references I’d started off with, but this time I was starting to get more of a handle on where they were coming from. I can’t say I’ve completely ‘got’ the whole linguistic landscapes thing yet – it seems to be a new area of research that’s currently saying “Oh look, this is interesting!” but doesn’t quite know where to go with it next. Thanks to a bit of social media rummaging though, I did at least manage to finish my essay and to include what are, hopefully, a few relevant points and references. I've also joined the MULL Facebook group, just out of curiosity ...

* The paper I had to review:
Mautner, G. (2012) Language, Space and the Law: A Study of Directive Signs The International Journal of Speech, Language and the Law 19 (2)


  1. Hi Julie, thanks for this; your comments on the opaque nature of some academic writing highlight something that I've been thinking about recently. I've just finished editing an academic linguistics text, and I've lost count of the number of times that after the fourth or fifth reading of a paragraph, I've suddenly realised that all the author is saying is that one approach seems to be more effective than another, or that when a particular study asked a few learners a question, it was found that the lower-level learners answered it in a less proficient way than the more advanced ones did ... As an editor, one is in a bit of a dilemma here. To *completely* rework the whole thing in Plain English would probably take about 6 months to a year, and in any case, I doubt the authors (or the publisher) would approve. Maybe the impetus for change should come from the students. Over to you, then! ;)

    1. It's driving me mad - just reading a paper this afternoon and I jotted down 'affordance', 'epistemology', 'construe', 'evidence' (as a verb) and 'locate' (locating research, not real-world places). As someone with an EAP background, I thought I had a handle on academic language, but it really is worse than I thought. It's tempting to send marked-up versions of papers back to their authors highlighting the bits that are completely unfathomable!