Disclaimer: This article is a repost from my personal research blog purschke.info, where I write about our Citizen Science project Lingscape and other topics related to my work at the University of Luxembourg.

Place: Orange | Telecommunication shop | 5, Place d’Armes, 1136 Luxembourg, Luxembourg

Lately, the discussion about multilingualism and language use in Luxembourg has gained a lot of attention, be it the media buzz about the two language policy petitions or the fresh but flawed public orthography campaign. Even international media are picking up on the topic. So, against this background, today we’re gonna take a quick look at the language situation in Luxembourg, without going too much into the details. Here you can find a nice overview about Luxembourg with regard to different topics, one of them being the language situation (see page 5). As you can see, the sociolinguistic setting is quite complex with at least five languages contributing to the ball of languages in every day life: Luxembourgish, French, German, Portuguese, and English. Each language contributes to some domains of language use, carries a certain social prestige, and serves specific symbolic functions. Taken together, these three aspects define the sociocultural role a language plays in a society.

So, if for example we analyze the role of Luxembourgish, it is naturally present in many domains of language use, including private and official domains (e.g. the parliament), while at the same time it is only marginally present in huge parts of the private sector economy – which by the way may be one of the major motivations for the whole discussion about Luxembourgish. I will write about this in another post. As for the symbolic function, with Luxembourgish being the national language it clearly serves as one major means to the construction of a national identity and social integration of foreigners. But when it comes to the social prestige of Luxembourgish, the situation gets complicated: A lot of people hold it in high regard as their mother tongue and a national symbol. Many of these people want to foster the institutionalization of Luxembourgish, e.g. recognize it as an official language of the EU or even implement it as language of alphabetization in school. But at the same time there are many people – even in the younger generation – who still see Luxembourgish as an inferior manner of speaking (and a dialect of German), especially in comparison with the „languages of higher culture“ German and French. Interestingly enough, we find Luxembourgers and foreigners living here in both groups. In a way, the two pertinent shapes of social prestige are mirrored in the two language policy petitions: we could call the whole discourse about Luxembourgish a fight between a national conservative (pet. 698) and a cultural conservative (pet. 725) ideology. This is of course an oversimplification, still it sheds light on many aspects of current official and private language policy in Luxembourg.

While this discussion may continue for a while and lead to different reactions that will be built to serve different practical, social, or symbolic purposes, let’s get to today’s sign story. This sign I found in a shop window of the voice carrier Orange. It tells us a lot about the complex sociolinguistic setting in Luxembourg and the way, languages are hierarchized in public signage. So let’s take a closer look.

Source: Lingscape, ID3707

On the sign we find representations of four different languages, the word „hello“ in English, French, Luxembourgish, and Portuguese. The only additional design element is a little brand logo in the lower right corner. The semiotics of this sign is simple compared to our last example, still it reveals a lot of interesting information about language policy in Luxembourg. I will analyze the sign using different aspects of its semiotic structure as related to the three aspects language usesocial prestige, and symbolic function.

  • Presence/absence: The semiotic layer of the sign that tells us best about language use is the question of which languages are present (and absent) on the sign. So out of the five most important languages only four are present; German is missing. With Orange being a voice carrier this can easily be explained by the fact that German is not really present in public language use (although a lot of people speak it pretty well). Its main domains are education and (print) media. Interestingly enough, this aspect of language hierarchization is mirrored by the order of languages to choose from when contacting the Orange telephone hotline: German is mentioned last.
  • Color/position: The color and position of the words then convey more information about language use in practice. Luxembourgish and French, the two most important languages in public communication, are printed in yellow and on the left, while the two other languages are printed in white and on the right. Since we’re living in a left-to-right writing culture, it is save to draw the connection between position and color so that yellow seems to be the color for the more pertinent languages on this sign.
  • Order: The order of the languages in this case contains information about the social prestige certain languages carry. As you can see, Luxembourgish is placed in the center of the sign, which tells us that it is seen as pertinent, but French and English are placed above Luxembourgish. This is interesting, because French represents the historical prestige language while English is likely to be the successor, a clear effect of cultural globalization. Still, the fact that nowadays German for many people has a higher prestige than French is not depicted due to the lack of German on the sign.
  • Prominence: We can complete (and contrast) the prestige analysis by the fact that Luxembourgish is not only placed in the center but also the most prominent language on the sign. „Moien“ is printed way bigger than the other words. This hints to the fact that while French and Englisch may have higher social prestige, Luxembourgish is clearly more pertinent when it comes to the symbolic function of the languages in Luxembourg. While French, English and Portuguese are all somehow linked to people with foreign roots (although French and Portuguese have been present in Luxembourg for quite a long time), Luxembourgish holds the important function as means of cultural and national identity building, the national language.

As you can see, the semiotics of this simple sign turns out to be more complex than it seems at first glance and it mirrors many aspects of the discussion about the sociocultural role of Luxembourgish and the other languages spoken in Luxembourg. It tells us something about language use in practice and reveals how social prestige and symbolic function of languages contribute to their public perception, social valuation, and political fostering. In a way, we can summarize that – for Luxembourgish and the other languages spoken in Luxembourg – the mismatch between language use, social prestige and symbolic function is the driving force behind the language debate in Luxembourg.

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