After Babel

Perspectives on Language [Vera-Kögelmaier]

The Language Landscape of Maastricht

The city of Maastricht has 130.000 inhabitants  whereby approxiametely 20.000 of them are students from all over the world. It is not just that the limburg capital is so located that Germany, Belgium, Luxenbourg (and maybe also France) can be arrived in a really short time. Also the attractive range of studies leads to a bride spectrum of international students.  Like pretty much every city which enjoys the prestige of being an international one, Maastricht got adjusted to the situation in several ways. You can feel the multicultural atmosphere of the city everywhere in many respects.   One aspect by which you can see the diversity of the town is the diversity of languages, used on signs and adverts. Searching for interesting cases to represent the Language Landscape of Maastricht, I made my way through the city center and indeed, Maastricht multilingual in that sense. The term “Linguistic Landscapes” was invented by Laundry and Bourhis, who describe it as the presentation of different languages on public or commercial signs in a specific region (Cenoz & Gorter: 2009).
It is well known that the limburg dialect, which is spoken in Maastricht, differs quiet a lot from standard dutch. Nonetheless this dialect is the major “language” for people to communicate with each other. As a regional minority language, the limburg dialect is still very well implemented in every days life.  Different, like for example in France where the guiding principle “One Nation, one language” structured the society in all it’s levels, Maastricht has even street signs in limburgish:

Signs like these are artefacts which represent the identification of people with the region through language  in a visible and not just audible way. Not only the regional dialect shapes the language use on signs here in Maastricht, but also international and foreign languages. To make use of other languages mainly happens when language gets connected to economic interests. The aim by using a foreign language to advertise for a product or a compony is on the one hand, to reach as many people as possible and on the other hand to create a certain image through language use. Cenoz and Gorter pointed out that the status of the language mainly influence it’s representation: ” (…) the symbolic function refers to the value and status of the languages, as perceived by the members of a language group in comparison to other languages.” (Conoz & Gorter: 2009)
We already examined in the assignment about RML and IML that certain languages have another status than others. This concept can also be extended to the national level. English for instance, has in states like the Netherlands, Germany, Denmark and so on a really high status so that the majority of people do not only like it, but are also able to speak it. Some companies are of course aware of the fact that, in this example english, is an attractive language so that many people associate probably good feelings or a desirable lifestyle with the language. Furthermore the use of english can have positive impacts on the aim of profit maximization, because a huge amount of people are reached through an english advert. The number of potential customers increases, if you use a language the majority of people is able to understand.
It would be intersting to see how the revenues of this shop would vary, if it was called “Россия сегодня” (Russia Today), instead of “America Today”. Just a minority of people in Maastricht would be able to read and understand the sign and even if they could do so, the name and the language would change the way the shop is perceived. Cenoz and Groter distinguished the concept of Linguistic Landscapes in two functions: Language on signs can have either a informative or a symbolic function. I guess both could be applied to the case of english (at least here in Maastricht), because it is not only understood by many people, but also associated with a positive evaluated way of living. Other languages are probably a bit easier to classify. Italien for instance, is one of the 24 official languages spoken in the EU and is, according to Abram de Swaan, ranked as 5th language in a priviliged position right behind English, French, German and Spanish:
“What matters is not only the number of native speakers of each language (German with 90 Million comes first), but equally, if not more so, the number of non-native speakers (…).” (de Swaan: 2007)
Italian is with 65 Million native-speakers fifth in europe and 20th in the world. The other side of the medal is that only 20 Million non-native speakers acqired italian as a foreign language. To have a comparison – 38% of the EU (who are not native speakers) are able to have a conversation in English¹. Nonetheless you can find a lot of italian signs when you walk through the shopping mile of Maastricht. But why is it like this? The presence of italian on signs in Maastricht probably due to the fact that italian enjoys a high prestige as a language. Italian is furthermore often connected with fashion; Giorgio Armani, Versace and Dolce & Gabbana are just a few examples for the italian leadership in fashion.  The association of italian with high quality brands leads to genereal symbolic effect of the language, from which even smaller brands profit. 
The same could be said about french and fashion or beauty products/perfumes. It is not important that people understand the name of a brand or an advert, it is only important that they recognize it as italian.  Sometimes it is probably even better for the shops that the majority of people does not understand the name. When I was in Amsterdam with an italian friend of mine a couple of weeks ago, we passed by an italian mode boutique named porcaro. My friend started laughing and after I asked him what would be so funny he pointed out that this name also means “swineherd”. Perfect name for a boutique he said, but the shop was full of people.





  • Cenoz, J. and D.Gorter (2009) Language Economy and Linguistic Landscape, in E.Shohamy and D.Gorter (eds.) Linguistic Landscape: Expanding the scenery, New York/London: Routledge, pp 55-69.
  • De Swaan, A. (2007). The Language Predicament of the EU since the Enlargements. Sociolinguistica 2007.
  • ¹Italian Language:

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1 Comment

  1. ajsela June 5, 2017

    Hello Christian,

    Nice article!

    Really interesting that you examine the connotations of certain languages. Sometimes, indeed, these connotations turn out to be more important than the actual meaning of the words. As you correctly observe, this can also be employed strategically to draw people to certain shops.

    I also liked that you used examples from Maastricht. The example of the situation in Amsterdam was also a humorous illustration of the tendencies you describe in your text.

    – Ajsela

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