More ‘signs in cities’ – returning to Prenzlauer Berg

Last Friday, I spent a day walking through the neighbourhood that was the site of my research on linguistic landscapes (LL) in 2010/11.

Walking through the same streets again – which I had visited last in 2012 – I looked for what had or hadn’t changed in the area’s LL. I also tried to find the shops and cafes whose owners I had interviewed. Luckily, most were still there. I also wanted to know whether English was still as strongly present as it had been in 2011/12. Indeed, it was, maybe even more than I remembered it. German outdoor advertising seems to be full of English words and slogans. Here are two examples of new signs I found:

little shop of flowersPure properties Helmholtzplatz

‘Pure’ is a property agent. I looked at the offers in their window: large flats, renovated lofts, town houses, etc., all (to rent or buy). Prices seemed high, at least for Berlin’s standards.

When I carried out my original study, gentrification was the issue I found most interesting. Then and now, the effects of gentrification are clearly reflected in the linguistic landscape, in particular in the prevalence of commercial signs. These are mostly signs of cafes, bars, restaurants, and what I would think of as luxury shops: boutiques, gifts shops, delicatessen, organic stores, etc.

Returning to the area last week, I am still amazed by the way this part of Berlin has come to represent a lifestyle and culture that are strongly connected with commercialisation. Of course, other parts of the city are not all that different. Just that P-Berg seems pretty posh to me these days! The flats on offer in Pure’s window certainly were at the high end of Berlin rents and property prices. Affordable housing  and rent control, I have been reading in the local papers, remains a much debated issue.

So I walked through the Kiez (the neighbourhood) to see if I could find any signs of gentrification still being contested. My  impression was though that this part of Berlin is now firmly in the hands of the gentrifiers – and not the first generation of gentrifiers probably. It is also known as an area where many foreigners live, Brits, Americans, French…. So I wasn’t all that surprised not to find any signs of opposition to the changes. In 2010/11 some of these were still part of the LL: slogans asking property speculators to leave the area, graffiti placed on newly painted facades, posters inviting residents whose rents had been increased to seek support and advice from a local advice group.

My path led me to Dunckerstrasse and to the ‘Kiezladen’ that I remembered from 2010. It had been – and still is – a ‘Nachbarschaftsladen’ – a small community centre, offering among other things legal advice to tenants. The Kiezladen is still there:kiezladen bleibt

The banner ‘Kiezladen bleibt’ (Kiezladen stays) invites residents to join a campaign to save this self-organised local advice centre. For 20 years, it had received financial support from the local district. This was ended in April 2015 and the centre now has to pay a monthly rent of 1000 Euros for their premises.

‘Kiezladen bleibt’ – the choice of the verb ‘bleiben’ (stay)  is no doubt a recontextualisation of the old anti-gentrification slogan used in the 1990s by local activists who protested again increased rents and buildings being sold to speculators. The prominent slogan and logo ‘Wir bleiben alle’ (we all stay) which I wrote about in my 2012 paper, is still in use: it was reprinted on the left side of banner in the above photograph. But do today’s residents remember this slogan and the movement it stood for?

Near the Kiezladen,  I found other remnants of the earlier local protest, slogans and graffiti. No longer easily visible: half hidden underneath new layers of graffiti and street art. In the photograph below, underneath the street art, you can see parts of an older protest slogan, which in 2010 was much more prominently displayed on several facades and house entries.

street art Dunckerstrasse

It seems then that the area and its LL have changed since 2010, albeit not significantly. And the direction that this change took seems to indicate an even more firmly accomplished process of gentrification than I observed in 2011 and 2012. What happened to the local anti-gentrification activists, I don’t know. My guess is they have lost their battles and had no choice but to move away from the area.

Reading (on) a postcard

I’m finding this Edwardian postcard fascinating in so many ways.

actress reading

Connie Ediss postcard

Its format is that of the very beginning of the twentieth century, when the whole of one side had to be taken for the address so people only had the small amount of space around a picture to write on.  Nevertheless it was a hugely popular communications technology.  It’s not at all far-fetched to compare this with something like Instagram today, especially as the postal system meant it could have arrived within hours of being sent.

Connie Ediss was an extraordinarily popular musical comedy actress and comedienne in her own day, gaining fame on the stages of London, Broadway, Australia and South Africa.  She particularly portrayed a witty Cockney persona and her choice of book fits with this: it’s Tony Drum (subtitled A Cockney Boy) by Edwin Pugh, published in 1898. Continue reading

Statistics, data analytics and the literacy practices of teaching at universities

The articles on university teaching and data analytics in Saturday’s Financial Times provide substantial intellectual fodder for scholars in literacies studies and/or higher education. They occupied two coveted positions in the print edition: “Universities assess remote tracking to maximize study habits” took up a portion of Page 2 and “We know what you’re learning” occupied the coveted front page of “Life & Arts.”   FT’s educated audience is unlikely to conflate access with learning, which is what the banner for the second article implies. Still, it’s interesting to reflect on these articles from our particular theoretical lenses.

First, there’s the suggestion that performance metrics offer facts.  Perhaps.  But anyone who works with numbers knows that making them mean is an act of interpretation – ask anyone who works with inferential statistics!  It makes sense that there’s (perhaps) a relatively straightforward relationship between OU students’ online reading habits and forum participation and their risk of dropping out because the OU offers distance programmes. But would the algorithm that underpins OU’s prediction mechanism and that combines access data with information about students’ social and economic backgrounds work in blended learning environments? In contexts in which online tools – forums, wikis, blogs, web conferencing – are used quite differently by different tutors?  Lots of questions that scholars in digital literacies and/or those who take a practice perspective are equipped to explore, not least in relation to the ways in which numbers are used to represent knowledge about literacy. Mary Hamilton’s book “Literacy and the Politics of Representation” has interesting things to say on that topic!

The articles are also an intriguing window into changes in academic publishing. The Life & Arts feature gives considerable space to a University of Birmingham scholar. A photo from his studies occupies the page center immediately below the banner, and the link to his self-published book appears in bold.  Those of us familiar with Shirley Bryce Heath’s work might raise our eyebrows at the title, but the more thought-provoking point relates to changes in academic work being wrought by the need to promote and self-promote. Karin Tusting’s research team is going to have more than a little to say about writing and knowledge production in the contemporary academy.

A third point – and then I’ll stop! – relates to larger issues pertaining to the distribution of knowledge production.  Learning, teaching and creating are no longer the sole domain of the academy if they ever were, and the redistribution of these functions within and across social actors is amply evident in the second article.  A representative for Macmillan Science and Education receives considerable column space, something to which those with a more critical bent would surely draw attention. But I’m more interested in the fact that their spokesperson is from the technology side of things. It’s the programmers who write those algorithms that impact practice, and that is too often glossed over. These are important issues in the whose-knowledge-counts debates and lead to further reflection on what we all might want to learn and understand about the numbers representing our work.

Finally, it would be easy to take pot shots at the Macmillan rep’s use of numbers to represent his company’s success, and to raise important issues related to differences in nation’s university drop-out rates, but I’ll resist.  Except that I couldn’t…

Iconicity, branding and translation in orthography


Cover of the ‘Complete Russian Songbook’ published in 1917, showing the ‘old’letters <і>, <ҍ>, <ъ> which were reformed later that year

I have recently written a paper on ‘Iconicity, attribution and branding in orthography‘ which will appear in a special issue of Written Language and Literacy later in 2015. You can read the preprint here. Here’s an interesting historic example of iconicity and branding in Russian, which I didn’t use in the paper. It is also an example of the difficulties of literary translation, and how matters of spelling have social meaning which can be difficult to grasp from the outside.

Iconicity is a concept familiar in linguistics largely due to the work of Irving and Gal (e.g. 2000). When a feature of language becomes iconic, its relationship with its users is transformed so that ‘linguistic features that index social groups or activities appear to be iconic representations of them, as if a linguistic feature somehow depicted or displayed a social group’s inherent nature or essence.’(Irvine and Gal 2000: 37). Androutsopoulos (2010) has an excellent example, from the literary writing of Feridun Zaimoglu whose characters are second generation Turkish migrants in Germany. Their nonstandard language, ‘Kanak Sprak’, with its spellings which deviate from standard German, represents iconically the distance between its users and mainstream German society.

Attribution is the process whereby a linguistic feature becomes associated with a particular group of users. Attribution is necessarily a discursive process, and the user (and non-user) groups are likewise discursively constructed.

Branding is the name I give to a process where a specific visual element of the script, for example a letter or a conventional element like a diacritic mark, becomes an emblem of a group of people who use it in their writing practices. There are many examples of such branding, for example in the Spanish counterculture where <k> replaces the standard <c> or <qu> representing the sound /k/ (see Sebba 2007, Screti 2015), or the ‘little hook’ or  haček  whichis seen as emblematic for Slavic languages’ in Austria (Busch 2013: 206).

Branding does not always involve iconicity, although it may do so, if the branding element becomes associated with the non-linguistic behaviour of its users – in other words if it becomes an emblem of something more than the language itself. The haček is emblematic of certain languages, but appears not to be an icon as it is not associated with anything specific outside of language. On the other hand, the use of <k> by Spanish anarchists could be seen as doing the kind of symbolic violence to the conventions of the Spanish language which its users would like to do to the society as a whole. In this case, the <k> ‘brand’ functions as an icon in the sense of Irving and Gal.

So to the example from Russian. The Russian orthography was modernised by Peter the Great in the early 18th century but retained a number of anomalous or redundant letters. One of these was the so-called ‘hard sign’, used to mark an unpalatalised (‘hard’) consonant at the end of a word (this is the last character in the last word in the illustration above, which is the cover of a songbook published in 1917). The ‘soft sign’ was used to mark palatalised (‘soft’) consonants at the end of words. But since all final consonants were either hard or soft, only one of these signs was actually needed. Either the hard or the soft sign was redundant, and in practice it was the hard sign that could be dropped most economically.

IMG_20150407_185815 The ‘hard sign’ (tvyordy znak)

By the late 19th Century it seems that the practice of not writing the hard sign at the end of words had become an emblem of a kind of social enlightenment. In his famous short story Lady with Lapdog, Anton Chekhov uses it as part of a very short description to give a portrait of the character of the wife of the male protagonist (Spoiler alert: she is not the eponymous ‘lady with lapdog’). In one translation,

She was a tall woman with dark eyebrows, erect, dignified, imposing, and, as she said of herself, a “thinker.” She was a great reader, omitted the “hard sign” at the end of words in her letters, and called her husband “Dimitry” instead of Dmitry (translated by Ivy Litvinov)

Here the ‘hard sign’ has become iconic. Rejection of the old, redundant letter can be seen to be linked to the rejection of an old, redundant way of  thinking and a society in need of change. Not writing this letter marks out the writer as socially progressive and an intellectual. So here is a case of iconicity in orthography with <ъ> (hard sign) as the brand.

While the mere  mention of the practice of not writing the hard sign seems to have been enough to trigger an understanding of the social attitudes of Chekhov’s character in his original readers, the same is not true for non-Russian readers. This particular sentence has given translators a fair bit of trouble. Apart from editors of scholarly editions, translators are unlikely to want to explain the subtleties of Russian spelling and its social meaning to readers. So how have they dealt with this? Here’s a selection of other translations:

She was a great reader, preferred the new ‘advanced’ spelling, called her husband by the more formal ‘Dimitry’ and not the familiar ‘Dmitry’ (Penguin books 1964, translation by David Magarshack)

She read a great deal, used phonetic spelling, called her husband, not Dmitri, but Dimitri ( ; translator possibly Constance Garnett)

She read a great deal, used the new orthography, called her husband not Dmitri but Dimitri (translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky)

A fifth verson, translated by S.S. Koteliansky and published by Penguin in  1941, omits all mention:

She read a great deal, called her husband not Dimitri but Demitri

Of course there is no ‘correct translation’ although that of Ivy Litvinov is most faithful to the Russian original. I do find it a bit sad that S.S. Koteliansky gave up on it altogether!

It turns out that Kate Sutherland has already written a blog about translating Lady with Lapdog, so thanks to her for some of the versions which I didn’t know about.

Historical note: the ‘hard sign’ at the end of words was officially dropped after the Russian Revolution of February 1917.


Androutsopoulos, Jannis (2010). Ideologizing ethnolectal German. In: S. Johnson and T. Milani (eds.), Language Ideologies and Media Discourse. New York: Continuum, 182-202.

Busch, Brigitta (2013). The Career of a Diacritical Sign: Language in Spatial Representations and Representational Spaces. In Pietikainen, Sari and Helen Kelly-Holmes (eds), Multilingualism and the Periphery, pp. 199-221. Oxford University Press.

Irvine, J. T. and Gal S. (2000). ‘Language Ideology and Linguistic Differentiation’, in Kroskrity, P. V. (ed.) (2000). Regimes of Language: Ideologies, Polities and Identities, 35-83. Oxford: James Currey.

Screti, Francesco  (2015) The ideological appropriation of the letter <k> in the Spanish linguistic landscape, Social Semiotics, 25:2, 200-208.

Sebba, Mark (2007). Spelling and Society: The Culture and Politics of orthography around the world. Cambridge University Press.

May the source be with you

When I worked as a lecturer in EAP, I taught my students how to structure essays in English, how to do referencing, etc. At that time, I also read a lot of excellent scholarship around related topics such as paraphrasing and plagiarism, yet I noticed that my students’ written work did not always reflect the types of issues discussed in this body of research. Or rather, it did, but not to the extent I expected.

I did see problems like patchwriting or failure to cite when required, but these issues were relatively minor compared to what I saw as bigger concerns in their writing. Specifically, they often seemed to give too much prominence to their sources’ views, marginalising their own. Sometimes it was not clear why they were citing, since the evidence they used did not seem to advance their argument. However, the literature had less to say on these issues, and seemed rather fixated on the avoidance of plagiarism. The problem with this is that avoidance of plagiarism does not necessarily lead to effective deployment of source material. Rather, it may mean that, as I did, markers have the feeling that something is not right about the way source material has been used, but that this was hard to address since referencing was done correctly on the whole and students had implemented what they were taught (which mainly focused on referencing conventions).

For my doctoyodaral research, I decided to investigate the way student writers used source material, but rather than looking only at the surface manifestation of source use in writing, I also investigated the ways in which they engaged with their source material as they read it in preparation for writing. After all, “using” source material begins when one reads and responds to it, not when one decides to reference it.

I observed and interviewed three postgraduate students over the 18-week period during which they wrote their Masters dissertation. They completed a series of “think alouds” while they worked on their dissertations, and I collected their completed assignments at the end. I also collected the feedback they received from their markers in order to see which aspects of source use attracted the markers’ comments.

The results of the study indicated that the students did indeed do most of their analysing and evaluating of source material as they read, and began formulating a position in relation to their sources early in the reading-to-write process. Differences emerged in the ways the students engaged with their sources. For example, some took a more instrumental approach to the dissertation-writing task, making efforts to perform the role of a “good student” by citing frequently in order to display their knowledge. Others engaged on an emotional as well as cognitive level with their material, often making evaluative comments and elaborating on what source authors said.

One of the most interesting findings was that the markers barely commented on the mechanics of citation, and instead praised students when they made meaningful comparisons between their own and their sources’ views. This suggests that the way students demonstrate engagement with the content of their source material might be seen as more important in determining the success of a piece of writing than the extent to which referencing conventions have been followed or information has been paraphrased. Of course, it may be that problems with what might be called “transgressive intertextuality” (Abasi & Akbari, 2008) distract the reader and make it more difficult to evaluate content. It is important, however, that researchers do not also become distracted by the low-hanging fruit of plagiarism at the expense of arguably more substantive issues relating to conceptual engagement with sources.

Sharon McCulloch, Lancaster University

Abasi, A. & Akbari, N. (2008). Are we encouraging patchwriting? Reconsidering the role of the pedagogical context in ESL student writers’ transgressive intertextuality. Journal of English for Specific Purposes 27(3), 267-284.