Place: Snack Ankara | Kebab restaurant | 6, Avenue Monterey, 2163 Luxembourg, Luxembourg

As data collection with and development of Lingscape steadily progress, today I want to start a little series of analyses of individual signs to demonstrate the richness and complexity of semiotic information that is encoded in public signage. My first example will be a commercial sign on the outside of a kebab restaurant in the upper town of Luxembourg City. It signalizes the languages spoken by the persons who run the restaurant to passersby. Thus, it primarily has an information function in offering different ways of speaking to potential customers. In a multilingual country like Luxembourg with almost 50% foreign residents and lots of tourists this kind of sign seems as natural as useful to facilitate the processing of commercial transactions. You can find similar signs in many places throughout Luxembourg, for example on the individual name badges for employees in pharmacies (e.g. Pharmacie du Globe, Luxembourg-Gare) or electronics markets (e.g. Saturn, Esch-Beval).

Compared to those this sign is a bit different because it simply lists all languages that are spoken by (different) staff members in this restaurant. Still its multilingual constitution and complex semiotic layering make it the perfect starting point for my first “sign story”. So let’s take a closer look.

Language information sign in the window of Snack Ankara

On the sign we find words in (at least) five different languages: French, English, Luxembourgish, German, and Turkish, most of which are only language autonyms. In total the sign lists eight different languages, also including Arabic, Aramaic and Kurdish, but these three languages are labeled in French. I will come back to this semiotic inconsistency later. The language labels are framed by (national) flags as cultural identification marks on the left and right. The language list itself then is again framed by contextual information, namely the name of the restaurant and a short introductory sentence (“Nous parlons”) that explains the purpose of the language list. The sign is located on the outside of the restaurant right next to the door so that is clearly visible and salient to passersby and customers entering the restaurant. So the linguistic composition of the sign is complex and also hybrid because if you complete the framing sentence using the different languages labels in the list the resulting phrases in four out of eight cases contain words that originate from different languages (e.g. “Nous parlons: Deutsch”). But this linguistic complexity is only the first semiotic layer of information the sign offers.

The second layer revolves around the sociocultural information that is inscribed in the sign. The name of the restaurant indicates a connection to Turkish culture, be it only the type of cuisine that the restaurant offers, the nationality of the owners or both. With kebab originating in the Turkish/Arabic cultural sphere (although the famous Döner Kebab was popularized by Turkish fast food stalls in Germany), today most of these restaurants are run by entrepreneurs with a Turkish or Arabic background. So the name “Ankara” for the restaurant and the fact that Turkish & Arabic are present in the language list form part of a common setting for restaurants like this.Right below the name of the restaurant we find the introduction to the language list, the french sentence “Nous parlons”. So out of the many possible languages that are listed below – and of the three official languages in Luxembourg – the authors chose French as main language of communication, not Luxembourgish, the national language, not English, the international lingua franca. Still this decision can easily be explained by the fact that in Luxembourg the most common language of communication in catering trade is French since most of the service personnel in restaurants and stores are employees with a French, Belgian or Portuguese background. So again this setting is typical, at least for restaurants in Luxembourg.

Then, as a third aspect, there is of course the main element of the sign, the list of spoken languages. It contains eight different language labels including four of the five most important languages in Luxembourgish everyday life (Luxembourgish, German, French and English), expectable additional languages (Turkish, Arabic) that can be connected to the probable Turkish/Arabic background of the persons who run the restaurant as well as more unusual languages (Kurdish, Aramaic) which may represent the staffs’ region of origin.Normally the order in which languages are displayed on signs mirrors aspects of sociocultural hierarchization, e.g. the usefulness of languages in everyday practice or specific language ideologies. In this case we can try to explain the order of languages by splitting the list in two halfs: The first four elements represent the most important local languages, namely the three official languages Luxembourgish, German and French plus English. The internal order of these four languages then places the national language Luxembourgish (and mother tongue for many born Luxembourgers) above the administrative languages French and German. In doing so the authors positively position themselves within the Luxembourgish language ideology framework as participants of the national speech community. Still one could have expected French as the most important language for catering trade in the second place above German. But since the personal background and the individual language competencies of the persons who run the restaurant remain unknown at this point, this order could also relate to language biographical reasons, the fact that kebab restaurants like this were popularized in Germany or even be the result of accidental choice.

As for the lower half of the language list we find the more expectable (in this gastronomical context) and wide-spread languages Turkish and Arabic above the more unusual and less institutionalized languages Kurdish and Aramaic. Since all these languages have no official status in Luxembourg or can be linked to large immigrant groups, the entire lower half of the language list may represent the individual, language biographical part of language competencies that are present among the restaurant staff, while the upper half represents the more official part of these competencies that is related to the Luxembourgish sociolinguistic setting. (It goes without saying that it is still possible for staff members to be native speakers of Luxembourgish or any other language on the list. Right now, my analysis is only based on the visible information on the sign.) So, generally speaking the languages on the list seem to be ordered by their predictability in this specific sociocultural context.

The same holds true for the labels and flags that are used for the languages on the list. The first five languages are written in their autonym (e.g. “Lëtzebuergesch”), but the last three (Arabic, Aramaic and Kurdish) are written in French. All languages are accompanied by a (national) flag that relates the respective language to a country or cultural group/region. For Luxembourgish the authors have chosen both the national flag (the tricolor on the left) and the “Red Lion”, an additional flag that is widely used by Luxembourgers and closely related to ideological discussions around a national identity although it has only a limited official status as flag for shipping and aviation. For German, French, English and Turkish the national flag of the respective country is used, with the “Union Jack” representing English, which seems to be the standard variant in Europe despite the strong cultural bonds that Luxembourg has with the USA since World War Two.

For the last three languages we find a different slightly pattern: First, out of the many countries in which Arabic is an official language, the authors chose Iraq to symbolize Arabic. Second, the flag representing Kurdish is related to the cultural area Kurdistan that is spread across Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria (including the autonomous region Kurdistan in the north of Iraq that uses this symbol as an official flag), but since this area is not a recognized state, choosing this flag has a stronger ideological or even political connotation compared to the previous flags, especially under the current geopolitical circumstances in this region. This is also true for the third flag representing the Syrian christian minority also known as Assyrians or Arameans that is spread across Syria, Iraq, Iran and Libanon. So while there may be different motivations for choosing the flags that symbolize the different languages on the list, that still does not explain why for Arabic, Kurdish and Aramaic the language labels are written in French translation. Wouldn’t you expect the opposite from a sign like this, signalizing your ability to speak – and write – these languages to passersby who speak one of these languages?

Well, again this might be difficult to answer without asking the authors, but there are some hints, at least for Kurdish and Aramaic. For Arabic it would have been possible to use the Arabic alphabet that is widely known and used by all speakers of Arabic. In the case of Kurdish there is a tradition among Kurds to use the prevalent alphabet of the respective region they live in, so it might have been difficult to choose between the Latin, Arabic or Cyrillic or Kurdish-Latin alphabet. For Aramaic this might have been difficult as well since there are – beside the Syriac alphabet –several writing variants for Aramaic that could have been chosen. But maybe choosing French to symbolize these three languages is not only a compromise regarding the alphabets (though in the case of Arabic there would have been an easy solution. Maybe for these languages it is not the flag that explains the language label but the language label that clarifies the chosen flag, since we’re dealing with countries/regions, flags and languages here that might be unknown to most passersby in Luxembourg.

To sum up, this sign is a perfect example of how rich and complex the semiotics of public signage can be and how much it can tell us about the linguistic and sociocultural circumstances under which signs are designed, written, put up and read. But as we have seen also a lot of aspects regarding the choice, order and symbolization of languages on the sign remain unclear if we only analyze what we can see on the sign. So as a next step I will try to interview the persons who run the restaurant about the sign as well as their personal and linguistic background. And maybe I will try the kebab as well…