Putting it out there

Tomorrow (well actually later today, now that I check the clock) I’ll be presenting at the Michigan Linguistics Society, discussing the preliminary results of work I and a team of students conducted in the spring into variability in stop signs in Montreal, Quebec, Canada.  I’m really proud of this work, of which parts are published over at Stop: Toutes Directions, and particularly of the quality of the work of the various contributors, whose ideas have led me to think much more deeply about this subject than I otherwise would have.  I’ve been thrilled at the reception this admittedly oddball research project has received from my colleagues at Wayne State.  What started as a wacky idea I had a couple of years ago turned into an intensive research methods project, and now into a web site, conference presentations, and hopefully in the near future an edited volume.

Anyway, if by any chance anyone who is reading this is in the Detroit area and would like to stop by, it’s at Wayne State University (where I work) at the McGregor conference center, and there is a lot of interesting work being discussed.

The abstract for my paper follows below:

What language is ‘STOP’?: language ideology and identity in Montreal stop signs

Due to the complexity of municipal politics, ethnolinguistic fragmentation, and provincial language policies and ideologies, public signs are important objects of linguistic discourse in Montreal,
Quebec, Canada. A pilot project in ‘contemporary epigraphy’ undertaken in Montreal reveals important spatial patterning in stop signs, one of the more visible objects on the city’s ‘signscape’.

There are three primary types of stop sign in Montreal: unilingual ARRET, unilingual STOP, and bilingual ARRET/STOP. Of these three, ARRET is by far the most common, with STOP predominant in anglophone regions, while ARRET/STOP signs are rare and are generally very worn, reflecting an earlier and rapidly vanishing state of the city’s signage practices. A quantitative analysis of these patterns reveals important disjuncts between the linguistic composition of communities and their signs.

By law, all public signs in the province of Quebec must be in French only, yet the prevalence of STOP signs in anglophone municipalities in Montreal seemingly violates this regulatory framework. The solution to this has been to define ‘stop’ (un stop) as a French word; STOP signs therefore are in fact unilingual French signs, even though they are not used in francophone municipalities. This leaves bilingual ARRET/STOP signs in a linguistically perilous position – which language is STOP in, and are these in fact legal signs at all? The question of whether STOP constitutes ‘good French’ has been an important one in recent public discussions of the subject, and remains an ongoing concern.

There is no overwhelming reason why stop signs should contain any inscription whatsoever, because the red octagon is a nearly universal, trans-linguistic ideogram. In a city such as Montreal, the majority of the populace can read and understand stop sign texts in either of Canada’s official languages. The choice of language usage is thus purely an ideological one, and reflects political interests and linguistic identities among the leaders of Montreal’s boroughs and independent towns.

Finally, important public/private tensions in Montreal’s language ideology are evident in stop signs due to the widespread practice of vandalism. Despite the prevalence of public French on stop signs, the vast majority of linguistically-identifiable vandalism is in English. Moreover, stop signs, as highly visible aspects of the city’s public material culture, are frequently vandalized in ways that reflect dissatisfaction with official language ideologies, and can thus highlight ongoing tensions.

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3 Comments

  1. Interesting paper. Here in Wales, STOP signs are about the only non-bilingual signs which haven’t attracted the ire of them crazy language activists, presumably for similar reasons as in Montreal. But we also have “GIVE WAY” signs (similar to YIELD in the US – do you have these in Canada?), which are still in the process of being replaced. Remaining unilingual English signs are often painted or stickered, and in some areas, even bilingual signs are defaced. I don’t remember seeing one where the Welsh has been painted over.

    I was in Ireland recently, and it was interesting to see that in the Gaeltacht, the Give Way sign has gone completely Irish.

  2. Oh, what fantastic comparative material! This is exactly the sort of subject that is of interest to me and my research team. Now if only we could find a way to get a small army of researchers out to collect data on several thousand GIVE WAY signs in Wales …

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