To stop or not to stop

I spent much of the past week in Montreal, Quebec, my erstwhile home, with six junior colleagues (thanks again everyone!), conducting field survey for the Stop: Toutes Directions project. This research project involves field survey of around 40 km2 of the city, including part or all of nine distinct boroughs or municipalities, examining linguistic and other aspects of variability in the city’s stop signs. With the completion of last week’s field survey, we have now identified, classified and photographed 3522 stop signs.

Our central research questions relate to the fact that there are three valid stop sign texts in Montreal – STOP, ARRET, and ARRET/STOP. Each variant is distributed differently across the survey area; moreover, each variant displays different patterns of wear/fading that seem to correlate well with age. These three text languages, all abundantly attested in our survey area, coupled with Quebec’s strict language laws and language ideologies prohibiting English in most contexts, make Montreal a unique laboratory for investigating the ways in which bilingualism are reflected in visual and material culture.

A major goal of our most recent survey period was to identify areas where stop signs are stamped with dates of manufacture, thus allowing us to correlate chronological age with the ordinal index we had developed to measure wear. This allows us to treat the linguistic landscape not only as a synchronic snapshot of a particular point in time, but as a diachronic palimpsest of episodes of stop sign erection and replacement. Because there are nine distinct municipalities in our compact survey area, we are able to readily identify differences not only in linguistic practice, but also in attitudes towards replacement and repair of stop signs.

Of further importance is the fact that 27% of the stop signs we have surveyed have vandalism either on the front or back. This means we not only have a corpus of official stop sign texts, but also a corpus of unofficial writings. While stop signs are designed to be read by drivers, the practice of stickering on stop signs is clearly intended for a pedestrian audience. We are then using this data to explore relations between vandalism and all sorts of social data derived from Statistics Canada. We are also able to identify many instances where stop signs are vandalized in ways that reflect dissatisfaction with, or playfulness towards, the existing ‘official’ linguistic landscape.

Conceptually and methodologically, I think the importance of this work is that it shows how methods that are essentially archaeological or epigraphic can be employed to investigate topics in contemporary linguistic anthropology. What’s more, we are confident that our data are producing answers to questions that would be answered very differently – or in some cases couldn’t even be asked – using ethnographic methods. Not that I don’t think ethnography would tell us anything, but it wouldn’t be well-suited to the questions we are asking, and the answers that even experts (i.e. the officials responsible for managing the erection and replacement of stop signs) could give us would be very different (and in many ways more subjective) than what the material culture of signs actually tells us.

At present the Stop: Toutes Directions website linked above contains a large number of excellent but preliminary research reports produced last year. Now that we are (nearly) done our data collection, I and my co-authors are moving into the next stage of the project, including seeking peer-reviewed venues for publishing our work.

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