Greek in Italy

Project Research Blog

Linguistic Landscapes

Leave a comment

The “linguistic landscape” (often abbreviated to LL) is a term from sociolinguistics to describe the how writing is used in public space. The visibility of a language out in the real world can have a real effect on how well-regarded and prestigious a language is felt to be. If you’ve walked along a street yet today, can you remember what languages you saw around you? If you’re in Britain or the USA, it’s likely you saw a lot of English. But even in a majority English-speaking country, you’ll probably have seen other languages without really realising it – for example, you might have seen Chinese characters if you passed a Chinese restaurant, or a sign translated into several languages if you’re in an area with lots of tourists. In this cases, the use of different languages can clearly tell us something about the people who live in an area, or the people who might be expected to visit.

keep off the grass

In some areas, things might be more complicated. For example, in Wales, it’s common for signs to be in both English and Welsh. This is not necessarily because there is anyone in Wales who can only speak Welsh, and needs the signs for practical reasons, but because the use of Welsh in signage shows official support for the use of Welsh (in contrast to the situation a hundred years ago). In post-Soviet countries, it’s common for the Russian part of signs to be erased or painted over, in something like a damnatio memoriae. If a local language is not included on official signs, people might feel that their language is not valued – this can lead them to start using another language instead, or even to feel more proud of their own language and use it more.

So what does all this have to do with ancient Italy? Last week, James Clackson and I were invited to an innovative workshop organised by Alex Mullen of All Souls College, Oxford, where we discussed ancient and modern linguistic landscapes with linguists, Classicists and other interesting people. In preparation for this workshop, I had to do my homework – what did the ancient linguistic landscape look like?

One of the best-preserved ancient sites is, of course, Pompeii. The amazing amount of writing still in situ in Pompeii – including stuff that would otherwise not have survived – tells us a lot about language use in the public space. For example, you might notice that the road into the town is lined on both sides by hundreds of funerary monuments – very different to how a cemetery would be laid out today. We also get an idea of the temporary elements of the linguistic landscape, such as adverts for gladiatorial games and posters promoting politicians, which were painted in red letters on the white plaster walls of houses.

Most interestingly to me, we can even glimpse the linguistic landscape of Pompeii’s past. For example, to this day a long, low table with holes in the top stands in the town forum. This is a weights and measures table, which would help people to confirm that the goods they were being sold measured up to the officially-sanctioned units. The table has a Latin inscription which confirms that two magistrates were responsible for revising the measurements to fit the Roman standard. So what measurements was the town using before? If you look closely, you can see that on the top surface there was an Oscan inscription that was chipped away – and we can tell that the Oscan weights and measures were often based not on the Roman standard, but on measurements used around the Greek world.


So were the Romans erasing Pompeii’s Oscan and Greek past deliberately, to show that the linguistic landscape was a Latin-only zone? Perhaps, but there’s evidence elsewhere in Pompeii that they were not too bothered about removing traces of other languages, as long as they didn’t cause anyone practical problems. It’s possible that the weights and measures were only changed to avoid confusion. Still, the changing of the weights and measures table, right in the central public space of the town, must have sent a fairly clear message that Latin was the only “official” language around.


Many thanks to Alex Mullen and the other workshop participants at Ancient and modern linguistic landscapes: interdisciplinary and cross-cultural approaches to written space, 20th June 2014.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s