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Commodified language in Chinatown: A contextualized approach to linguistic landscape


Address correspondence to:
Jennifer Leeman
Department of Modern and Classical Languages
Mailstop 3E5
George Mason University
Fairfax, VA 22030

Gabriella Modan
Department of English
The Ohio State University
421 Denney Hall
164 W. 17th Avenue
Columbus, OH 43210


In Washington DC's newly gentrified Chinatown, recent commercial establishments, primarily non-Chinese owned chains, use Chinese-language signs as design features targeted towards people who neither read nor have ethnic ties to Chinese. Using this neighborhood as a case study, we advocate a contextualized, historicized and spatialized perspective on linguistic landscape which highlights that landscapes are not simply physical spaces but are instead ideologically charged constructions. Drawing from cultural geography and urban studies, we analyze how written language interacts with other features of the built environment to construct commodified urban places. Taking a contextually informed, qualitative approach, we link micro-level analysis of individual Chinese-language signs to the specific local socio-geographic processes of spatial commodification. Such a qualitative approach to linguistic landscape, which emphasizes the importance of sociohistorical context, and which includes analysis of signage use, function, and history, leads to a greater understanding of the larger sociopolitical meanings of linguistic landscapes.