Urban Street Signs in the Linguistic Landscape of Tunisia: Tensions in Policy, Representation, and Attitudes

Open Access
Ben Said, Slim
Graduate Program:
Applied Linguistics
Doctor of Philosophy
Document Type:
Date of Defense:
May 20, 2010
Committee Members:
  • Dr Suresh Canagarajah, Dissertation Advisor
  • Athelstan Canagarajah, Committee Chair
  • Celeste S Kinginger, Committee Member
  • Meredith Christine Doran, Committee Member
  • Grace Hampton, Committee Member
  • Language Policy and Planning
  • Multilingualism
  • Sociolinguistics
  • Linguistic Landscape
This ethnographic study of linguistic landscape (LL) (Landry & Bourhis, 1997), describes the urban multilingual practices of Tunisia as evidenced by its policy statements, street signage, and local perceptions. Data for this investigation were collected primarily from publicly visible signage in both the capital city (Tunis), and in the suburb (La Marsa), but also from Tunisian policy documents and perceptions of language use and meaning from the local Tunisian population. Drawing on the frameworks of indexicality (Scollon & Scollon, 2003), dialogicality (Bakhtin, 1981), and interpellation (Althusser, 1970), this study revealed that Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) was the undisputed official language not only in terms of political status, but also with respect to its visibility on public signs in the linguistic landscape, and in view of people’s attitudes. However, it was also noted that despite its strong status in the city, there were still some inconsistencies observed with respect to the suburban area of La Marsa, where MSA cedes its supremacy to French on private signs. This inconsistency was explained as the result of additional provisions made by the state which permitted the use of foreign languages, and the importance of a large French expatriate population in La Marsa. The status of Tunisian Arabic (TA) was, contrary to MSA, not institutionalized in political legislation, and was shown not to have a high level of representation in the linguistic landscape. Respondents agreed that TA had to remain an oral language in order not to ‘corrupt’ the quality of the official and more prestigious MSA. Although not officially recognized in Tunisian legislation, French in Tunisia was shown to have a substantial impact on the linguistic landscape, especially on private signs where it was used either as a relic of colonialism, as a language interpellating (Althusser, 1970) a particular social group, or as a language of commodification (Heller, 2003). Local informants valued French as the second language of the country, and as a cultural heritage, or rejected it as a language marking a prevailing status-quo of subjugation to French politico-cultural hegemony. English emerges as a language slowly but surely growing in importance in the linguistic landscape of Tunis and La Marsa, and gaining more acceptance in people’s attitudes. While French was perceived by others as a language indexing colonial status-quo and dependency, English was experienced by some as a liberating or ‘third space’ (Kramsch, 1993) language which countered the hegemony of French because it lacked association with a colonial history. This study demonstrates the need to diversify the range and types of data in LL research. In doing so, researchers interested in language policy and planning can develop a much more astute and comprehensive understanding of urban multilingualism. They can also address bottom-up as well as top-down linguistic practices. The linguistic landscape was also theorized as an example of ‘new literacy’ (Gee, 2007) modality. The type of literacy represented in the linguistic landscape which is multimodal, multilingual, multiscriptal, and hence multiliterate, provides the local population with the potential to develop multicompetence (Cook 1992, 2002) in reading and writing the multilingualism featured in their daily visual ecology. As shown by Cenoz & Gorter (2008), the linguistic landscape can also be a site which fosters the development of second language acquisition, particularly in the form of input to second language learners. In addition to the implications of the linguistic landscape as a site of literacy practices and language development, the linguistic landscape in Tunisia potentially represents a tool for pedagogy (Sayer, 2010) which can serve to sensitize the population about the languages spoken and encountered in the country. It can also raise people’s awareness about their linguistic repertoires, identities, and cultural heritage (Dagenais et al., 2009).