The University of Arizona

The Subliminal Influence of Street Signs in Schoolscapes: Elective vs. Circumstantial Reverse Indexicality in a Tale of Two Tucsons

Steve Daniel Przymus



There is a risk of diluting our logic by looking at things absolutely (Peirce, in Hoopes, 1991, p. 187). Signs gain their meaning, not in any absolute sense, but rather in relation to their context in any given time, and in relation to their meaning to any given interpreter. According to Eco (1979) “A sign is everything which can be taken as significantly substituting for something else” (p. 7). A sign not only stands for something, but it stands to someone and that important relationship with the signs in our landscape is what I discuss below. I begin in section one by describing two parts of Tucson, a city of around one million inhabitants in the Southwest of the United States, that are different in many ways, but curiously differ in their linguistic landscapes. In section two I define linguistic landscapes and situate an analysis of street signs within linguistic landscape research. Section three is a diachronic and synchronic analysis of street signs in Tucson, including the myths (Barthes, 1972) that have accompanied the acceptance of street sign language at different points in the city’s history and how these myths have served to promulgate what Jane Hill (1993) refers to as a larger social project of the white elite in maintaining a dominant economic and political position of power in society. In section four I focus on how street signs interact with all those who view them on both the syntagmatic and paradigmatic axes. A deeper explanation of how these linguistic messages enter our cognition and influence our ideologies continues in section five with a description of the various conceptual metonyms and metaphors born out of street sign language and organization. All of these sections treating the unconscious understanding and influence of street signs feed into section six and a discussion on the seemingly conscious and intentional authorship in linguistic landscapes (Malinowski, 2008) and how the expected commitment of top-down governmental signs, such as street signs, to the linguistic code of the dominant culture (Gorter, 2006), is violated in both parts of Tucson through reverse indexicality. I make a distinction in this section between what I call elective vs. circumstantial reverse idexicality in order to attempt to explain the differing power dynamics at play in the two Tucsons and link these dynamics to educational policy.   In the final section, all of these contributions get funneled into a cone of connections, which together illuminate how ideologies are influenced regarding classroom language of instruction policies that both promote and prohibit Spanish language use in schools. This study proposes to extend the idea of schoolscapes from the elements, text, and space, within a school-based environment (Brown, 2012; Szabó, 2015), to the immediate streets and neighborhoods surrounding schools, to demonstrate the subliminal influence of street signs on (re)constructing the language ideologies of individuals who live in these neighborhoods and who support the language policies of their children’s schools. In taking this stance, my desire is not to claim that there exists a linear connection between street sign language and classroom language of instruction policy, with exception to the case of National City discussed below; rather it is my goal to light a match of awareness of the great potential for meaning making that street signs possess and leave in the reader a profound awakening that impacts how she or he sees, interprets, and thus understands street signs for quite some time. As I attempt to overtly uncover covert collocations of hidden agendas and implicit messages in the linguistic landscape of educational environments, I recognize that as an academic living in the American Southwest, I am both a product of these messages, influenced perhaps in ways that remain unconscious to me, and a producer of messages through my own interpretive research of their potential meaning.

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