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Transforming language, people, and place in a time of pandemic
In the months since the coronavirus began to spread and become a global-scale pandemic, COVID-19 has exerted a profound influence on the organization and practice of social life. It is, as the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs notes, “attacking societies at their core,” with immediate and disproportionate impact upon poorer, minoritized, and disadvantaged communities, and as-yet unknown longer-term ramifications. The COVID-19 crisis is, among many other things, a public crisis, with fundamental assumptions about governance, norms, and everyday embodied, material and discursive relations being called into question. To wit: How are evolving standards of public health and personal hygiene understood, practiced, and policed in societies around the world? How are ‘safe’ and ‘dangerous’ practices and places being defined and regimented, and by whom? How have existing conventions of interpersonal communication been transformed or disrupted by changes in media, mobility, access, and policy? And what new roles are being given to the linguistic, visual, material, and other forms of semiotic activity that mediate these changing realities? These broad questions highlight the unprecedented role of linguistic landscape in reconfiguring public space, communicating public health, and transforming social relationships.
As Adami et al. (2020) assert in the PanMeMic [Pandemic Meaning Making of Interaction and Communication] Manifesto, “The physical world people inhabit and navigate has shrunk for those on lockdown, while for all it is newly regulated, often times also marked visually by all sorts of signage and materially through the redesign of public spaces” (p. 7). Clearly, linguistic landscape, with its longstanding focus on the role of language and other semiotic resources in the construction of public spaces, both physically and symbolically (Tuan 1991; Johnstone 2004; Ben-Rafael et al. 2006; Jaworski and Thurlow 2010), is a crucial nexus of meaning-making in the COVID-19 pandemic. It highlights the power of language to materially reconfigure public places and the lives that are lived through them (Thomas and Cameron 2001; Stroud and Mpendukana 2009; Scollon and Scollon 2003). We share the view of Adami et al (2020) that, in the current global health crisis, “the semiotic regimes of our interaction order have collapsed -- at least momentarily -- and we are in a phase in which we need to renegotiate them anew” (p. 11).
The signage of Covid-19 not only implores us to re-examine the relationship between language, materiality, and public space, but it also presents an opportunity for linguistic landscape studies to extend its interdisciplinary reach by turning our attention to public health and communication. While this is an area which has been extensively researched using sociolinguistic and applied linguistic tools, esp. pragmatics, discourse and conversation analysis (Jones 2013; Harvey and Koteyko 2013; Hamilton and Chou 2014; Demjén 2020), this proposed special issue will be the first collection of linguistic landscape studies that are explicitly concerned with the issue of public health. To this end, the editors of this special issue would like to invite submissions from multiple disciplinary perspectives within and beyond sociolinguistics, to address the following key research questions:
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