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Carla Bagna & Martina Bellinzona: Italian Linguistic Landscape during the Covid-19 Pandemic

"The use of irony, both in linguistic and semiotic terms, was one of the main characteristics of social and on-line communication of the first lockdown. In response to a terrible situation, beyond our understanding, a great creativity was unleashed (also used for commercial purposes), through which people tried to describe the new condition we were experiencing. The other way around, the silence in the soundscape, given by the absolute absence of mobility, was reflected in the silence of the LL"

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Bagna, Carla and Bellinzona, Martina. "Italian Linguistic Landscape during the Covid-19 pandemic: use of spaces among management, activism and hope." The Linguistic Landscape of Covid-19 Workshop. Last modified 5 August 2021, http://www.covidsigns.net/post/bagna-bellinzona.


The study of the Linguistic Landscape (LL) focuses on the representations of languages ​​​​on signs placed in the public space, as well as on the ways in which individuals interact with these elements. Regulatory, infrastructural, commercial, and transgressive discourses, among others, emerge in these spaces, overlapping each other, complementing or opposing, reflecting changes taking place and in turn influencing them. During the last decades, scholars have focused both on the description and analysis of the LL as a semiotic and linguistic space, and on its impact on citizens, inhabitants and tourists: a key element of the LL, therefore, has been the mobility of people through it.


The Covid-19 pandemic has affected all the aspects of life, including cities, neighbourhoods, spaces and mobility through them. Against this background, the study of the LL appears to be fundamental to better understand not only the ways in which places have changed and how people are interpreting and experiencing them, but also to analyse the evolution of Covid-19 discourses since the pandemic broke out until today. In this short presentation we will explore the Italian LL during the Covid-19 pandemic, focusing on the different representations in the LL that have characterized the two main phases of the pandemic in the country, which correspond to the periods February-May 2020 and October 2020-May 2021. This chronological distinction is pivotal due to the developments that the pandemic has had in Italy, which have conditioned the way we live, conceive and perceive the public space and the LL.


The first phase: February- May 2020


Starting from February 20, 2020, when the first case of Covid-19 was discovered in Italy, we have observed an escalation of restrictive measures and decrees, resulting in the establishment of a national lockdown on March 9. Since that day, the LL, especially in urban contexts, has become a restricted-access space: it has become a witness of a suspended, immobile, blocked space-time. From day to night, the nightlife streets, shopping streets, main squares and meeting places have emptied, totally losing their traditional functions: the city centres have no longer been of interest for social, infrastructural, transgressive, and above all commercial communication. All these discourses have moved behind the screens, on TV and in cyberscape, thus becoming the almost only vehicles of information and management, of social exchanges and commercial advertising. The use of irony, both in linguistic and semiotic terms, was one of the main characteristics of social and on-line communication of the first lockdown. In response to a terrible situation, beyond our understanding, a great creativity was unleashed (also used for commercial purposes), through which people tried to describe the new condition we were experiencing. The other way around, the silence in the soundscape, given by the absolute absence of mobility, was reflected in the silence of the LL (Figure 1).


Figure 1: Milan


Nonetheless, new functions of the LL began to emerge very soon: one day, anonymous post-it with the inscription #andrà tutto bene, #everything will be all right”, appeared on the shop windows of some Italian cities. It was a message of hope, which soon made the rounds of the web. Since that moment, colourful rainbows were hung on balconies and windows all over Italy (Figure 2): they were accompanied by the words andrà tutto bene and other expressions of solidarity, or by the hashtag I stay at home (the evocative name given to the decree that instituted the lockdown). Alongside these messages, Italian flags found space, to signal patriotism discourses, and banners containing evocative phrases in support of doctors and nurses, engaged in the front line in the fight against Covid-19. With the passage of time, and the gradual reopening of the shops, regulatory messages began to appear in the LL: they were used to reaffirm the rules of social distancing and the behaviours to be adopted (such as using masks, washing hands, etc).



Figure 2: andrà tutto bene ("everything will be alright")


To summarize, in the first phase of the pandemic the LL (intended as cityscape) has stopped: we observed an impoverishment of communication due to the reduction of activities and the need for redundant service communications. In this suspended space, the LL no longer lived in its traditional functions, but it was reinvented: while commercial, management and social discourses moved to the cyberscape, the LL became a space used to transmit messages of hope, solidarity, support and resilience.


The second phase: October 2020 – May 2021


The first lockdown was followed by the period of transformation of urban spaces, due to the alternance of closures and openings of mobility. For this reason, we have begun to conduct extensive research, taking Florence as a case study. Florence, the capital city of the Tuscany region, has been subject for years to touristification processes. These processes have led to the transformation of several neighbourhoods of the city, especially in the historic centre. The purpose of the research is to explore the LL of the districts of the city and to investigate citizens’ perceptions (pre and post-Covid period). We used exploratory questionnaires (Google Forms), focus group, with 3-6 people for 30-60 minutes each, and LL data.

One of the first consequences that we noticed was the gradual disappearance of messages of hope and solidarity. The banners of rainbows and Italian flags were removed from windows and messages of protest, despair and disillusionment began to appear on walls and signs. Even more than in other moments, the alternation of more or less restrictive measures has led to continuous changes in the urban LL, forced to adapt and take into account the rules imposed, both in terms of social distancing and health protection, and consequently for openings / closures of commercial establishments. In some cases, these constant regulatory changes have been taken and conveyed with irony.


One of the elements most present in the LL was found to be linked to regulatory messages. Although not required by the law, most businesses have decided to post signs in order to regulate the use of spaces, remembering to use masks, to keep distance etc. (Figure 3). Most of this messages were delivered in Italian or through icons and symbols. The pandemic has transformed Italian cities (Florence in this case) from environments that had to be “tourist friendly”" to places that slowly have to promote themselves as “Covid-free”.



Figure 3: Florence


It is interesting to observe how few of the citizens interviewed are aware of the omnipresence of signs of this type. During the focus groups, however, various suggestions emerged regarding the changes in the Florentine LL due to the covid: some informants noticed a lower presence of languages (due to the absence of tourists); others were disturbed by the large new signs indicating the vaccination hubs; others have emphasized the immobility of the commercial / promotional LL, which remained unchanged since the pre-covid period.


Conclusions


The Covid-19 pandemic should be an opportunity and challenge for LL studies. First of all, it makes clear the importance of the role of the audience, often overshadowed by reflections on sign-makers and issuers: the pandemic reminded us of how the LL would not exist if there were no people to live and perceive it. Therefore, a reflection on the methodology implemented is crucial, as well as on the importance to always consider the perceptions and awareness of those who actually live and act in the LL daily. Moreover, it is vital to consider LL as the intersection of different layers: not only linguistic and semiotic land / cityscape, but also cyberscape, soundscape, etc.


Finally, the rapid evolution of the LL reminds us of how important it is to always frame and base studies on a historical and diachronic level, contextualizing the data we collect and the analyses we conduct in a precise historical moment, considering all the consequences that this implies as well.


References


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Hopkyns S., van den Hoven M. (2021), Linguistic diversity and inclusion in Abu Dhabi’s linguistic landscape during the Covid-19 period. Multilingua April 2021.


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