Urban public signs during a pandemic

Walking down empty streets during the early days of the lockdown in London, I cannot help noticing the new signs in shop fronts and other public spaces. They are silent messengers that remind the passers-by that we are in a different, very special time and space. They tell the stories of their authors—how they respond to the crisis, how they feel, and how they see the future when so much is up in the air. They constitute a kind of ‘in vivo’ crisis communication we have not seen before in the study of urban public signs (also known as linguistic landscape studies).  

Figure 1

A handwritten sign was sellotaped to the door of a restaurant, with all the letters in capitals and the word ‘CLOSED’ underlined.  (Figure 1). Notwithstanding the small grammar mistake, the brief sign re-semiotises the government’s instruction, attributing the closure to COVID-19 and putting things on hold ‘until further notice’. Its brevity and matter of fact style, while appearing to be calm, speaks a sense of helplessness.  

In another handwritten sign, the message focuses on customer relations and puts things in perspective. It is styled as an open letter to friends in a poetic form. The sign consists of two key messages written over two pieces of paper placed together. The top half is a thank you message with “YOU” in quotation marks, as if to mark that this is not just one on ordinary occasions when we say thank you as a matter of routine. It is said with emphasis, sincerity and thoughtfulness.  The second half is a promise carefully choreographed into four lines: ‘we do not know when but we will see you again’. The key words ‘when’ and ‘again’ are highlighted with space or quotation marks.  This half, while appearing to address the factual question of when the shop will reopen, is an ingenious recontextualization. It reminds us of ‘We’ll Meet Again’, a 1939 British song made famous by Vera Lynn. The exact same message was used by Queen Elizabeth to urge the British people to stay strong when she addressed the nation soon after the lockdown. 

Figure 2

In our recent research on handwritten signs in public spaces (Li Wei & Zhu Hua, in press), we have discussed how the medium of handwriting indexes spontaneity and informality as well as the identity and personality of their writers. Here we see how these handwritten signs additionally convey, and contribute to, the sense of emergency and are used to communicate affect and to connect people.  Clearly, they were written and put up quickly, but with a considerable amount of care for the readers/customers.

For those shops remaining open, many use specially designed signs to communicate and mark the fact that they are still in operation.  These signs tend to be more professional looking with a touch of design. I have found several of these signs on mobile notice boards placed on pavements, presumably to attract the customers’ attention. Both the signs included here are printed rather than handwritten with the wording ‘open’, the most important communicative content, displayed in the most visibly way. In the one on the left (Figure 3), the sentence appears as a headline and uses large fonts and clear contrastive colours. In the one on the right (Figure 4), each word in full capitals is arranged as a single line.  The texts are carefully worded too.  The presence of the adverbial phrases of time, ‘still’  and  ‘as usual’, emphasise that the shops continue to operate, contrary to what may have been expected. The main business of the shops (vitamin and supplement shops in the former and a postal delivery service in the latter) did not appear top on the list of shops allowed to remain open by the government and these businesses clearly felt the need to go out of their way to inform potential customers. So these signs serve as the perfect means of informing and advertising, two elements in Scollon and Scollon’s (2003) taxonomy of functions of public signs. 

Figure 3
Figure 4

For those shops offering essential services such as pharmacies, banks and supermarkets, signs are used as directives, (safe)guarding the space within. Below are the shop fronts of three pharmacies on the high street in my neighbourhood. ‘Do not enter’ signs, deterring unwanted customers, are clearly visible in the picture of the first pharmacy (Figure 5. It is red and includes the logo of the ‘NHS’ at the bottom. In fact, the logo of the ‘NHS’ occurs in many of the signs found on the pharmacies’ facades. Its presence gives the deterrent signs a kind of authority as well as backing. The second pharmacy (Figure 6) is a Boots branch. Its shop front is almost excessively busy with posters with information and signs about handwashing and social distancing. The third one (Figure 7) has fewer posters. There are two signs of ‘Do not enter’ (one in red, and the other in black) on each side of glass doors. There is also a sign of declaring zero tolerance for abuse of staff.  While the pharmacies vary in the extent of signage used, all the signs are in print and carry a sense of top-down directives. These businesses almost seem keen to direct customers away, rather than welcome them in, an unusual customer relationship in a time of crisis. 

Figure 5
figure 6
Figure 7

The implementation of social distancing in shops means that each shop has to decide how many people they can allow in. And interestingly this seems to attract more signs in  languages other than English. The Polish bakery and the Polish grocery shop. which are close to each other, use bilingual signs with English first and Polish second (below). The same wording suggests that one of them may have copied the other one, although one of them has a minor typo in English. The English sign on the two-meter social distancing rule might  have been made in vivo. The wording (when possible, maintain at least a 2 meter (6 feet) distance from others) is more of a plea than a directive. It contains a lesser degree of obligation than the government’s official line. The third one uses Romanian only. It says ‘maximum 2 people are allowed in the store at the same time’. The presence of multilingual signs of crisis communication is on the whole rare. Many ethnic shops in the area use English only. 

Figure 8
Figure 9
Figure 10

Elsewhere, we (Li Wei & Zhu Hua, in press) have commented on the exclusive and inclusive effect of the use of languages other than English in signs in public spaces. What we have seen during the present time of crisis in the UK is the predominance of English over other languages. The function of other languages is mostly reduced to that of minimal information-giving, as we have seen in the examples of bilingual I have included here. At the same time, the information from the government website (gov.uk) and the NHS website about COVID-19 is all in English. The lack of public information in other languages is a particular concern when so much is dependent on the public’s understanding of, and compliance with, the rules and the regulations. What do the new vocabulary, such as  lockdown, social distancing, self-isolation, face covering (note this is not equivalent to face mask!)— terms that were not within our daily conversation before the pandemic but which now we can now say in one breath— mean in other cultures and other languages? And how do these people figure out the degree of obligation in the  government’s key messages and directives? What does‘exceptional circumstances’ mean when there have been so many debates about social distancing rules recently, debates that have taken place almost entirely in English? Has this lack of information partly contributed to the high death toll among BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) communities in the UK? Amid the pandemic, we see the vulerability of multilingualism and its speakers. We see multilingualism itself in crisis. 

References

Li Wei & Zhu Hua (in press). Making sense of handwritten signs in public spaces. Social Semiotics

Scollon, R. & Scollon, S.W. (2003). Discourses in Place: Language in the Material World. New York and London: Routledge. 

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