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Review of  Multilingual Memories

Reviewer: Marianna Deganutti
Book Title: Multilingual Memories
Book Author: Robert Blackwood John Macalister
Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing (formerly The Continuum International Publishing Group)
Linguistic Field(s): Sociolinguistics
Issue Number: 32.1012

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Multilingual Memories: Monuments, Museums and the Linguistic Landscape is a collection of eleven chapters edited by Robert Blackwood and John Macalister, which explores and problematizes the relationship between memory studies and multilingualism. It is partially based on the contributions made at the twenty-first Sociolinguistics Symposium held in Murcia in 2016. Following an Introduction, in which the editors introduce the expanding field of Linguistic Landscape (henceforth LL) and problematize the ways and the potential of the interaction between memory, memorialization and multilingualism, the volume is divided into three parts: ‘Monuments’, ‘Museums’ and ‘Memories’. It includes case-studies from six continents, ranging from monuments and sculptures to street-name signs, which are approached from different theoretical perspectives. However, as stated by the editors in the Introduction, due to “the porosity of the borders between some of these categories” (5), there are frequent connections between the three sections of the volume.

The first section, ‘Monuments’, begins with the comparison made by John Macalister between two memorials located in Wellington, New Zealand, which mainly commemorate the First World War: the 1931 Cenotaph and the 2015 Pukeahu National War Memorial Park. These two monuments, roughly eighty years apart, show some similarities but above all remarkable differences in their approach to memorialization, reflecting the way in which national identity is constructed in New Zealand. Despite neither of them privileging the linguistic over the visual, language determines a main difference between the two memorials. While the Cenotaph represents a monolingual and monocultural New Zealand, strongly linked to Great Britain, which excludes elements of the Maori language or culture, Pukeahu employs the Maori language in many different places. For instance, it is present in the three whakatauki (sayings) on walls, which are offered without translation to the visitors to represent Maori. This approach appears to reflect the progressive recognition of the Maori civilization in contemporary New Zealand. However, Macalister argues that what is not represented there are the Pacific and Asian people who form twenty per cent of the nation’s population.

A similar approach, which takes into account the multilayered aspects of linguistic landscapes, is the one used by Patricia Lamarre in Chapter 2. By analysing the complex vicissitudes of the Black Rock in Montreal – a ten-foot boulder built in memory of the victims of the Irish Famine who died of typhus in the middle of the nineteenth century – Lamarre deals with multiple aspects, such as the religion, language and ethnicity component related to the site, which are all intermingled and in competition with each other for memorialization. Their interplay, which is highly symbolic and politicized, has determined the complex history of the Black Rock memorial, a contested site since its foundation. The particular significance of Lamarre’s chapter is the attention paid to omissions and absences, which can tell us as much about memorialization as inclusions do. In her case study, a glaring omission is the dedication in English only – and therefore the striking absence of Irish Gaelic, the first language spoken by many who escaped the Irish Famine and reached Canada.

In Chapter 3 Dawn Marley focuses on the Monument to Franco-Moroccan Friendship by Landowski (best-known for his Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro), as well as some other monuments of the same era, which incorporate French and Arabic inscriptions, such as the Monument à la Division Marocaine, the Verdun Monument, the Grande Mosquée and the monument in Place Denys Cochin. Marley examines the way the French and Arabic languages are used in memorializing the relationship between France and Morocco over time. It seems that in many cases French plays a key role, while a more symbolic part is left to the Arabic. This depends on many factors – not least the fact that, for instance, the Monument to Franco-Moroccan Friendship was originally installed in Casablanca, Morocco, in 1924 and reinstalled in France after Moroccan independence. The small amount of Arabic text on the monument with letters not properly formed has no more than a symbolic meaning and a decorative function, testifying to the friendship between the two countries (through the presence of multiple codes) but not real communication.

In Chapter 4, which opens the second section ‘Museums’, Hambaba Jimaima and Felix Banda examine two sites with remarkable potential in terms of history and multilingual memory both on a global and on a local level: the Livingstone Museum and the Mosi-oa-tunya/Victoria Falls. To these sites, the authors apply an “extended taxonomy of artefactual materialities” (90), which adds to previous analysis based on written language only – i.e. those of Stroud and Mpendukana (2009), or Ben-Rafael (2009) – other meaning-making elements, such as “trees, mounds and environmental conditions, and the oral language” (95). In particular, an approach which includes oral language would better fit Central African regions, where “languages thrive through word of mouth even though they are not on scripted signage or have an official orthography” (91). Zambia alone has around seventy-two dialects that fall within twenty-six language clusters, which are not present in the selected sites, where English leads undisputed, with a few exceptions expressed in only four local languages. This approach mirrors the significant disparity between the representation of the local perspective and that of the European colonizers.

In Chapter 5 Robert Blackwood and James Costa focus on the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum located in south-east Scotland. The poet Burns, a national icon, mainly wrote in Scots, a non-standardized language of Scotland, and used English only for rhyme purposes and in his correspondence. Despite the fact that the intention of the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum’s managers, as clearly stated in its language strategy, was to valorise the poet as much as the language he used, the museum remains “an irregularly multilingual place” (1249, where Scots is presented inconsistently. By examining the museum as a text with an eye open to the potential of a museum to teach a language, Blackwood and Costa discover that the role played by Scots is mainly symbolic – reduced to word lists, implying that Scots is not a language and ‘consistently affirmed as something of the past’ (131). The overwhelming presence of English – a language which certainly allows wider communication – therefore prevents the museum from fulfilling its aim to valorise the language used by Burns.

In Chapter 6 Rebecca Garvin and Yasushi Onodera analyse the Rohwer Relocation Center Memorial Cemetery in Rohwer, Arkansas. This almost forgotten site was built by Americans of Japanese ancestry, who during the Second World War were forced to move from the west coast to confinement sites. Despite suffering injustice, these internees (some 120,000) were loyal to America and served the country during the war. Nevertheless, their sacrifice got forgotten even on a local level. By applying processes of geosemiotics, the concepts of indexicality and emplacement as formulated by Scollon and Scollon (2003), as well as Aboussnnouga and Machin’s (2010) research on war monuments, the two authors analyse the multilingual texts present in a site which underwent three phases of construction, characterized by the intervention of different agents over time. The different ‘ways of telling’ the story come out also through the multilingual (English and Japanese) texts of the site and the reorientation of the memorial space.

Maida Kosatica in Chapter 7 examines the War Childhood Museum in Sarajevo, a recent institution whose aim is to tell “a universal story of children’s war experience” (162). This museum’s approach – it includes exclusively personal stories of the pain and trauma caused by the war – shapes a specific semiotic mode and space format, which is framed in a sophisticated spatial organization. Kosatica asserts that the museum is framed as a ‘combi/memorial’, a combination of memory, archive and exhibition, which involves self-reflection and participation. In practical terms, this museum offers a new way of approaching the 1992-1995 Bosnian war. However, the Cyrillic script which would represent Bosnian Serbs is omitted – the only languages present are Bosnian in Roman script and English. This risks reiterating Sarajevo’s post-war ideology of language to the detriment of a comprehensive and more objective representation of the country.

In Chapter 8, which begins the third section ‘Memories’, Branca Falabella Fabricio and Rodrigo Borba analyse the Valongo Wharf, Pedra do Sal and the Cemetery of the New Blacks, three sites of memorial which are part of Little Africa in Rio de Janeiro: respectively a former harbour area where roughly 1 million African slaves reached the South American continent from 1811 onwards, nowadays a UNESCO site; a historical monument located in a commercial quarter and meeting-place for the enslaved Africans; and a cemetery where thousands of Africans, who did not survive the voyage to Rio de Janeiro or died soon after their arrival, were buried during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. These three sites show varying dynamics of remembrance-memorial, especially if approached through scaling modes, or rather the ‘intense semiotic labour that can either enhance or inhibit mobility in time and space’ (196). In Valongo the memorialization practice promotes Eurocentric viewpoints and languages which obscure the African history of the site; while Pedra do Sal and the Cemetery of the New Blacks emphasize slavery and the African perspective. In this chapter scaled dynamics and processes help understanding of the way memories are either emphasized or de-emphasized.

In Chapter 9 John Macalister and Teresa Ong focus on the wrought iron sculptures of George Town, in Penang (Malaysia), a collection of caricatures made by Sculpture at Work since 2009 and scattered around the historic streets of George Town (a UNESCO World Heritage Site). The aim of these caricatures is to depict the history and culture of the city, as well as to recall more specific events of the past in a light-hearted way, without tackling divisive issues that are still present in Malaysian society. Given that Malaysia is a multi-ethnic and multilingual country, the authors’ analysis investigates the way memory and languages are connected in this site. It emerges that the target of the sculptures is international – Malaysia’s economy is heavily based on tourism. Therefore, it is no surprise that English and Chinese are the dominant languages used on the sculptures, the others being Bahasa Malaysia, Arabic and Indian languages.

The multilingual street signs of Alghero/L’Alguer, in north-western Sardinia, are the focus of Stefania Tufi’s examination in Chapter 10. In this town, which was historically a Catalan enclave, three languages are used: Italian, Sardinian and Alguese, a variant of Catalan, which was brought to the town after the Aragon conquest of the town in the fourteenth century. Based on the theoretical notions of rememoration and commemoration, intertextuality, hypertext and spatial de-structuration at the intersection of memory and identity, Tufi’s analysis points out that many actors have been involved in the current street-name configuration in a process of remarkable memory selection which certainly presents erased voices. On a micro-level one example is the decision of the local Rotary Club to place Alguese-only street-name signs in the town, in an effort to promote the local language and culture with the result of excluding Sardinian from the street names.

In the last chapter, Christian Bendl deals with the Viennese Heldenplatz (Heroes’ Square), a square with multiple meanings which have been constantly reshaped over the years. According to Bendl, who bases his examination on Lefebvre’s triad of the ‘production of space’ (267) - which is based on three spatial dimensions: ‘spatial practices’, ‘representations of space’ and ‘spaces of representation’ - Heldenplatz is a typical example of ‘spatial palimpsest’ (267), which is to say a space characterized by a multiplicity of forms expressed in the semiotic landscape, act of commemoration and other expressions and layers. In this square, where different spatial palimpsests (some hidden, some exposed) are offered, no element of Lefebvre’s triad can be excluded. In effect, Bendl considers every dimension of spatial analysis to be important in depicting its symbolic character, including the acts of commemoration which take place periodically at the site. These acts link space and time, constantly redefining the identity of the square in acts which require a positioning in the space through time. This becomes a process of contextualization and re-appropriation of the spatial palimpsest, not exempt from political strategies.

In the Conclusion, the editors argue that “LL have the potential to inform the study of memory, memorialization and multilingualism” according to “the breadth, innovativeness and openness of the LL research” (285). Investigations on remembering and forgetting, which are present everywhere in this work, question in depth choices and intentions. However, these investigations cannot be reduced to a simple formula of presence of language equals remembering and absence of language equals forgetting. Things are much more complicated than that. Multilingual memories require an all-round examination, which involves multiple spatio-temporal factors, different agents and many other aspects, such as also the inclusion of personal interpretations, all of which can easily overturn the above-mentioned formula.


As stated by the editors of this volume, despite LL having “critically engaged with memory, memorialization and multilingualism”, the role played by languages in memory studies “has not been exploited to its full potential” (1). This volume which certainly opens up new multiple approaches and ways to investigate that powerful relationship, shows how much there is still to be done. The first major achievement of this contribution to the field is indeed to establish that language is always at the core of memory and memorialization, or as Blackwood and Costa in Chapter 5 put it: “Language […] does a considerable amount of work in museum and exhibition spaces” (116) (of course, this could be extended to all the categories included in this analysis). Language is indeed central also when it is absent, missing or simply not the primary motivation of memory sites/places or memorials. It is, in other words, always there and should not be ignored because, as this work demonstrates, it truly unravels and questions even the most entangled dynamics of memory, especially in combination with other approaches.

A second major achievement of this volume is to demonstrate the adaptable nature of multilingualism, which can be easily combined with other approaches. The authors of this volume use “expertise from sociolinguistics, semiotics, sociology, pedagogy and language policy to inform wider discussions” (1). Not only do they illustrate that multilingualism tends to grasp memory more deeply when associated with other methods – the volume points the reader in multiple directions – but they also show that language and memory studies have many repercussions and extensions beyond their boundaries.

To put it a different way, while there are other studies which examine the way “language is all around us” as Durk Gorter (2006: 1) writes – especially works centred around LL, which already pay attention to the presence of linguistic signs in a space – Multilingual Memories creates new productive ways of allowing memory and multilingualism to interact by establishing bridges with tangent disciplines. For instance, Abousnnouga and Machin’s The Language of War Monuments, by which Multilingual Memories is inspired in terms of approach, employs socio-semiotic resources in addition to a cultural and political understanding of the context to examine war monuments. Multilingual Memories adopts an even more multi-layered methodology, applying it to a greater number of case-studies.

In effect, this work presents material which at first could be considered heterogeneous and disparate, in the sense that every chapter presents different contexts, historical events, forms of memorialization, and socio-political dynamics, but also different languages, types of memorials, theoretical and interdisciplinary approaches; and indeed this material struggles to be strictly classified. As the editors themselves state in the Introduction: “We have arranged the chapters in this volume according to the three kinds of memory places, although we acknowledge from the outset the porosity of the borders between some of these categories” (5). This porosity, as well as the variety in terms of approach and case-studies, seem to have a centripetal effect on the reader. However, the investigation of multilingualism and memory constitutes a strong guiding thread that renders the entire work coherent, fully understandable and well-structured. Interestingly, the heterogeneity of this volume leads one to become aware of strong similarities between examples – among them, for instance, the dominance of the English language, which tends nowadays (more or less directly) to suppress the representation of more local tongues – which in turn shape a new way of conceiving multilingual practise in memory studies.

Those interested in memory studies and multilingualism will certainly find this volume useful. To memory studies the book brings awareness of the linguistic investigation applied to memory, and provides a new angle of observation on other dynamics linking space and time. This volume indirectly also highlights what it means for the linguistic perspective to be missing from memory studies – how much poorer the analysis would be without it. Not for nothing the editors conclude the book by writing: “Multilingualism makes memories” (293). Those working in multilingualism, on the other hand, can benefit from an understanding of the memory approaches in relation to language – here key theories (the museum as a language teacher or combi-memorial, the notions of production of space or artefactual materiality, etc.) are certainly called into question. This volume could also appeal to other audiences, such as scholars working more widely in socio-linguistics, sociology, semiology, etc., providing them with new and inspiring ways of dealing with the linguistic challenges posed by objects, space and memory.

Overall, this book is a valuable reference tool for scholars who deal with language and memory studies, providing as it does multiple models of analysis, as well as theoretical frameworks to inspire new investigations. Despite being exhaustive, this volume seems more a trailblazer than a decisive analysis of the challenges posed by memory and multilingualism. It gives new directions following its interdisciplinary model or the way languages (their presence or absence, hierarchy, their possible translation/s, their mix between each other and with other elements) could tell us about politics, relationships of power, memory. It also offers new methods to identify semiotic elements, which transcend those of the canon, or to conceive the role played by languages in memorials or how space and time work in relation to language.


Ben-Rafael, Eliezer. 2009. A Sociological Approach to the Study of Linguistic Landscapes.
E. Shohamy and D. Gorter (eds.), Linguistic Landscape: Expanding the Scenery. New York: Routledge. 40-54.

Gorter, Durk. 2006. Introduction: The Study of the Linguistic Landscape as a New Approach to Multilingualism. International Journal of Multilingualism 3(1). 1-6.

Stroud, Christopher and Mpendukana, Sibonile. 2009. Towards a Material Ethnography of Linguistic Landscape: Multilingualism, Mobility and Space in a South African Township. Journal of Sociolinguistics, 12(3). 363-386.

Scollon. Ron and Scollon, Suzanne Wong. 2003. Discourses in Place: Language in the Material World. London: Routledge.

Aboussnnouga and Machin, David. 2010. War Monuments and the Changing Discourses of Nation and Soldiery. A. Jaworski and C. Thurlow (eds.) Semiotic Landscapes: Language, Image, Space. London: Continuum. 291-240.
Marianna Deganutti has studied in Italy, the UK and Slovenia. She holds a DPhil in Modern Languages at the University of Oxford. From 2016 to 2018 she was Research Associate at the Department of Politics, Languages & International Studies of the University of Bath, where she worked for an Horizon 2020-funded project. At the moment she is DAAD postdoc at LMU, Germany. Her interests include literary multilingualism, self-translation and memory studies.

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