This picture was taken in the Forbidden City, Beijing in 2009 one year after the Beijing Olympics. In the context of the Olympics, the Chinese Government had embarked on a massive ‘language cleaning’ campaign in which most examples of ‘strange’ English were removed from public places. Yet, this fire extinguisher box remained in the Forbidden City, side by side with corrected ones.
What we see in this example is straightforward: we see accent, the influence of one language (Mandarin Chinese) on a second one (English). But we see accent in writing, while accent is usually identified in spoken language. Here, we see that the writing conventions of one language do affect those of another language when that second language enters into the repertoire of users.
This example illustrates a broader issue as well. In the context of globalization, languages and scripts move across the globe, and wherever they emerge they display intricate contact features (‘accents’) from the languages and scripts already present. The example here illustrates an early stage of adoption of a second language and script: the Chinese sign writers do not yet have visual and graphic templates for the organization of the English symbols. They therefore adopt their existing, character-based templates for writing the English words. The typographic error in the English words supports this analysis: English is not yet a language well known to the manufacturers of the sign. It is just a graphic image that needs to be neatly organized on a surface. English is not yet part of the local repertoires of the people using it; it has only just arrived in their orbit.
© Sjaak Kroon, Dong Jie, Jan Blommaert