Nina’s derrière

MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERANina’s Derrière is the name of a very expensive chocolate shop in a department store in Central Tokyo. The picture was taken in August 2004, and it documented the emergence of French as a language of prestige in Tokyo.

The example reveals a major point: ‘language’ is not always ‘language’. Nina’s Derrière – Nina’s Bum – is a dramatic misnomer for a chocolate shop. Imagine offering someone chocolate with the words “I got this from Nina’s Bum”. So in all likelihood, the French word ‘derrière’ does not function as a linguistic sign. It is not there to say “this is Nina’s Bum”. Instead, it functions as an emblematic sign: rather than ‘French’, it stands for ‘Frenchness’, the complex of symbolic associations of French with extreme sophistication, European chic and exclusiveness. The lettering of the word ‘derrière’ contributes to this symbolic density: we recognize the graphic image of signatures on impressionist paintings, pointing towards images of the Belle Epoque, often attached to Paris.

Taking one step back, this example teaches us that when languages travel – as French does here, ‘to’ Tokyo – their shape remains identical but their functions can fundamentally change. Here, the ‘French’ used in this sign stops being a language and has become a visual emblem triggering images of ‘Frenchness’. Mobility affects language in a profound way.

© Jan Blommaert