Having started his academic career as a folklorist, Professor Kallen—who went on to spend 39 years teaching and researching in the field of linguistics—considers language in its widest context and application.  Language is “not just something you write down. It's not just grammar (although I really do love grammar!). It’s discourse. It’s speech. There is so much in the linguistic landscape which isn’t purely language.”

His new book Linguistic Landscapes: A Sociolinguistic Approach (2023) demonstrates his pioneering work in this field and has been praised as “a volume reflecting great care and passion for language.”

In this ‘Publication in Focus’, Professor Kallen recounts how he researched his case studies for his new book and the many factors impacting on how language is used in our communities and how it is influenced by globalization.


In 2017, Professor Kallen was awarded funding from the Trinity Long Room Hub’s Research Incentive Scheme to carry out a field investigation as part of his project to document linguistic landscapes. These case studies in North America feature in his new book and show why this research “relies on direct observation on language in use in public space.”

“North America has a certain attraction because there's been a lot of immigration”, says Professor Kallen, who as part of his fieldwork travelled to Astoria (in the New York City borough of Queens), Montreal, and Albany, NY, with a view to focusing on some new “linguistically diverse” geographical areas, which show both historical and recent immigration.

Astoria claims to be “the most multilingual district in the world”, he says. “It has attracted immigrants for a very long time and continues to do so.”

In the book, Professor Kallen looks at Greekness as a significant feature of the linguistic landscape of Astoria. He compares this linguistic community with that of the Greektown district of Chicago, two long-standing Greek communities in the US. Here he discusses the use of mural art, the colours, bilingualism and ancient Greek art and mythology which are all in play in the linguistic landscape of these places.

Indexing Greekness colour webpicture

Indexing Greekness (Astoria, 2017)                           Signs of protest –Cosecha march (Albany, 2017)

Montreal was also high on Professor Kallen’s case study list, because of French Canadian language policy which, he notes, has informed many international debates around language rights—including the right to display languages in public. 

“You can get into trouble. Getting the French and the other language in the wrong order…there’s lots of very strong policy there.” He adds that “a lot of ingenuity in Canada can actually go into ways of playing with the language policy, doing things that are possibly a bit naughty, but also eye catching.”

Finally, Professor Kallen decided to go to Albany, New York, to conduct research in a place that is not as well known for current migration. It was originally settled by the Dutch, and he was curious to see “what remnants you can find of the Dutch heritage. You might find that in street names. You might see that in different places.”

These are three locations, explains Professor Kallen, that demonstrate very different perspectives on what you can do with language in public settings, something which is underscored vividly by the images that feature in his new book.  

Ireland’s linguistic landscapes

Professor Kallen’s research also addresses the implications of Ireland’s language policy and culture. Many of the photographs featured in the book come from Ireland, with particular affinity for Galway, Belfast and Dublin, where he has lived since 1979. “Because of the importance which I attach to first-hand observation, the selection of photographic data is weighted towards those places I know best. Naturally, Ireland has loomed largest in my sights.”  

Professor Kallen has previously published on themes that connect Ireland’s linguistic landscape to tourism, immigration, globalization, and minority language use. He has also done a lot of work on the Northern Ireland border and border communities as outlined in one of his chapters on ‘People’ which looks at ‘The Village Model: Kilkeel and Warrenpoint.’

“If you go to Warrenpoint or Kilkeel, the linguistic landscapes are absolutely different. Warrenpoint has a clear Catholic majority. Kilkeel has a Catholic population too (according to the 2011 census Catholics make up 41 per cent of the town), but they're not in the majority.”

In the book Professor Kallen writes that the signage would have you believe that in Kilkeel “there is no population with affiliations to Irish (thus erasing what may be a substantial minority of the population), while the LL in Warrenpoint portrays Irish language as a community language.” The overall impact he notes, is that social hierarchies are entrenched.

Cross-border trains colour

Signs in Kilkeel and Warrenpoint

Cross-border train notices                                                                         Contrasting LL units in Kilkeel (2014) and Warrenpoint (2012)

“Here, we've got two different villages. They're not far from each other, but they look really, really different. And the numbers will show that. As well as the photographs.”

The linguist says he has plenty of material to study in Ireland on a daily basis, as a bi-lingual country with a new influx of immigrants in recent years. Alongside shop signs and street signs, there are other visual cues which bring new languages to our attention. “Something that interested me was just here in Dublin. If you look at the cigarette packs thrown on the ground, there are quite a wide range of languages and to my mind, that signifies movement of people. It’s happening a lot more than it used to because people are on the move. The things with them are on the move.”

Through the book, we are also reminded of how the linguistic landscape plays out in literature with Professor Kallen citing Bloom’s morning walk as he encounters and deliberates over Dublin street names and advertisements in a passage from James Joyce’s Ulysses.

Pioneering research

A pioneer in this emerging field of research on linguistic landscapes, Professor Kallen says there’s “no standard methodology” for what he does. One thing that is clear from the book is that the public display of written text is not “simply a piece of metal with words and images on it” but “a dynamic part of culture and society”.

Alluding to antiquity and the “many visual inscriptions made by humans before the advent of writing”, the linguistic landscape is not a new phenomenon, writes Professor Kallen, but demonstrates a “continuous flow of change” in the world of public discourse. As noted by Professor Kallen in a chapter on ‘The Linguistic Landscape as Discourse’, “it would be impossible to understand the dynamics of the LL without taking into account the everyday impressions that LL units make on sign viewers and the ways in which viewers engage with those impressions.”

Professor Kallen suggests that the formation of the public space is influenced heavily by the “capacity of writing to make language accessible across time and space”, or as one book reviewer describes it “the life of language in society.”

Discourse on the Lennon wall LondonBook cover of Linguistic Landscapes by Jeffrey Kallen

Discourse on the ‘Lennon Wall’ (London 2019)

A multi-disciplinary approach is explored in the book—taking in design, art history and social history—because many signs use visual cues, and some contain no written language. Researchers in this instance must take account of “layout, typography, use of colour, physical placement, and visual imagery…”, says Professor Kallen, something which makes a simple counting exercise “very difficult.”

The book includes 100 illustrations, and photographs from locations in Europe and from other parts of the world, almost all of which he has taken himself. “I tried to make it as global as I could yet I restrained myself to places I’d actually been myself.” “There’s that issue of trust, of knowledge, I have to see the place myself.”

“I want to see it. I want to experience it. I want to be able to tell you about it.”

Linguistic Landscapes: A Sociolinguistic Approach is published by Cambridge University Press.

Jeffrey L. Kallen is a Fellow Emeritus of Trinity College Dublin. He has written extensively on the English language in Ireland, including Irish English Volume 2: The Republic of Ireland (2013) and Focus on Ireland (1997), and co-directs the International Corpus of English (ICE) project for Ireland.

All images © Jeffrey Kallen