Multimodal, multidimensional, multilingual: an approach to product packaging - with speaker Mark Sebba (MOSAIC Seminar)

Room 224, School of Education (Building R19)
Wednesday 27 February 2019 (16:00-17:30)

Dr Elizabeth Chilton

Dr Mark Sebba

MOSAIC Group for Research on Multilingualism seminar series 2019

Multimodal, multidimensional, multilingual: an approach to product packaging 

With speaker Dr Mark Sebba, Reader in Sociolinguistics & Language Contact, Lancaster University


Packaging of common household items such as foods, drinks and pharmaceutical products is a large part of the textual landscape of homes and shops almost everywhere.  Multilingual packaging is especially common in countries which are officially bi- or multilingual, where it may be a legal requirement; but packaging with text in multiple languages, appealing to supranational or global communities of users is common elsewhere as well. 

This talk will provide a preliminary theory and analysis of multilingual product packaging, approaching it from two perspectives: multimodality, where texts function both as language and as images, with semiotic interactions between the two; and multidimensionality, where product packages are analysed as three-dimensional objects (in contrast with two-dimensional signage, for example). Three-dimensional space allows for interpretations such as 'front' , 'back', 'top', 'base' of containers. These interpretations are often produced through text and image, and may be linked to particular languages in a specific context ('English on the front', 'Afrikaans on the back').

The talk is based on observations of multilingual packaging of products in everyday use, including packaging designed for three types of market: officially bilingual countries, multilingual countries and multilingual international markets.

Three-dimensional space and geometrical relations, it is argued, are typically used to represent informational hierarchies (marketing messages on the front, safety warnings on the back) but also can represent sociolinguistic hierarchies (e.g. most important language on the front, less important on the side or base).  Alternatively, symmetry and space may be used as visual metaphors to establish languages as equal, avoiding or negating such hierarchies. This strategy is typical in countries where there is official equality between languages. Where products are packaged for an international market, more diverse and complex arrangements of language and text are found.

All are welcome at this free event but would you please register online.


Mark Sebba is Reader in Sociolinguistics and Language Contact at Lancaster University. His earlier work was mostly in the area of pidgin and creole languages and in the analysis of conversational code switching in bilingual communities, in particular the Caribbean community in London - work published in 1993 as London Jamaican: Language Systems in Interaction. More recently he became interested in the Sociolinguistics of Orthography, a relatively unexplored field which examines the cultural and social aspects of spelling and writing systems. His most recent interest is in written bilingual and multilingual texts - magazines, websites, signs and other texts which contain a mixture of languages and which cannot be analysed using the methods applied to spoken code-switching. This area is linked to the study of Linguistic Landscapes, another field which interests him. In the past few years he has been researching the way language questions are asked in population censuses, and has published several papers relating to the most recent census in the United Kingdom. 

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