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5.4: Language in the Physical, Business and digital Worlds

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    This third part of the chapter will enable you to comprehend the uses of language across different environments. Three major questions are addressed in this section:

    1. How is language used to indicate place in the physical landscape?
    2. How is language exploited for the purpose of advertising products and services?
    3. How is language employed in the digital world to connect multiple senders and recipients in diverse techno formats?

    5.4.1 Language and Place Names

    The names people give to their physical environment provide a unique source of information about cultural character of various social groups. Place names often reveal the history, beliefs and values of a society. Toponymy is the study of place names, and the names people assign to specific geographic sites offer us the opportunity to recognize a country’s settlement history, important features of the landscape, famous personalities, and local allusion to distant places and times. Place names can change overnight, often depending of political factors and social considerations. The change of Burma to

    Myanmar and Zaire to Congo are two recent example of changes due to political developments. In the United States, interest in changing the names of places associated with Civil War heroes from the South is an on-going effort, at times with dramatic confrontations between different social groups.

    Toponyms provide us with valuable geographic insights about such matters as where did the settlers come from, who settled and populated the area, and what language did the early settlers speak. Many of the place names found in the United States can be classified in terms of the following major categories:

    • natural landscape features (hills/mountains, rivers, valleys, deserts, coastline)

      Hollywood Hills, Blue Ridge Mountains, Chattahoochee River, Rio Grande, San Fernando Valley, Monument Valley, Mohave Desert, Biscayne Bay,

    • urbanized areas (cities, towns, and streets)

      Williamsburg, VA; Lawrenceville, GA; Chattanooga, TN; New Iberia, LA; Buford Highway, GA; Martin Luther King, Jr. Drive, Ponce de Leon Avenue

    • directional place names (East, North, South, West)

      North & South Dakota, West Virginia, North & South Carolina, South Texas

    • religious significant names (saints, Biblical names)

      San Antonio, Santa Fe, St. Louis, Sacramento, Santa Barbara, Los Angeles; Bethany, AK; Canaan, VT; Jericho, IA; Shiloh, OK

    • explorers and colonizers (French, English, Spanish, Dutch setters

      Columbus, OH; Coronado, CA; Balboa Park (San Diego), CA; Cadillac,MI; Hudson, NY; Bronx, NY; Raleigh, NC; Henrico County, VA

    • famous persons (presidents, politicians, Native Americans)

      Lincoln, NE; Mount McKinley, WA; Austin, TX; Washington, D. C.; Jackson, MS; Tuscaloosa, AL; Pensacola, FL; Arizona, Mississippi, Utah

    • culturally based names (immigrant’s homeland, famous locations

      New Orleans; New Mexico; New Amsterdam, NY; Troy, NY; Rome, GA; Oxford, MS; Athens, GA; Birmingham, AL; Toledo, OH

    • business oriented names (wealthy individuals, politicians, corporate sponsors)

      Sears Tower, Wrigley Stadium, Trump Towers, Gwinnett County, Dolby Theater, Verizon Center, Sun Trust Park

    A classification scheme proposed by George Stewart (1982) focuses on ten basic themes which dominate North American toponyms. These include the following categories: descriptive (Rocky Mountains), associative (Mill Valley, CA), commemorative (San Diego, CA), commendatory (Paradise Valley, AZ), incidents (Battle Creek, MI), possession (Johnson City, TX), folk (Plains, GA), manufactured (Truth or Consequences, NM), mistakes (Lasker, NC), and location shift (Lancaster, PA).

    5.4.2 Language and the Discourse of Advertising

    Commercial advertisement occupies a noticeable expanse in the cultural landscape. An individual text (use and arrangement of specific language forms) is designed to promote or sell a product within a social context. A commercial text may be accompanied by music and visual depictions. The text may also be accompanied by paralanguage features of oral language (gestures, voice quality, facial expressions) and written language (choice of typeface, letter sizes, range of colors).

    The advertisement itself brings up several of discourse concerns: Who (seller) is communicating with Whom (consumer) and Why (inform/convince/persuade about the product’ importance/usefulness/ uniqueness)? The participants in the discourse may include various message senders/participants: the actor/s in the TV commercial along with the supporting role of the advertising agency and the studio production staff. The receivers may be a specific target group or anyone who sees the advertisement.

    Highway billboards, store signs and product advertisements provide a visual representation of commercial language use in a community. Most billboard structures are located on public spaces and display advertisements to passing motorists and pedestrians. They can also be placed in other locations where there are many viewers (mass transit stations, shopping malls, office buildings and sports’ stadiums). Some billboards may be static, while others may change continuously or rotate periodically with different advertisements. In addition, there are product promotions within a retail store, which often involve product placements at the end of aisles and near checkout counters.

    Novelty ads can appear on small tangible items such as coffee mugs, t-shirts, pens and shopping bags. They can be distributed directly by the advertiser or as part of cross-product promotion campaigns. Advertisers use the popularity of cultural celebrities in the worlds of sports, music and entertainment to promote their products. Even aircrafts, balloons and skywriting are used as moveable means to display advertisements.

    Store signs and highway billboards can be viewed as a visual language trail, stretching point A to point B on highway X in a specific geographic area. Depending on the population characteristics of a location, diverse forms of advertisement are used to convince the customer that a company’s services or products are the best in quality and price, most useful and socially desired. A drive through various roads and highways across Gwinnett County Georgia, for example, might indicate how advertisers respond to the diverse population characteristics.

    Ethnolinguistic Diversity in Gwinnett County Georgia11

    The American Community Survey, aggregate data, 5-year summary file, 2006 to 2010, provides the following profile of ethnolinguistic diversity.

    Language in Use

    Ages 5 years and Above

    Percentage of Population




    All languages other than English















    African languages












    Other Indo-European languages






    Other Asian languages









    French Creole















    Mon-Khmer, Cambodian






    Other Slavic languages






    Other Pacific Island languages












    Other West Germanic languages






    Some important questions regarding language use can be addressed within this multilingual context.

    • What type of products are marketed to different ethnolinguistic communities?
    • What type of services are advertised to different ethnolinguistic communities?
    • What type of products are marketed bilingually or in the language of the ethnolinguistic community?
    • What type of services are advertised bilingually or in the language of the ethnolinguistic community?

    The visual content and design of an advertisement aimed to draw attention to a specific product might focus on customer needs such items as food, clothing, furniture, restaurants, home and garden, cosmetics and beauty care, automaintenance, fitness and recreation, travel and hotels, communication and computers. The advertising style for product promotion often tends to be laudatory, positive and emphasizing the uniqueness. The vocabulary is usually vivid and concrete, involving play-on-words and commercial slogans in some cases. Ads rely primarily on language, and it is the visual content and design that creates an interest in the product and persuades people buy it.

    The advertisement of services for the general population and targeted ethnolinguistic communities might encompass health services (doctors, dentists, hospital and emergency care), financial institutions (banks, credit unions, home and car loans, bail bonds), legal services (lawyers, notary public, public defenders) and community resources (schools, libraries, museums, parks). Customer needs usually dictate what services are available in a specific geographic area. Interest in niche marketing or ads targeted to a specific social group represents the strong relationship that exist between cultural and technological changes in contemporary US society.

    5.4.3 Language and the Digital World

    Social media are computer-mediated technologies which allows multiple senders and receivers to create and share information, ideas, career interests and other forms of expression via virtual communities and communication networks. Social media use relies on web-based technologies such as desktop computers, smartphones and tablet computers to create highly interactive formats which allow individuals, communities and organizations the possibility to share, co-create, discuss diverse topics and comment on content previously posted online. Social media allows for mass cultural exchanges and intercultural communication among people from different regions of the world.

    The term social media is often used to indicate that many senders and receivers can communicate almost simultaneously across space and time. At the same time, the term social media is used to mean social networks (relationships and contacts among many individuals). If one is using the term to mean social networks (who interacts with whom in the linguistic community), then the researcher can “observe” and document the interactional patterns or the researcher can “interview” the participants to determine the type of social networks. Social networks, from asociolinguistic perspective, can be differentiated on the basis of whether they are “dense” or “loose”. In dense networks all members know each other. In loose networks not all members know each other. Networks can also be distinguished with the quality of ties (connections) that exist among the members. In uniplex ties, individuals are connected by one type of relationship (participate in the same swim club, take same courses at a college, work in the same business). In multiplex ties, members know each other in several different roles (student/friend/classmate; parent/co-worker/neighbor).

    The term social media is usually associated with different networking sites such as the following:

    • Facebook, an online social network which allows users to create personal profiles, share photos and videos and communicate with other users.
    • Twitter, an internet service that allows users to post “tweets” (brief messages totaling 140 characters) for their followers to see in real-time.
    • LinkedIn, a network designed for the business community allowing users to create professional profiles, post resumes, and communicate with other professionals and job-seekers.
    • Pinterest, an online network that allows users to send photos of items found in the web by“pinning” them and sharing comments with others in the virtual community.
    • Snapchat, an application on mobile devices that allows users to send and share photos of themselves performing daily activities.12

    Social media takes many other forms including blogs, forums, product/services reviews and social gaming and video sharing. The social networking world has changed the way individuals and organizations use language to communicate with each other. Research findings indicate the significant impact that social media is having on society in the United States and elsewhere.

    • Nearly 80 percent of American adults are online and nearly 60 percent of them use social media.
    • Among the adolescent population, 84 percent have a Facebook account.
    • Over 60 percent of 13 to 17-year-olds have at least one profile on social media, with some spending more than two hours a day on social network sites.
    • Internet users spend more time on social media sites than any other type of web-based sites. The use from July 2011 (66 billion minutes) to July 2012 (121 billion minutes) represents a 99 percent increase.
    • Young adults, some 33 percent, get their news from social media.
    • More than half (52 percent) of internet users use two or more social media sites to communicate with their friends and family.
    • In the United States, 81 percent of users look online to get news about the weather, 53 percent for national news, 52 percent for sports news, and 41 percent for entertainment or celebrity news.13

    There are both positive and negative effects associated with social media. The positive effects include the ability to document memories, learn about and explore different topics, advertise oneself and form many friendships. On the negative side, social media often invades on personal privacy, fosters information overload, promotes isolation, affects users’ self-esteem and creates the possibility for online harassment and cyberbullying.

    Mapping actual language use in the context of the digital world is problematic. It is a complex communication universe. Unlike the geography of place names and the discourse of advertisement, social networking occurs in a virtual environment, involving many senders/receivers and different computer-mediated technologies. Data “mining” is a technique employed to analyze large-scale social media data fields to establish general patterns regarding the content/topics that emerge from people’s actual online activities. Usage patterns in social media interest many advertisers, major businesses, government organizations and political parties. Research methods from the social sciences have been used to establish user’s activities with different types of social media technologies. These include pencil-and-paper questionnaires, individual/group oral interviews and focus group sessions. These methods involve language-driven interactions with a limited number of users who may or may not reveal their actual social media patterns of behavior.

    This page titled 5.4: Language in the Physical, Business and digital Worlds is shared under a CC BY 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by David Dorrel & Joseph P. Henderson (University of North Georgia Press) via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.