Linguistic Landscape Graz

Linguistic Landscape Graz

A city speaks 150 languages

Graz is known to be UNESCO World Heritage, City of Human Rights, Capital of Culture and Delight and – as of 2011 – City of Design. However, most people are unfamiliar with Graz’s role as “City of Languages”: An impressive 150 different languages are used in Graz!

Multilingualism is a gift: By exploring linguistic landscapes, one realizes that linguistic diversity is of great value – both for the individual as well as for society as a whole.

The exhibition Sprachenlandschaft Graz. Eine Stadt spricht 150 Sprachen (Linguistic Landscape Graz. A city speaks 150 languages) is a cooperation of the Akademie Graz, treffpunkt sprachen/ Plurilingualism Research Unit and the association [spiːk]. Open to the public in the autumn of 2011 at the City Museum Graz, it was the first of its kind to explore the linguistic landscape of the city of Graz. The documentation was based on results from the research project Multilingual Graz by treffpunkt sprachen / Plurilingualism Research Unit of the University of Graz. The creative agency perpetuum developed a professional design concept for the exhibit: Featuring the use of different media, the path through the museum’s foyer became interactive and was among the highlights of Styrian exhibitions in the fall of 2011.

Art contributions included the following works: Danica Dakić (D/BH), Lullaby of the Earth, Klanginstallation am Mursteg; Delain Le Bas (GB), „I AM NOT A TOURIST I LIVE HERE“; Karin Lernbeiß (A), photographic documentation of Linguistic Landscape Graz; Christof Neugebauer (A), Shaking Hands, interactive sound installation at the City Museum Graz; Josef Wurm (A), o.T.

Selected works from the exhibition

Sprachenlandschaft Graz
FOTO: Marcus Wiesner

Despite being a reality in Graz, linguistic and cultural diversity are barely visible in urban public spaces. Many still consider diversity a danger to local culture and heritage instead of regarding it as an asset. This fear is unwarranted, as German is and shall remain our shared language in everyday life as well as administration. Our goal is merely the appreciation of diversity; a positive attitude when working with diversity is an investment in our future. Implementing this change requires that the presence of different languages in public spaces is normalized. Ignorance concerning the diverse linguistic and cultural background of people not only concerns migrants but also highly qualified key workers who – as a consequence of this ignorance – feel uneasy in this city. Explicit political actions are called for to promote a positive approach towards Graz’s diversity and put a stop to ignorance and xenophobia.

Sprachenlandschaft Graz

Linguistic landscapes

What languages are used in the city? What languages are visible in public spaces? These questions are addressed in linguistic landscape research. This field also considers urban spaces such as Graz a linguistic landscape. This landscape comes into being when different languages in a city are visible, for instance on signs, banners, forms and documents or graffiti.

At the same time, linguistic landscapes also reflect co-existing majority and minority groups. Languages in urban spaces can vary in their degree of visibility. Some languages exhibit a strong presence. This indicates that they are well integrated – both institutionally and demographically.

Through the examination of linguistic landscapes, demands concerning language policies arise as well. Although nearly 150 languages are used in Graz, most languages other than German are barely visible.

Sprachenlandschaft Graz
FOTO: Karin Lernbeiß

Our everyday life is multilingual …

Although we usually don’t notice, multilingualism is already part of our everyday life. Whether it be media, free time activities or consumer goods – we come into contact with different languages everywhere.

The internationalization of trade and consumerism means that the same product is available to customers in different language areas. We don’t even give a second thought to the instruction manuals, whose thickness is owed to the fact that they include a variety of languages, or the wash instructions on our new sweater that include over ten different languages.

We only get sensitive when multilingualism becomes symbolic. Then, the presence of languages other than German unsettles us. A milk carton that also includes the Turkish word for milk is suddenly seen as a threat because we suspect that it may include political claims, rather than mere information.

Sprachenlandschaft Graz

What is plurilingualism?

With “plurilingualismus”, we mean multilingualism in an individual. Multilingual people use different languages according to the situations they are in. For this definition, it is not relevant whether they are actually proficient in these languages.

Our term “multilingualismus” concerns the multilingualism of communities. Members of these communities may then be monolingual or plurilingual (as defined above).

Sprachenlandschaft Graz

How do languages differ from dialects?

Contrary to popular belief, writing systems, standardization and mutual intelligibility do not constitute universally valid criteria for distinguishing languages from dialects: Languages like Russian and Ukrainian are mutually intelligible; conversely, some dialects such as Low German and Alemannic are not.

Whether something is labelled a language, or a dialect depends on historical as well as political factors. Idioms that are used within a particular state are usually considered dialects, e.g. in China.

On the other hand, many nations insist on describing their varieties as different languages, even if they share many similarities. This concerns, for example, Serbian and Croatian.

Sprachenlandschaft Graz

Monolingualism is the exception.

Every language encompasses an abundance of cultural encounters. Our modern-day languages are the result of past language mixing. Languages are constantly in motion; therefore, drawing exact lines between them is impossible.

Yet, Europe has traditionally held some reservations when confronted with multilingualism. This stance has its roots in the historical demand that each nation should strive for ethnic, cultural and linguistic unity. This demand ultimately resulted in the greatest acts of violence of the 20th century, committed in the name of “ethnic cleansing”. Particularly in Western Europe, the notion of a monolingual nation is still considered natural.

From an international viewpoint, however, societies are by default multilingual. In many regions of the world there were long phases of stable multilingualism, in which a number of local languages co-existed with a trans-regional lingua franca.

Perhaps the concept of Regions of Europe will lead to a new model of cultural and linguistic diversity in Europe.

Sprachenlandschaft Graz


The exhibition was a great success. In the six weeks it ran, over 5,500 people visited the exhibition – among them many school classes. The overwhelmingly positive feedback demonstrated that a policy of diversity clearly meets with the population’s approval.

“Diversity is a revolutionary asset and will not be punished, as suggested by the legend of Babel, but rewarded. Earth is home of the many and of diversity.” [Quote by Peter Weibel, taken from his text for the exhibition]

We are looking forward to showing the exhibition “Linguistic landscape Graz” again in 2012, as part of the language bus tour through Graz, as well as adapting it to a format in which it can function as a traveling exhibition for schools.


An exhibition by Akademie Graz, treffpunkt sprachen / Plurilingualism Research Unit of the University of Graz and the association [spiːk]

Curators: Barbara Schrammel-Leber and Astrid Kury. Research assistant: Daniel Lorenz

Conception and implementation: Judith Huber and Enrico Barth − perpetuum. Graphic design: Georg Liebergesell

Texts: Astrid Kury, Barbara Schrammel-Leber, in cooperation with Joachim Hainzl, Daniel Lorenz, Elisa Rosegger-Purkrabek and Jakob Wiedner

In cooperation with: stadtmuseumgraz, steirischer herbst, the association „Europäisches Fremdsprachenzentrum in Österreich“, Österreichisches Sprachen-Kompetenz-Zentrum, Pädagogische Hochschule Steiermark, Radio Helsinki

We kindly thank for the support by: Europäischer Tag der Sprachen/bmukk, Integrationslandesrätin Bettina Vollath, Holding Graz - Kommunale Dienstleistungen GmbH, Österreichische Gesellschaft für politische Bildung, Europe direct/Land Steiermark, Holding Graz Bestattung, Energie Graz, AVL List GmbH, Shopping City Seiersberg, Grazer Wechselseitige Versicherung AG, Kulturabteilung Land Steiermark, Stadt Graz Kultur/Wissenschaft/Tourismus, Industriellenvereinigung Steiermark

Further project materials

Project related pictures