This weeks LRDG talk will be by Mark Sebba, who will talk about: Multimodal, multidimensional, multilingual: an approach to product packaging


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 paper 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 paper 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.

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