New York City’s Linguistic Landscape — Jiading Zhu

The United States of American has one of the most racially and ethnically diverse population. The languages used in the United States is even more complex, so complex that there is actually no official language in the United States at the federal level. The linguistic landscape in New York City is especially interesting because linguistic landscapes are so different in different areas of the city. The symbolic force of the Chinese signage is well seen in New York City’s Chinatown but rarely seen elsewhere.

Wandering around central Manhattan, it is very hard to see languages besides English used in signs and advertisements. There are several exceptions of Japanese restaurants displaying the store name in Japanese, but English would most definitely be used in the menus and inside of the stores. New York City is a melting pot of all races, ethnicities, and languages and English, as a global language, serves as the best and safest option when it comes choosing what language to be displayed on signs. It would be very hard, if not impossible, to find a store in central Manhattan that has absolutely no English anywhere.

Figure 1. Japanese Restaurant on Lexington Ave

New York City’s Chinatown, located in lower Manhattan, is a different story. In Chinatown, even American businesses translate their names directly into Chinese and display the companies’ names only in Chinese. On the contrast, these companies display their names only in English or bilingually in mainland China where there are way more Chinese language speakers.

Figure 2. Band of America in Chinatown, name written in traditional Chinese

It is not only the written language itself that shows the importance of Chinese in New York City’s Chinatown’s linguistic landscape. Oral discourse and cultural representations all contribute to making NYC’s Chinatown’s linguistic landscape unique. Like it was proposed in the article by Leeman & Modan that “LL research would be well-served by a rethinking of the concept of the landscape itself, based on the way the term is used in cultural geography”. It is especially true that “landscapes are characterized as representations of spaces that privilege particular subject positions and points of view”.

In Chinatown, Chinese culture can be seen everywhere. From Buddhism and Taoism architectures to KTVs and Chinese Casinos, Chinatown is filled with Chinese elements in every aspect. Chinatown’s signage shows widespread use of the Chinese language and the deep root of Chinese culture. It is this representation that makes New York City’s linguistic landscape even more divided. The Chinese culture in the U.S. is mostly seen in Chinatowns but not in other places. One reason for that is because of the great distinction between western and eastern culture. Chinese culture cannot mix and blend into the American ones. This contrast between American and Chinese culture constitute one of the biggest reasons why the linguistic landscape in Chinatown and other areas of New York are so different.

Figure 3. Taoism architecture is Chinatown

Figure 4. Buddhism Temple in Chinatown with a Chinese Casino Advertisement on top

Figure 5 (top picture) is from the article, it is the On Leong Merchants Association (Washington DC), 1935.
Figure 6 (bottom picture) is On Leong Merchants Association today (New York), 2019.

Overall, the linguistic landscape in New York City is very divided. In central Manhattan, the linguistic landscape is represented by the domination of English while in the Chinatown, symbolic force of the Chinese signage is well recognized. New York City is one of the most diverse cities in terms of language, races, and cultures. It is very interesting to see how different linguistic landscapes develop in NYC with a combination of both mixtures and separations.



Leeman, Jennifer, and Gabriella Modan. “Commodified Language in Chinatown: A Contextualized Approach to Linguistic landscape1.” Journal of Sociolinguistics, vol. 13, no. 3, 2009, pp. 332–362., doi:10.1111/j.1467-9841.2009.00409.x.

“Languages of the United States.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 25 June 2019,

“Race and Ethnicity in the United States.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 21 June 2019,

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