Bilingual signs in the Hermitage: Politeness for all?

2016-12-14-16-51-31I am back in Saint Petersburg, visiting my parents for the holidays. Among the many things we have planned to do during my stay was an obligatory visit to the State Hermitage Museum. This museum is truly a jewel in the tourist crown of the city, one of the oldest and most renowned art collections in the world.

Naturally, it is visited by thousands upon thousands of tourists from all over the world.

Naturally, there are a lot of signs in the (perceived) global lingua franca that is English. <– there will be another post on the increased number of commercial signage in Mandarin in the centre of the city.

In any case.

Here we have a sign in the ladies’ washroom. It is written in two languages, Russian and English. The message is pretty straightforward: the plumbing system old and overflowing, no paper should be thrown into the toilet. Ok.

However, a bilingual reader will notice (and someone actually did, hence the question marks in white) that the way the message is delivered is very different in the two languages. The English version reads as a more polite request, adorned with please and thank you. The visitors to the museum are addressed as dear guests. In Russian the visitors are just visitors (посетители). There is not a single please or thank you used, so – while the sign  still reads as a request (not demand) – it is significantly less polite.

There are many studies on linguistic landscape that examine the conflicting role of various languages used in public signage (one of my favourites is Language Conflict in Post-Soviet Linguistic Landscapes by Aneta Pavlenko). So I am pretty sure that colleagues who work on this topic have already written extensively on how different phrasing in different languages constructs the readers and the context of communication. So no deep analysis from me. All I wanted to say is that as a bilingual reader, a native Russian speaker, and a sociologist  I found this sign irritating, confusing but also entertaining enough to snap a photo and share with my friends.

Also, it’s a shame that one of the largest museums in the world can’t figure out how to (or doesn’t bother to) make their bathroom signs consistent.




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