Tourism and sociolinguistics

Guidebooks and tourist information have recently become the focus of attention by researchers in areas such as media studies, communication and linguistics. I was reminded of this when I picked up a pamphlet on Brasov, a city in Romania where I attended a Conference.   Unlike most such tourist guides, this one was full of disconcertingly honest and even negatively blunt statements about aspects of this city – which my hosts by contrast described as “the beautiful cultural capital” of Romania.

After disparaging Bucharest as not worth a visit, the guide describes the journey to Brasov as follows: “Unfortunately since there is no motorway, it takes even the most lunatic of drivers two and a half hours to make the (167 kilometre) trip”. It then describes the alternative train trip including the information that “Brasov’s railway station is only partly the usual Eastern European shambles. While it offers all your favourite features, such as drunks, tramps, thieves and damp, dingy underpasses, it could be a lot worse”. This is a far cry from the standard descriptions of most tourist pamphlets which are typically crammed with effusive adjectives and reassurances that this will be the experience of a lifetime.

I was intrigued enough by this unusually frank style to do some reading on the discourse of tourism. Research in this area is both interdisciplinary and eclectic, ranging from globally oriented inflight magazines through TV travelogues to comic postcards.

One theme which struck a chord was the tension between the economic advantages of attracting tourists and resentment that they do not always respect or understand local values and traditions. I remember feeling something between amusement and dismay when I saw a group of Japanese tourists being shepherded up a short track on Ruapehu marked out with pink ribbons so that they could view a scene from Middle Earth – the famous Pinnacles. They seemed totally unaware of the fact that it was perfectly acceptable to walk almost anywhere on the mountain as long as they didn’t damage the flora.

From a linguistic perspective, this research area includes interesting discussion of the ways in which discourse (and images) contribute to myth-making and to tourists’ choreographing of their travels. When we write a blog, a diary, or even a postcard, we present a particular view of our travel experiences which is often as romantic and idealised as any traditional travel brochure.

Postcards are another component of our holiday myth-making. A British linguist, Chris Kennedy, undertook a corpus analysis of 100 postcards sent by and to young people. He found that the range of adjectives slotted into patterns such as Having a _____ time! was remarkably constrained. Great was by far the most common epithet, and the other words which occurred frequently were totally predictable; they included lovely, good, nice, beautiful and brill(iant). Negative comments were very rare: eg. weather has been a bit dodgy but we are being very brave, weather is awful but food makes up for it. In general, anything negative was immediately countered with a positive: eg so hot but not humid, and dreadful journey was followed by a description of the contrasting wonderful holiday location. My favourite was may not be paradise on earth but it beats Bradford any day,    And some comments were interestingly suggestive: eg. we haven’t argued yet; I haven’t misbehaved.

Another researcher, Camille O’Reilly, found that people had strong views about the appropriate labels given to those who travelled to other places, making fine distinctions between a tourist, a traveller, and a back packer. A number of the contributors argued that whereas a tourist was just a visitor or on holiday, a traveller is more adventurous. One particularly eloquent respondent suggested that a traveller “is instinctive, perceptive, open, a truth seeker, curious, independent minded and unafraid of changes” whereas a tourist is just “a narrow-minded list maker!” And finally perhaps the most amusing set of definitions: a tourist “tries to see lots of things in a short time”; a traveller “tries to see lots of things in a long period of time”, while a backpacker “doesn’t care what s/he sees as long as they never have to go home”.

And a sociolinguist enjoys all travel, short or long, because there is always so much of interest to reflect on.

Janet Holmes

Janet Holmes is Emeritus Professor in Linguistics at Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand and a Fellow of the Royal Society of New Zealand. She is Director of the Wellington Language in the Workplace project, an ongoing study of communication in the workplace which has described small talk, humour, management strategies, directives, and leadership in a wide range of New Zealand workplaces.

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