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The Language Of Shop Signs English Language Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Language
Wordcount: 5425 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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In the present study, the linguistic landscape will be established as a field of sociolinguistic inquiry. The focus will be on one aspect of urban language contact on written medium: the language of Tunisian shop signs. This paper will also examine the effect of such practice on young Tunisian people. The broad objective is to investigate the current status of English in relation and in contrast with French and Tunisian Arabic.

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1.2. Background

Many studies have been conducted to investigate the use of foreign languages on private shop signs and displays (Dimova, 2007; Hasnova, 2010; McArthur, 2000; Stewart and Fawcett, 2004; Schlick, 2002). McArthur (2000) examined this sociolinguistic practice in Sweden and Switzerland, Stewart and Fawcett (2004) in northern Portugal, McGregor (2003) in Japan. Common sociolinguistic patterns are observed. This evidences the important effect of globalization on visual aspect of trade.

Scholars interested in LL show differences in perspectives. Some of them choose to compare the findings between cities belonging to the same country; while others limit their investigation to the shop signs that exist in a single city. The comparison between cities will be then drawn in forthcoming studies. There are also scholars like Schlick (2000) and McGregor (2003) who confine their surveys to examine the degree of the use of foreign terms on shop signs. Others like Dimova (2007) further explore whether there is a correlation between the languages used and types of shop.


The linguistic landscape is part of our everyday experience and its importance as a social practice has been overlooked by sociolinguists. The study of LL enlightens the linguistic situation prevailing in a particular area. Torkington ( 2009) maintains that "through an examination of these practices that symbolic power relations may be revealed" (Torkington, 2009:123). This study will then use LL as a platform for sociolinguistic study. Expected young readers will be given voice through a questionnaire exploring their attitudes towards the languages used on shop signs in general, and English language in particular.

The city is generally known as a place of language contact. Tunis center forms then a perfect field of investigation. Not only is it a place for talk but also a place where written forms do exist. From an academic perspective, writing is of equal importance to the spoken mode. Public written signs provide useful contextual information pertaining to the investigated environment. They would help the researcher to decode the multilingual situation. So, the analysis of the cityscape or one element thereof would provide "a unique perspective on the coexistence and competition of different languages and their scripts, and how they interact and interfere with each other in a given place" (Backhaus, 2007:145).

Language attitude among expected young readers will be taken into consideration. It will be investigated to know whether visual interfaces influence language beliefs of these people. This stems from the general assumption that younger generation is fascinated by visuals. Along with the analysis of shop signs, language attitude investigation will hopefully provide a more valuable picture of the multilingual situation in Tunis.

Traditional sociolinguistics is geared towards analyzing aspects of speech, such as pronunciation and accent, in order to determine how language varieties are expressed and represented within communities. LL research (Backhaus, 2007; Gorter & Shohamy, 2009), on the other hand, examines language in its written form. Its broad objective is to determine the degree of multilingualism found on street signage in a specific area. The present study will be different than precedent sociolinguistic studies that focus on spoken mode of a language or a variety at the expense of its written form. It will examine scripts displayed on shop signs in Tunis.

Literature review

This literature review introduces the concept of linguistic landscape research in relation to sociolinguistics. It examines the similarities between linguistic landscape and advertising. It also discusses a number of empirical studies related to one component of LL: the language of shop signs. It finally tackles language attitudes in relation to shop signs.

2.1. Linguistic landscape and Sociolinguistic:

Sociolinguistics is the study of language in relation to society (Hudson, 1996). One of the key values of this field is the social context in which language is learnt or used. Sociolinguists study language in relation to social factors such as age, gender, class, social distance, and social status. They are also concerned with identifying the social functions of language and the way they are used to convey social meanings. But, it is important to note that sociolinguistics focuses on speech at the expense of written form of language. The bias is displayed even in the definition of language. The language is "what the members of a particular society speak" (Wardhaugh, 2010:1).

The study of public signage has emerged presumably in the seventies. However, the term "linguistic landscape" was introduced by Landry and Bourhis (1997). Linguistic landscape is also used interchangeably with the term cityscape because the mainstream of LL literature selects urban public space as a place of investigation (Coulmas 2009: 13). The LL research is mainly descriptive: it observes and records how language is actually used. Coulmas (2009:14) defines LL research as the study of writings on displays in the public sphere. The constituents of LL are more detailed in the definition of Landry and Bourhis as follow: "The language of public road signs, advertising billboards, street names, place names, commercial shop signs, and public signs on government buildings combines to form the LL of a given territory, region, or urban agglomeration"(Landry and Bourhis 1997: 25; as cited in Backhaus, 2007:9). Ben-Rafael et al (2006) refute this definition as it consists of texts that are only outside buildings. They maintain that LL does incorporate signs that are inside and outside public institutions or private businesses.

Sociolinguistics and LL research have common threads. They both seek to understand how language is actually used. They also focus on urbanized settings as a place of analysis. They may be then combined to analyze distribution of languages and varieties in the city. Language in public signage can be a fertile ground for sociolinguistic investigation. The study of LL may even help the sociolinguist to more understand the "nexus" between language use in public signage and other social attributes like identity.

2.2. Shop signs versus advertising

A successful ad is expected to accomplish five functions: "attracting attention, commanding interest, creating desire, and provoking action" (Vestergaard & Schroder 1985:1, as cited in Sandhya, 2000). Likewise, a business name is 'good' if it succeeds to catch the eye of the reader, stimulates his or her desire to buy goods from the shop. It is not a random use of words and expressions, but rather an art that aims to catch the reader's eye. Shop owners are certainly aware that language has a powerful influence over people and their behavior. They try to be selective when naming their shops. They tend to use eye-catching phrases and word-triggers. Economy of words is also to be taken into consideration. Business naming is like usual ads, in that the language in use may not be correct. Business names are then a form of display advertising. But, this type of ads has certain specificity. It does not "adopt any prescriptive or normative approach to language use" (Bhatia, 1987:35, as cited in Thonus: 1991).

2.3. Anglicization of shop signs:

With the growing interest in the concept of signage in public sphere, there have appeared a number of interesting articles in various journals, especially in English Today. Most of them focus on English spread in environment space in general and on shop signs in particular. This spread is obviously due to the political and scientific power of United States (Thonus, 1991). The appeal of Anglo-American cultures, lifestyle and values has further boosted the status of English language worldwide (McArthur, 2000).

In Portugal, shop signs are mainly monolingual; mostly are in Portuguese and the larger remainder is in English (10%) (Stewart and Fawcett, 2004: 57). Two striking features are depicted in the aforementioned study. First, the six investigated cities are near to Spain, but Spanish words were never seen on any shop sign. Second, roughly two-thirds of English shop signs displayed Snack bar. This shows the lack of creativity. The authors found that even stop signs for the control of traffic in Portugal and those in United States are the same. This ascertains the widespread of English language not only in Portuguese shop signs, but in the overall Portuguese landscape.

Even Post-Soviet states, like Uzbekistan, no longer view English language as 'the language of Western imperialism' but a language of 'modernity and elitism' (Hasanova, 2010:1). Hasanova (2010) examined 97 shop signs scattered in five districts in Bukhara, Uzbekistan. The number of shop signs in English (55.6%) is more important than those in native languages: Uzbek(17.5%) and Russian(24.7%). One may find that this is unusual insofar as English in not even a second language in the country. According to the author, English language is abundantly used in shop signs because it is the most widely learned foreign language in Uzbekistan. It is worthy to mention that English language appear not only on signs of stores but also in front of bazaar covered stalls. The superiority of English language is displayed in terms of frequency and appearance. This is manifested in non-English writings that appear in small scripts across the awnings and marquees of the investigated shops. Besides, most English names were written in Roman letters and not transliterated in Uzbek or Russian. Hasanova (2010) found out that the choice of language used in naming depends on the store type. Shops that basically sell electronics and computers were named in English language. Surprisingly enough, none of them was named in Uzbek. On signs of Internet cafés, the dominant language was English (62.5%), followed by Russian, than Uzbek (12.5%). Most English names were either compound nouns or meaningful words. On the other hand, Uzbek names either were proper names or simply indicated the type of the shop.

Dimova(2007) examined the use of English language in a larger sample: 346 shop signs in Veles, Macedonia. It is worthy to mention that the data corpus include brand names and window slogans. The results of her investigation showed that English is the most dominant foreign language in shop signs (36.9%). According to Schlick (2003), using English in business names is a tendency to Westernize Veles and other cities, like Ljubljana and Kranjarea, after the disintegration of the former Yugoslavia. This can be evidenced by the extensive presence of Western consumerism marked by the important presence of American brand names such as Coca Cola. The study also showed that bilingual English shop signs are more common than unilingual ones. Remarkably, none of the investigated shop signs feature words from English and other foreign language like Spanish or Italian. Dimova noted six patterns of use among English- Macedonian bilingual shop signs in the sample. One of these patterns is juxtaposing Macedonian names with brand names. Dimova focused on the subdivisions of business signs that were in English language. But, her study did not show how these English texts appear. It did not indicate whether Macedonian words are spelled in original, i.e. Roman Latin, or Cyrillic. Like the study of Hasanova (2010), it proved that Anglicization of shop signs depends on the type of business. English words and expressions appear in all signs of Internet cafés. They are likely present in all signs of fashion and entertainment businesses. Hasanova (2010) also noted incorrect spelling of certain English words like 'café' which was written as "caffee' in almost all signs.

McGregor (2003) examined 120 shop signs in central Tokyo. The findings of her research show that shop signs appear primarily in Japanese (43.3%) then in English. One-quarters of the investigated shops, especially women's clothing stores and hair salons, are named in only English language. This echoes the common belief that western Fashion is superior to Japanese one. English words are believed to ornament goods, namely clothing. They function as 'status-enhancing embellishment' (McGregor, 2003: 21). Creativity is manifested in English-looking signs, called also 'made-in-Japan' English signs. McGregor explains that those signs comprise loanwords from English language but with new meanings. Sometimes those words are meaningless. What is important is their 'visual charm' (McGregor, 2003: 21).

Thonus(1991) collected her business signage data from Yellow Pages telephone directories of seven Brazilian cities. She confined her investigation to the use of English in relation with Portuguese. The results show that only 10% of the investigated shop signs contain English terms. Hybridized business names are the most pervasive (56%). In these names, the generic element appears in Portuguese; and the specific element in English. Thonus noted that the spelling of 9 % of the investigated English naming in Porto Alegre is deviant in a way that it looks more Portuguese ,for example 'My-Deia' instead of 'my dear' (Thonus, 1991:72). There are cases that display the incorrect use of the genitive such as Silvascar (Thonus, 1991:72). Kashru (1992) distinguishes between a 'mistake' and a 'deviation' which is the 'result of the new "un-English" linguistic and cultural setting in which English language is used' ( Kachru, 1992:62). He explains that 'The reincarnations were essentially caused by the new bilingual (or multilingual) settings and by the new contexts in which English had to function' (Kachru, 1992:6). But, among deviation's characteristic is being 'systematic' and not 'idiosyncratic' (Kachru, 1992:62). According to Thonus, this deliberate spelling deviancy is simply perceived as an attention-getting device. Fused compounds and doublets consist of roughly 6% of the sample. They are "mechanisms used in modernization" (D'souza, 1987:64, cited in Thonus, 1991). She noted confusion about word-order restrictions not only in English but also in their own language. For instance, a hotel is named 'Hotel Center Park' instead of 'Center Park Hotel' (Thonus, 1991:73). It is not clear whether the name-givers are attempting to adopt English nomenclature consciously, or merely to imitate English sounding words like the case in Japan. However, what is clear is that English terms in a business sign serve as a modern ring to the offered products in order to impress the passer-by. According to Thonus, English is used on shop signs to impress the Brazilian "everyperson" not the tourist (Thonus, 1991: 68).

In the main, the aforementioned studies examined languages displayed on shop signs and their relative weight. English names are used in token of modernity and fashion (Dimova, 2007; Hasanova, 2010). They may be incomprehensible for some people, but attractive for the entire population (Hasanova, 2010). The English language depends on the type of the shop (Dimova, 2007; Hasanova, 2010). But, the name itself at times has no relation with the type of business. For example, "SAPIX" is an acronym formed from 'Science, Art, Philosophy, Identity, plus X" despite the fact that science, art, and philosophy are not taught at cram schools in Japan (McGregor, 2003: 21).

2.4. Multilingualism in Shop Signs:

The LL literature sheds light on multilingual practices in the written form. It reports that shop signs are increasingly multilingual worldwide. In urban space, written language mixing is examined in terms of types and functions.

Recent studies of shop signs have documented a growing tendency to language mix in business naming (Shlick, 2003; McArthur, 2000). Apparently, one language is presumed to be not enough visible without the support of a foreign language, namely English. Apart from visibility, there is another function of language support especially when the local language and foreign language are used together. This combination makes it easier for the local community to understand the shop name (McGregor, 2003). This explanation is more valid for countries where the foreign language education is primarily given in translation. McArthur explains mixing languages on shop signs, apart from trendiness, as an attempt to revive the local language (Schlick, 2002). Multilingual signs contain 'real or coined words' from two or more languages (Schlick, 2002:5). Certain messages are 'traditional and bland' like 'Farmacia'; while others are unusual and quirky such as 'Restaurant le bourjolais' (McArthur, 2000:35). The study McAthur(2000) focuses on the strength of 'macaronic' usage in street and shop signs (McArthur, 2000:34). Such vigor is mainly due to two features: the 'creativity' and the 'interplay' (McAthur, 2000:41). Signs with 'macaronic tendencies' are believed to be 'doubly eye-catching' (Schlick, 2002:5). However, shop signs may lose their macaronic quality when translated. Besides, if they are naturalized into a language, they are no longer seen macaronic by native speakers (McArthur, 2000).

Addison 1710 states that the great art in writing ads is finding out a 'proper method to catch the reader's eye; without which a good thing may pass over unobserved'(as cited in Bassiouney, 2009:283). Alternating two or more languages on a shop sign seems to be a "proper method" to get the customer's attention. This tendency is "flourishing" (McArthur, 2000:43). But, the degree of multilingualism differs from a city to another and from a country to another. For example, the study of McArthur (2000) shows that shop signs in Zurich are highly multilingual. The linguistic nature of Switzerland accounts for the great number of multilingual shop signs. Switzerland is known for being a multilingual country where English, French, German and Italian are in daily use. Japan, however, is different in terms of linguistic ecology. It has been known as "one of the prototypes of monolingual society" (Backhaus, 2007). This explains the predominance of Japanese language in business naming: Japanese is the language used in 43.3% of unilingual business names.

The research of McArthur (2000) is highly original in the conceptualization of the language of shop signs. The language of shop signs appears to be universal, whimsical, and "translinguistic" (McArthur, 2000:36). It is simply called "interanto" (McArthur, 2000:36). The opening element inter- refers to the internationalism and interplay of the language of shop signs. The suffix -anto , as in the artificial language Esperanto, adds an exotic meaning to the word it is attached to. The universality is depicted through the use of key international words like parking, restaurant, boutique, etc. Such words are no longer perceived foreign especially in urban environment. Whimsicality is the outcome of language mixing, and particularly when such mixing is unpredictable. It is often displayed in a sign that contains words from mother tongue and foreign language. Such a sign would mark 'trendiness' and 'being rooted with one's soil' at the same time (Schlick, 2002:5). A word is said to be 'translinguistic' when it has no precise canonical form or meaning. The 'translinguistic' aspect is particularly manifested in bilingual and trilingual European shop names. 'Biona Reformhaus', a healthy food store in Zurich, is one of the hybrid constructions (McArthur, 2000:35). It includes Greek (bio- and -na), French (reform-), and German (haus).

Language mixing can be at the level of lexicon, syntax or script. McArthur states that hybridization is a phenomenon happening 'on top of an ancient inclination to hybridize' (McArthur, 2000: 35). Ancient hybridization actually refers to word adaptation. Hybridization comprises all cases of clipping, tacking, deviant spelling, and fused compounds. For example, 'sole' in 'Studio Sole' refers to the French word 'Soleil'. The spelling is modified in order to match the phonetic reading of its Japanese counterparts, 'so-ray' (McGregor, 2003:22). Besides, Language mixing can be at the word-order level. For example, the "STEAK HOUSE POLAIRE" sign in the study of McGregor comprises not only a French adjective: "POLAIRE", but also French word-order (McGregor, 2003:22). However, it is worth to mention that a linguist may be often trapped in possibilities. In the aforementioned case, McGregor states that the context can be also Japanese. Transliteration is another type of language mixing. Backhaus (2007) contends that a transliterated or translated text on a shop sign is designed for people with foreign backgrounds. Transliterated shop signs are considered 'clever names' in Japan as they often acquire double meaning (McGregor, 2003:19). This accounts for the significant number of transliterated Japanese business names to Roman letters. The name 'manpuku', for example, means 'I'm full' and 'happiness'. Transliteration is also depicted from Roman letters to Japanese script. The American giant McDonald's appear in Katakana. Shop owners in other countries avoid the transliteration to the local language script. For example, Uzbek shop owners avoid the transliteration of shop names to Uzbek or Russian script (Hasanova, 2010).

In summary, the language of shop signs is universal, whimsical, and "translinguistic". Multilingualism should be approached lexically, syntactically, and in terms of orthographically. It is very interesting to study unusual and quirky texts.

2.5. Methodological difficulties:

The investigation of shop signs seems easy. The scholar would stroll along two or more streets and collect names of businesses, and analyze them afterwards. But, many methodological hurdles should be considered and dealt with first.

To begin with, the unit of analysis can be a problem. The definition of a shop sign is controversial. Some scholars consider window-filling slogans part of shop signs (McArthur, 2000; Schlick, 2002, Dimova, 2007). Others exclude the names of internationally known products from the analysis of shop signs such as Coca Cola, Kodak, Fujifilm, etc. (Hasanova, 2010; Stewart and Fawcett, 2004). However, if brand names are eliminated from the data corpus, the linguistic impact of trademarks on individuals and groups would be denied. The overall understanding of shop signs would be then affected. Besides, when the term shop sign varies in scope from one study to another, the comparison between those surveys becomes impossible.

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Besides, the taxonomy of shop signs is difficult. Business names do not always fall into neat categories because of the word formation. For instance, there are true "English loanwords" and "quasi-English words" which are usually the result of back clipping (Gorach, 1989:303, cited in Thonus, 1991). Words pertaining to the second type are called so as they do not conform to the English norms. Adoption and adaptation process impedes an easy classification of shop signs. The term 'glass', a shop name in Sweden introduced in the survey of McArthur (2000:38), illustrates this ambiguity. One may think that it is an English word; while it is rather an adapted form of French glace. 'Ateljé' is another 'translinguistic' word; and it is a Swedish adaptation of French atelier (McArthur, 2000:38). The ado in this case is whether or not to classify the adapted word if recognized in the class of etymon, i.e. the language of origin. McArthur (2000) suggests that an adapted cognate is naturalized into a different language; and accordingly it must not be attributed to the language of origin. So, 'glass' and 'Ateljé' are Swedish; they belong to German and not to French language. Besides, certain terms, such as restaurant and café, have become international and are no longer seen foreign (Schlick, 2002). So, to attribute café or bar to English language can be also discussed as these words have the same form and the same pronunciation in a number of languages (Stewart and Fawcett, 2004).

Furthermore, methodological decisions seem to heavily depend on the investigator's perspective. In most LL research, the sites of investigation are chosen in central cities because they are the busiest streets or squares according to the scholar. Dimova (2007), for example, opted for a large city situated in central Macedonia. Others, like McArthur (2000), chose the "more touristy streets" in the city (McArthur, 2000:33). Besides, most studies of shop signs are based on quantitative approach. The perplexing question is whether the selected streets are representative of the whole city. Besides, some scholars tend to include all businesses they encounter; while others like Dimova (2007) limit their counting to only one sign per business.

In conclusion, the study of texts on shop signs is difficult because different languages have the same form and pronunciation of certain words. Besides, the representativeness of investigated shop signs can be questioned because the site selection and the sample size depend on the investigator's perspective. Moreover, the comparison between certain studies becomes impossible because the unit of analysis differs in scope from one survey to another.

2.6. Language attitude:

Language attitude was introduced by the Canadian social psychologist Wallace Lambert. It started to intrigue the sociolinguists only in 1970s. Since then, many sociolinguists have been studying the language attitude that communities share. The mainstream of the studies; whereas, is geared towards attitudes towards speech styles.

LL research provides an insight into the actual use of languages in environmental print. But, it does not indicate how these languages are perceived by the local community. The investigation of language attitude would help to produce a more complete picture of multilingualism in the city of Tunis. The present study will not be confined to the mere listing and enumeration of languages. The language used on shop signs is a standing point for a comprehensive understanding of linguistic situation in the city of Tunis. Gorter (2007) ascertains that language used in open environment affects language perception. He maintains that LL has some bearing on people's perception and attitude about language, influences the use of language in society. He states that "[t]he linguistic landscape has an added value because of the impact it can have on the people who see the signs" (Gorter, 2007:24). So, the investigation of language attitude of the young expected readers of shop signs would be significantly relevant to the study of language choice in a multilingual society. It would determine whether there is a nexus between linguistic choice of the shop owner and linguistic preference of young customers in Tunis. It would also examine whether there is a significant effect of visible signage in public space on language beliefs among the young readers (Coulmas, 2009: 28). In other words, it would clarify whether seeing abundant use of foreign terms in public space changes the customer's language attitude favorably. The visibility of these scripts on shop marquees in great number must have some bearing on the individual's language attitude. This stems from the belief that 'Language has a powerful influence over people and their behavior. In a nutshell, the investigation of language attitude would foremost give a more comprehensive insight into the multilingual situation within the territory of Tunis.

Baker (1992) states that attitude can be either instrumental or integrative or both. An instrumental language attitude is characterized by a desire to acquire or learn a particular language in order to fulfill material needs. An integrative attitude, on the other hand, reflects a desire to be identified as a member of the culture and community related to the language. According to Baker (1992), the language attitude is a construct of three components: "cognition", feelings and "readiness for action" (Baker, 1992: 13). The cognitive component is made up of the beliefs and opinions about an object. The second component clearly refers to the emotions that the individual feels about that object. The behavioral component refers to one's actions or behavioral intentions towards the object. Questionnaires are generally used to explore one of the intricate and fascinating ways in which language can influence the individual's everyday thoughts, feelings and behavior. This is illustrated in the statement of Al-Saidat &Emad (2009): "An attitude is individual, but it has origins in collective behaviour". In the present study, it is hypothesized that the visibility of English language in streets develops positive attitudes towards English. When language becomes part of the individual's experience, one would embrace it to his/her linguistic repertoire.

In conclusion, individual language attitude is a psychological construct that affects the reality of language for the whole society. Its investigation would help to understand the language growth, restoration or destruction.


3.1. Research questions:

Q1: What is the linguistic classification of shop signs in Tunis?

Q2 : Are unilingual signs more pervasive than multilingual ones?

Q3: What is the most prominent language of store signs in Tunis?

Q4: Is English the most attractive language in Tunisian shop signs?

3.2. Research hypotheses:

H1: Shop signs in city center of Tunis can be divided into unilingual, bilingual and multilingual signs.

H2: Shop owners prefer to mix two or more languages than to use a single language.

H3: French is the most frequent language, then English, then Tunisian Arabic in business naming.

H4: English is the most attractive language in Tunisian shop signs.

Linguistic data: will be captured by a digital camera from two central shopping streets in Tunis City: Habib Bourguiba Avenue and Paris Street. More than three shopping centers happen to be situated in the survey area. Accordingly, the present study will compile a large electronic corpus of signs. All signs of private businesses will be analyzed except those that display brand names. The classification will be according to the language used and the dominant language in each sign.

Attitudinal data: will be collected from Tunisian informants through a questionnaire designed to investigate their attitudes towards the languages seen on shop signs: Tunisian Arabic, French and English. The investigation of language attitude can be at all the linguistic levels: accent, grammar, pronunciation, spelling, etc (Garrett: 2010). The present study will tackle how people perceive languages used on shop signs in terms of words and spelling. The research instrument is a questionnaire.

The sample: will consist of pupils and students selected in the survey area. This study is interested in the language perception of youth. So, the age of the respondents will range from 15 to 25 years old. The selection will be based on convenience sampling.

The questionnaire: comprises two parts. The first section consists of ten items that examine how young people perceive the languages used on shop signs in general. The measurement is five-point Likert Scale. The second part consists of multiple choice questions. The choices are real shop names that are seen in the survey area. This section is an evaluation of the responses given in the first part of the questionnaire. It examines how the informants perceive words from Tunisian Arabic, French and English in terms of likes and dislikes.


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