Publication details [#56980]

Sebba, Mark. 2013. The visual construction of language hierarchy: The case of banknotes, coins and stamps. Journal of Language and Politics 12 (1) : 101–125.
Publication type
Article in journal
Publication language
Language as a subject
Place, Publisher
John Benjamins
Journal DOI


This paper analyses the way in which the text displayed on bilingual and multilingual currency (banknotes and coins) and stamps constructs and reproduces linguistic hierarchies, reflecting the relative status of the languages within the issuing country. The paper briefly discusses the selection of languages which appear on stamps and money, which is nearly always in accordance with the dominant language ideologies. It then goes on to show how the choice of language and the relative positioning and size of texts in those languages constructs the languages involved as of equal or unequal status. Two case studies are considered: the construction of equality between English and Afrikaans in South Africa on stamps and banknotes of the period 1910 to 1994, reflecting the constitutional requirement that those languages be treated ‘on a footing of equality’; and the construction of linguistic inequality in the stamps of Palestine and Israel, where first English (under the British Mandate) was displayed as dominant over Arabic and Hebrew, and later Hebrew (in Israel) was shown to dominate over the other two. The paper argues for a dual analysis of text in public texts like stamps and banknotes: on the one hand text is language, and is subject to a (socio)linguistic analysis, while on the other, text has a physical form and dimensions which means that texts are interpreted in terms of their visual features and spatial relationships to other texts. The language hierarchies which are reproduced and transported by stamps and money are thus discursively constructed through a combination of text as language and text as image.