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Language wars, the Korean edition

"Foreign words dominate signboards, restaurant menus in Korea", omonatheydidn't, LiveJournal (10/8/23; page loaded 10/9/23); source: The Korea Times

Trendy use of foreign languages apparently sparks outrage in Korea as well.

A Seoul-based office worker surnamed Kim, 35, was perplexed at being unable to locate the Japanese restaurant he had reserved last week. The restaurant only had a signboard written in Japanese, which he was unable to read.

Kim said the name of the restaurant was spelled in Korean online. But the signboard was not.

"I had to call the restaurant after going around the block several times because I couldn’t find it on my own,” Kim said.

A Suwon resident surnamed Oh, 60, experienced similar trouble at a coffee shop in her neighborhood. All of the menu was written in English.

“For a moment, I thought, ‘Am I in Korea?’ I had no idea what they meant and had to wait for my daughter to arrive to understand what they sell and to make an order,” Oh said, pointing out that she had seen a growing number of coffee shops and restaurants in the newer and trendy districts with signboards written in foreign languages.

This growing use of foreign languages, which has drawn controversy in recent years, is drawing attention again ahead of Hangeul Day on Monday.

Under the current law, the signboard Kim could not read is illegal.

The Enforcement Decree of the Act on the Management of Outdoor Advertisement and Promotion of Outdoor Advertisement Industry stipulates that the letters of advertisements shall, in principle, be written in the Korean alphabet in accordance with the Korean alphabet orthography, the rule of romanizing Korean words, and the rule of spelling foreign words in the Korean alphabet.

Advertisements, including signboards but not menus, that are written in foreign letters should “be spelled side by side with the Korean alphabet unless there is a compelling reason not to do so,” the law says.

According to Yonhap News Agency, Sunday, the signboards of 177 out of 278 stores in Seoul’s COEX Mall in Gangnam District were written only in foreign languages.

Only 29 had Korean spellings in relatively small sizes at the corner of signboards otherwise written in English. Only 63 stores had signboards signboards written only in Korean.

Another survey by a local civic group promoting the Korean language said that 23.5 percent, or 1,704 out of 7,252 stores in Seoul’s 12 districts, were in foreign languages in 2019. Only 15.2 percent, or 1,102 stores, had their names also written in Korean next to foreign text.

Despite its illegality, the law lacks clauses imposing fines, making it difficult to regulate violations.

The growing criticism has led to a legislation push to remedy the changing language culture.

Rep. Jo Myung-hee of the ruling People Power Party (PPP) proposed an amendment to the Framework Act on Korean Language in July, which obligates central and local governments to encourage food and beverage business owners to use signboards and menus written in Korean.

The amendment, co-submitted by nine other ruling lawmakers, aims to “spread Korean language culture and enhance people’s convenience” by indiscreet use of foreign languages, the proposal said.

Alex Baumans, who sent me the above article from Korea, also sent me this note from the Lion City:  "On a somewhat related note, in Singapore I passed an Italian restaurant, where the Italian menu had been carefully transliterated in katakana. Not sure what they were trying to achieve."


Selected readings

If you are a fan of Hangul, do a search on it and "Language Log", and you will find that there have been a plethora of posts about it here, of which the following are but a small sampling.


  1. Guy_H said,

    October 10, 2023 @ 4:51 am

    I really hope this sort of thing does not become a trend in Asia – coffee shops and other trendy places only offering menus in English and not the local language. It feels like the equivalent of certain clothing boutiques refusing to stock large sizes for fear of attracting the "wrong" type of customer.

  2. Cervantes said,

    October 10, 2023 @ 12:28 pm

    That's very hard to understand. Why would a business want to make it impossible for most potential customers to read their signs and menus? (Or even a small percentage for that matter.) In the U.S. you'll often see bilingual signage and menus — either in ethnic enclaves because many people really do read the non-English versions, or when restaurants want to flaunt their purported authenticity. But you wouldn't see a French restaurant menu exclusively in French, and certainly wouldn't see signage and menus in some arbitrary foreign language.

    I have occasionally come across restaurants that cater more or less exclusively to Puerto Rican or Mexican customers that have menus exclusively in Spanish, but on the other hand most English-speakers do know the Spanish names for many dishes. (Of course some dishes are known even in English by their original names. You wouldn't and couldn't translate taco or ratatouille.)

  3. Philip Taylor said,

    October 10, 2023 @ 12:59 pm

    I have almost zero knowledge of ethnic restaurants in the U.S.A., but I know of at least one Chinese restaurant in Waterloo/Kitchener (Ontario, Canada) which has dishes listed on wall menus that are written solely in Sinoglyphs. The printed menus are bi-lingual (English / Chinese) but the wall menus solely Chinese. When I asked why (This is now some 35 years ago) it was explained to me that the dishes listed solely in Chinese were not expected to be of interest to Westerners. I asked what they were, was told, and subsequently ordered some of them. Even Green Cottage, in Swiss Cottage (London, England), offered dishes that were not on the menu (e.g., "soup of the day").

  4. Kenny Easwaran said,

    October 10, 2023 @ 3:17 pm

    When a foreign language is seen as sophisticated, having menus and signs only in that foreign language will make a shop seem sophisticated, and will make potential customers feel sophisticated for being the kind of person that will go there. While this may turn off some potential customers, a business might do it if they think they can get more spending from the ones that are turned on by this. Currently, English is so dominant in terms of international cultural cachet that it's rare to see shops in the United States trying to do this. But there are some hints of it.

    Think about stores like Sur la Table and Au Bon Pain, that convey something about what sort of home goods and pastries they serve by having their name in French.

    Or think about the menu at an espresso place in the United States – unlike espresso places in Australia, whose most popular espresso drinks have English names, like the "flat white" and the "long black", espresso places in the United States often have menus that are entirely in Italian, where you're just expected to know the difference between a cappuccino and a latte, and a ristretto and a macchiato, and if you don't, then you should just order an americano.

  5. S Frankel said,

    October 10, 2023 @ 4:58 pm

    Think of a place like Starbucks where the names are in something resembling Italian ("venti" = 20, meaning twenty ounces even though they don't use ounces in Italy and they find a huge coffees to be an abomination). The point is to make the customers feel like part of the in-group once they've mastered the code. It's a sales gimmick.

  6. Benjamin Ernest Orsatti said,

    October 10, 2023 @ 7:02 pm

    I'm not so sure it has to do either with "prestige" or a "sales gimmick". Sometimes a Chinese restaurant in the U.S. will have its "menu", written in English, and then a special "double-secret menu", written only in Chinese for Chinese people used to eating Chinese food made by Chinese people in China. They do this because Chinese food made by Chinese people in China uses parts of animals not usually found in American cuisine prepared in ways not usually prepared in American cuisine.

    So, Americans don't accidentally "stumble" into the roast beef tongue and tripe with chili-peanut vinaigrette, which could easily shear the epidermis from your own tongue if you're not used to it.

    But, _some_ Americans (myself included) happen to like things like family style beef tendon and stinky tofu, and we feel left out of all the fun because we can't get to all the exotic stuff on the Chinese-only menu because we can't read the funny squiggles.

    Luckily, there is a solution, one which my absolute favorite Chinese restaurant has adopted — print _both_ menus in both Chinese _and_ English, but call the "traditional" stuff something else. Thus, you have "Appetizers" "Authentic Sichuan Appetizers"; "Soups" and "Authentic Sichuan Soups", and so on. See: https://howleeforbesave.com/2881

  7. Terry K. said,

    October 10, 2023 @ 7:38 pm

    Latte is the Italian word for milk. Latte on a menu for a coffee drink with milk is not Italian. It's English derived from Italian.

  8. Victor Mair said,

    October 10, 2023 @ 8:50 pm

    Thank you for explaining that about "latte", Terry K. I knew all along that it means "milk", but thought I just wasn't hip enough to realize that in coffee culture it meant coffee made with milk. There are so many other terms like that which mean something other than they seem to, and I always blame myself for being insufficiently schooled in "authentic" coffee lingo.

  9. Andreas Johansson said,

    October 11, 2023 @ 12:43 am

    About twenty years ago, I found myself in a restaurant in Germany whose menu was entirely in French, which I knew barely any of back then (not that my French is very good now). I ordered something at random and ended up with what I think was minced fish.

  10. astrange said,

    October 11, 2023 @ 2:37 am

    > Alex Baumans, who sent me the above article from Korea, also sent me this note from the Lion City: "On a somewhat related note, in Singapore I passed an Italian restaurant, where the Italian menu had been carefully transliterated in katakana. Not sure what they were trying to achieve."

    This reminds me that I've been to more than one Italian restaurant in Japan, and read more than one story with Italian characters, and I've been left with the impression that even though Japan loves Italian food they also seem to believe all of it is called "pasta" and don't realize there's any more specific words for it.

    It's amazing how cheap the wine can be though.

  11. Bloix said,

    October 11, 2023 @ 4:48 am

    Latte is just a short form, common in the US at least, of caffè latte, a genuine Italian coffee term. A caffè latte is a shot of espresso with steamed milk and only a little foam, which is what distinguishes it from a cappuccino, which is about 1/3rd foam. There's not much difference between a latte and a flat white (a term little used in the US)- and in US places that do use the term there's so much variety in what gets served as a flat white – amount of foam, amount of milk, size of cup – that there's really no discernible difference between one and what gets served as a latte.

  12. Cervantes said,

    October 11, 2023 @ 7:12 am

    A minor point, but even Au Bon Pain has "good bread" in smaller type on its signage. Not sure why they omit the "with," since bread is not their main product.

  13. Jarek Weckwerth said,

    October 11, 2023 @ 12:22 pm

    @ Cervantes: I've always had the impression that "a/au" in the name of a French establishment is just a conventional part of an eatery name, similar to "chez" or Catalan "can", Italian "da", German "zu" or Polish "pod" which indicate either the (imagined) owner (as in "at someone's house") or the emblem. Am I mistaken?

  14. Anthony said,

    October 11, 2023 @ 6:40 pm

    How does it work with "Au Cheval" in Chicago?

  15. Monscampus said,

    October 11, 2023 @ 7:51 pm

    @Jarek Weckwerth

    You're not mistaken, although in this case the German would be "bei" instead.

  16. Thomas said,

    October 11, 2023 @ 11:54 pm

    I was under the impression that "latte" was short for "latte macchiato". Anyways I was stunned to learn that in Korea this is called "caperatte" since they struggle to pronounce both F and L.

  17. Philip Anderson said,

    October 12, 2023 @ 1:02 am

    Presumably that would be interpreted like those old English pub names At the Sign of the X, with sign omitted, remembering that many pubs were named after their signs.

  18. Benjamin Ernest Orsatti said,

    October 12, 2023 @ 8:14 am


    Interesting. So there's a progressive truncation from "Atte þe foxxe et þe hounde" to "The Fox and the Hound" to "Fox & Hound".

  19. Philip Taylor said,

    October 12, 2023 @ 10:18 am

    I think, Benjamin, that the progression actually starts with "Atte þe sign of þe foxxe et þe hounde". However, hounds are always plural, so it would really start "Atte þe sign of þe foxxe et þe houndes". And then, of course, one must remember that in hunting parlance "hounds" never take the definite article (and are counted in couples ["braces"], but let’s not go there …) so my final proposed starting point would be "Atte þe sign of þe foxxe et houndes".

  20. wanda said,

    October 12, 2023 @ 2:38 pm

    @Cervantes: Probably for the same reason that there is a clothing store for teen girls called Brandy Melville that only sells clothes in one size, which is a size small. The leadership of the brand is said to have thought that it would hurt the brand and make it less exclusive if girls larger than that shopped at their stores. (I want to note that the median clothing size of teen girls in the US is something like size 10 or 12, which is much, much too large to fit into any of the clothing.) So this brand, like these coffeeshops, are making intentional decisions to restrict who their consumers are to increase their perceived prestige and thus their prices.

  21. Chas Belov said,

    October 13, 2023 @ 9:50 pm

    There is an unfortunately out of print book The Eater's Guide to Chinese Characters which focuses on menu reading and uses a non-traditional method of ordering characters and counting strokes aimed at readers who haven't studied Chinese.

    I've used it to gain access to interesting dishes over the years.

    That said, it is possible to make mistakes. For example, frog is literally "field chicken." And that said, I love frog.

    I have encountered Italian and French restaurants in the US which only used their respective language to name dishes and did not provide an English description.

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