Signs in English Are the Hottest Way To Be Cool

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Signs in English Are the Hottest Way To Be Cool

In the world of design in Korea, English typography is a necessary, critical part of design vocabulary. The use of English on a store sign or packaging instantly makes the design cool and more progressive -- or so goes the thinking. To many local designers, typography in hangul (the Korean alphabet) is too chonseureopda ("provincial"). The extent of your audience's grasp of the English language is irrelevant. The primary objective is to look cool.

This practice has progressed to a point where many signs have little or no Korean language at all. When you think about this phenomenon, you can really get entangled in a knot. For whom is the message intended?

Incorporation of English into signboards in Korea occurs in different ways.

?Predominant use of English words, or the Roman alphabet, with a transliteration in hangul serving as a pronunciation guide.

?English with no Korean,.

?English with a translated Korean equivalent (making two phonetically distinct names).

?Korean transliteration of an English name (a process that can, on occasion, cause confusion -- try reading "McDonald's French fries" spelled out only in Korean).

The first version is considered the most acceptable under the logic of today's all-important buzzword, globalization. Whether a company or brand is large or small, there are numerous examples of this. Pulmuone (pronounced "poolmoowon"), a domestic food company that produces soybean sprouts and tofu, decided to rebrand all of its packaging in the English version of its logo several years ago. Samsung Electronics last year decided to reposition itself as a purely digital company and changed all its signs to read "DIGITall SAMSUNG." In both cases all the companies' domestic products are aimed at Koreans.

The second version is most common in the apparel sector -- where the intent is often to persuade buyers that the item is imported -- and restaurants. My favorite is a pork belly (samkyeopsal) barbecue restaurant in Seodaemun-gu. Its sign bears simply the legend "Kwang soo's thoughts," in English, with the lowercase "s" and "t," along with a copyright mark, web site address and phone number. This attempt by the purveyors to render this inexpensive and everyday fare glamorous seems odd.

The third version is the one that can make it rough for expats, although ironically it is for their sake the translations are made in most cases. There is Hanvit Bank, which Koreans know as "Hanbit Eunhaeng," and the CHB Bank, called "Cho Heung Eunhaeng" by Koreans. Company New York, a bakery, is called "New York Jegwa" by Koreans. Try getting in a cab and asking to go to the Seoul Arts Center. You'll get a blank look until you say "Yesuleui jeondang." Allianz is going to take a long time to get brand recognition because the Korean underneath its logo reads Jeil Saengmyeong.

The fourth version is most prevalent, where imported products' names and descriptions are simply transliterated into hangul without any translation. This is more confusing than keeping the original English in the Roman alphabet form. "Age-defying lotion" written out in hangul becomes a long sentence of nonsensical sounds. You don't even have the option of looking it up in the dictionary because, of course, these words don't exist in Korean.

The argument that is always made for this heavy-handed use of English is that Koreans know and understand English because they study it for most of their lifetimes. Their familiarity should allow for this overly zealous usage of English because it looks good, goes the argument. But perhaps Koreans would rather be respected in their own nation and given a user-friendly introduction to products and services rather than treated as wanna-bes. I recollect all the unnecessary use of French in the United States in the '70s as a marker of sophistication.

Then again, personally, I loved Miss Piggy. "Moi?"

The writer is president of Sympact, a design firm in Seoul, and lectures at the Korean National University of Arts.
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