One of the pleasures of a visit to South Korea is noticing changes in the language of public and commercial signs, which linguists refer to as the “linguistic landscape.” The rapid pace of change in the country means similarly rapid changes in the linguistic landscape. Some of the changes come from official directives in language policy, but most come from bottom-up changes in how society views language.
Like elsewhere, the COVID-19 pandemic slowed the pace of change as businesses struggled to stay afloat amid social distancing restrictions, but trends from the late 2010s have continued. One noticeable trend is the use of languages other than English in commercial signs. Of course, Chinese has long been used on restaurant signs. Japanese signs were long prohibited, but became more popular after liberalization in the 1990s. French and -- to a lesser extent -- German also have a long history, but they were written mostly in Hangeul. For example, the German word “hof,” usually written in Hangeul, quickly became the most popular name for draft beer places in the 1980s and ’90s.
The increasing popularity of European food means more restaurants are using French, Italian, Spanish and other European languages in their names. The use of Asian-language restaurant names is also increasing. The trend is particularly noticeable with the popularity of Thai and Vietnamese restaurants. Names of shops catering to Asians living in South Korea have also become more common. One interesting example of this is the prevalence of Myanmarese signs in “Myanmartown” near Bupyeong Station in Incheon.
Another noticeable trend is small signs with the names of cafes and specialty shops written in small letters, often in combination with a minimalist logo. In some cases, the only sign is a sandwich board near the entrance. These businesses appeal to a social media-savvy clientele that is attracted by visual images or word-of-mouth and search for businesses before visiting.
Minimalist signs also create a contrast with the large colorful signs that have long been the norm in commercial signage in South Korea. By going in the opposite direction and relying on social media, minimalist signs make a clear generational statement. In this context, a commercial building plastered with large colorful signs looks like a relic from pre-digital times. As the older generation ages, large colorful signs will gradually lose their appeal, which will transform the look of Korean cities.
Yet another trend is the continued dominance of English in official signage. Efforts to present information in English began during the run-up to the 1988 Seoul Olympics. The effort continued in the 1990s, as interest in globalization took hold and gained steam in the 2000s. In the process, English became the de facto language that Koreans used to communicate with the outside world.
Meanwhile, languages other than English have been overlooked. For example, information in major European languages such as French, German and Spanish is hard to come by. The same holds true for Arabic and Russian, two of the six official languages of the United Nations. This is also the case for major Southeast Asian languages, such as Indonesian, Thai and Vietnamese.
Chinese and Japanese are the exceptions. From the mid-1960s to the late 2000s, the largest percentage of foreign tourists came from Japan. China took the number one spot in the 2010s, and by 2019 tourists from China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Japan accounted for 75 percent of foreign tourists. Because Chinese and Japanese tourists make up too large a market to ignore, signs and information in those languages appear below English in many tourist sites.
Museum signage offers an interesting window into official language use. At the Gyeongju National Museum, for example, the remodeled Silla exhibits have signs in the order of Korean, English, Chinese and Japanese, whereas older parts of the museum have signs in Korean, English and Japanese only.
A curious example of museum signage is an exhibition on the history of Koreans in Kazakhstan currently open at the KF Gallery in Seoul. Signage in the exhibition is in Korean and English only, with none in Kazakh or Russian, the official languages of Kazakhstan. Given that the exhibition received support from the Kazakh Embassy, it would be appropriate to have signs in Korean and the two official languages of Kazakhstan first, followed at the end by English.
As South Korea continues to change and diversify, the challenge for official signage is to keep up with those changes. Thinking about how to include overlooked languages is an important first step.
Robert J. Fouser
Robert J. Fouser, a former associate professor of Korean language education at Seoul National University, writes on Korea from Providence, Rhode Island. He can be reached at email@example.com. -- Ed.