Entering content area for The Web of Language

showing results for: July, 2011

blog posts

  • Are laws requiring English signs discriminatory?

    English on business signs? Its the law in New York City. According to the "true name law," passed back in 1933, the name of any store must "be publicly revealed and prominently and legibly displayed in the English language either upon a window . . . or upon a sign conspicuously placed upon the exterior of the building" (General Business Laws, Sec. 9-b, Art. 131).

    Failure to comply is technically a misdemeanor, but violations carry no specific penalty. Now two city councilmen want to give that little-known and long-neglected law some teeth. Republicans Dan Halloran and Peter Koo have introduced a bill authorizing the city’s Department of Consumer Affairs to draft regulations to enforce the English sign law.

    Opponents of the measure charge that requiring signs in English is discriminatory. But Halloran and Koo say that businesses must display English signs so that police and firefighters can identify an address when they respond to emergency calls. To the bill’s sponsors it’s a matter of public safety, not an insult to anyone’s heritage.

    New York’s original sign law was ostensibly put in place not to help first responders but to fight fly-by-night stores that sprang up, fleeced the public, and quickly shut down, leaving customers with shoddy or useless merchandise. The law is bundled together with rules for naming the true owners of a shop and bans on deceptive store names.

    But although English-only sign laws are often defended on the grounds of consumer protection as well as public safety, their primary function seems to be to harass immigrant business owners. In the 1980’s, a number of California cities with growing Asian populations passed laws requiring English on business signage. Pomona’s statute read, in part,

    On premises signs of commercial or manufacturing establishments which have advertising copy in foreign alphabetical characters shall devote at least one half of the sign area to advertising copy in English alphabetical characters.

    A group of local business leaders sued the city, charging that the law violated their First and Fourteenth Amendment rights to free speech in the language of their choice. The city countered that the sign law was necessary to keep neighborhoods safe. But U.S. federal judge Robert M. Takasugi, who ruled for the plaintiffs, observed that since all city addresses were easily identified by clearly-displayed arabic numerals, an English-language sign requirement served no compelling government interest. Takasugi further found that the sign law discriminated against the language of the business owners, and that in turn is a form of national origin discrimination which is banned by law (Asian American Business Group v. City of Pomona, 716 F. Supp. 1328, 1989).

    Using sign laws to control minority or other unfavored languages is a common practice with governments around the world. In Québec, the language police routinely levy stiff fines on businesses for violating the provincial Loi 101 requiring French on all signs. In 1914, Berlin banned French and English signs, and in 1917, when the U.S. entered World War I, many American cities banned public displays of German. Turkey’s modernization efforts in the 1920s included a demand for Turkish shop signs (merchants preferred using French, which seemed more chic). And in the post-Soviet Slovak Republic, all signs must now be in Slovak, not Russian, Czech, German, Hungarian, English, or any other minority or suspect language. 

    New York Times reports German ban on English and French in 1933 

    Above: New York isn’t the only city to ban foreign words on signs. During World War I, Berlin banned French and English words on public signs. In 1917, many American states and cities returned the favor by banning public displays of German. New York Times, Aug 16, 1914. Below: a similar sense of nationalism drove the Turkish government to insist that Turkish be added to signage. New York Times, Feb. 5, 1928. 

    New York Times reports on Turkish government mandate for signs in Turkish

    While its goal may have been to fight fraud, New York’s Depression-era sign law may have had the unstated purpose of harassing Yiddish-speaking storekeepers, along with other immigrant business owners whose languages did not use the roman alphabet. The new provision charging the Department of Consumer Affairs with enforcing that law simply targets the newer Asian communities in the city.

    Requiring English on signs won’t root out fraud: merchants and their customers can lie in any language. And English signs have nothing to do with public safety: today’s emergency services can pinpoint locations with caller ID and GPS trackers even better than with arabic house numbers. And since language learning is a gradual process, not an instant one, requiring English on signs won’t get immigrants to adopt English any faster. All it will do is make it more difficult for them to shop in their neighborhood stores. It’s not like the Department of Consumer Affairs would go after La Grenouille or Rouge Tomate (Michelin rating: 1 star) for not having English signage.

    Instead of enforcing New York’s antiquated sign law, the City Council should repeal it.  Perhaps New York could follow the example of Georgia, not by copying that state’s newly-passed, highly-restrictive anti-immigration bill, but by learning from its sign law, which actually prohibits restrictions on languages other than English on signs and bans requiring English translations of non-English signs.

    Even the Supreme Court, which ruled this term that anti-gay funeral protests must be permitted and that violent video games cannot be censored, is likely to agree with Asian American Business Group v. Pomona that requiring English on signs serves no compelling government interest and unconstitutionally limits both the content and expression of protected speech. 

    Photo of French restaurant called Cafe Noir

    Above: Yes, that's French they're speaking. Café Noir, in New York’s SoHo, seems to be in violation of the city’s sign law. Below: But it’s Asian merchants in Flushing who would become the target of new enforcement attempts. 

    Flushing street lined with Asian shop signs



    // "); // ]]>

deermusic@yahoo.com Jul 10, 2011 1:52 pm
If this were France, I would expect signs to be in French. If this were Mexico, I would expect signs to be in Spanish. If this were Israel, I would expect signs to be in Hebrew, Arabic, and English. If this were Canada, I would expect signs to be in English and French. This is (still) the United States of America. I expect signs to be in English. Perhaps if you viewed it as a courtesy to the host country...?
zreed9@gmail.com Jul 20, 2011 2:59 pm
I agree with the above post. I am all for linguistic diversity and people taking the initiative to learn about other cultures and words but this is something else I think. An American can easily read the "Cafe Noir" sign. I was on your side until you showed the picture of the Asian street. There is no way a GPS would show a firefighter how to get to one of those shops advertised by those signs. And it makes it almost impossible for a native English speaking American to find things if they wanted to go there. Even an Asian language speaker would be able to find and locate "Cafe Noir." Anyone who was serious about serving diverse customers would not use the Asian signs. While we can assume any Asian living over here would have at least a rudimentary knowledge of the alphabet, it would be unfair to ask the average New Yorker to have any knowledge of Asian writing systems. I am not some crazy conservative hate monger. I just think it is logical.
dk9g@yahoo.com Sep 9, 2011 10:32 am
This the United States of America. We are made of many nationalities. The one thing we all have in common is our language. By not requiring new Americans to learn the language is enabling them to hold onto the ways of their old countries. The idea is to get them to be able to function in this country as productive citizens. By allowing them not to learn our language is allowing to resist change. I am becoming uncomfortable in my own country when I hear store employees speaking other than English to their customers. If you are not willing to make changes in your life to accomodate your new country by learning and speaking English in public then perhaps you should consider returning to your old country.

additional blog information