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Are laws requiring English signs discriminatory?

By Dennis Baron


English on business signs? It’s 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.

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.

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.

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.

Dennis Baron is Professor of English and Linguistics at the University of Illinois. His book, A Better Pencil: Readers, Writers, and the Digital Revolution, looks at the evolution of communication technology, from pencils to pixels. You can view his previous OUPblog posts here or read more on his personal site, The Web of Language, where this article originally appeared. Until next time, keep up with Professor Baron on Twitter: @DrGrammar.

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Recent Comments

  1. Eleanor

    Technically, “café” and “noir” are both English words as well as French.

    Requiring signs in one language is one thing. Banning signs in other languages is different. I don’t think it’s that discriminatory to require a sign that users of the official language can read, if not necessarily understand, as long as it doesn’t have to be the only sign or the biggest one.

  2. Lisa

    I agree with Eleanor.

    Requiring that all signs be posted in an official language that citizens can easily read is a legitimate safety need, as well as common sense and courtesy to the host country (or other applicable geographical unit).

    Banning signs in other languages is bigoted, unnecessary, and just plain mean-spirited.

    I find it mind-boggling that so many people don’t seem to understand the difference.

  3. Teeth Names

    I think it really would be safe for citizen to read, but I do know some people don’t even read signs.

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