Signage and foreign languages

The first word I ever learned to read in Japanese was クラブ, derived from and meaning “club”. There were 5 such Japanese clubs to be passed in my five minute walk to work last year. But my favourite use of foreign languages in a business façade is probably the massage parlour. A number of them say 안마¹, massage and マッサージ², but not always the Mandarin equivalent.

In the case of the clubs, they were in fact intended for Japanese expats in town, of which there were plenty, and the katakana was the only indication of what the structure actually was. So for that the use of Japanese makes perfect sense. It’s ultimately a written shibboleth. Clearly that’s not the case with the massage parlours.

Specialty business aside (and English), the most common use of foreign glyphs in signage is probably の. Pronounced /no/ in Japanese, it has much the same role as 的 does in Mandarin, and that’s exactly where you’ll find it. It’s even how you’ll hear it pronounced here. I saw it this past weekend in a mall off the Nanjing Xi Lu shopping area. I’ve seen it on any number of shops selling fashion trinkets or dorm room tchotchkes. It’s on signs for sushi restaurants, of course, but, and this is a stretch, it’s arguable that if the characters used in the rest of the sign aren’t the form used in Japan, then the sign is in Mandarin and is using の in place of 的. Just possible.

I took a picture of the sign in the mall, but I’m reluctant to post it and threby take away Syz’s “worst photog in the world” title. Instead I direct you to an example that can be see on Wikipedia.

There are regular appearances of حلال (halāl, i.e. kosher for Muslims) on signs of shops owned by Hui or Uyghurs, and any Middle Eastern restaurant worth it’s salt will have their name in Arabic on the sign.

What I wonder about this is first, how aware is the average person of these things and second, if they are aware, do they know the origins and meanings? I know that の is well understood by pretty much anyone under 30. However クラブ and حلال may be a different story. The latter is just as often written as 清真, and the use of the Arabic here may just be another case of Orientalising the product.

1. Or in the case of the photo, 전신안마 jeon-sin an-ma derived from Sinitic 全身按摩 quánshēn ànmó, full-body massage.
2. Japanese massāji

5 responses to “Signage and foreign languages”

  1. Randy Alexander says:

    I’ve always understood the の as equivalent to Chinese 之, and hear it read by Chinese that way.

    In Dongbei (I may have seen them in Shanghai too) there is a chain called 快の客. It has lots of imitators and the の gets mangled in all sorts of ways. I’ve definitely seen 快之客 and 快e客, the latter being my favorite botching of Japanese ever.

  2. Aaron says:

    I recall seeing の in signs in Taiwan where the rest of the sign was absolutely not parseable as Japanese. All hanzi in 優の良品 are Japanese variants, but I’d hesitate to call it “Japanese” (優 alone is not a valid noun, though 良品 is; this is an obvious takeoff of 無印良品, a popular Japanese clothes/furniture/appliances/snacks/everything store).

  3. Aaron says:

    Also, in Japanese の used to be written (and still sometimes is, for “fancy” effect, like “ye olde”) 之 and sometimes 乃 (both still pronounced “no”). In fact the latter is what the character の was derived from.

  4. の-ising is pretty common online and indeed in shop fronts and the like, much the same way as we might in English add Italian and French words in restaurant windows to give a hint of class.

  5. Kellen Parker says:

    The other one I forgot to mention was things like Häagen-Dazs or adding umlauts to wörds to make them more awesome.

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