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Language in the Landscape: Monterey Park Council Wants 'Alphabet' Signs

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When I was a boy in the 1950s, the boredom of a family road trip was abated by my brother or me reading aloud the passing billboards. Reading billboards overcame the silences that inevitably collected in our family car.

Long stretches of the trip were subdivided by billboards counting down to an attraction that was 25 ... 15 ... 10 ... 5 ... 2 miles away until THIS IS IT! in 30-foot high letters hung over the reptile farm/date shake stand/Indian relics emporium/coldest beer/mystery spot.

The roadside signs were ugly, intrusive, and comforting. Their sales pitches mingled yearning with appeals to buy. They pleaded for a relationship, if only over a counter for a bottle of soda. Every sign was hung on a scaffold of hope.

In Monterey Park, where ethnic Chinese own many of the businesses and more than 50 percent of the population has roots in the Asian diaspora, roadside signs written in unfamiliar scripts are a problem (and not for the first time).

Monterey Park city council members voted unanimously in July to introduce an amended sign ordinance that would require every business to display at least one sign written in "modern Latin" (the letters A through Z) and with "Hindu Arabic" numerals (the numbers 0 through 9).

This isn't supposed to be "English-only" chauvinism. The content of the "modern Latin" sign wouldn't have to be readable as English. It would be enough to take an existing sign in Chinese characters and to "romanize" it. (Pinyin is a system for alphabetizing spoken Mandarin that's endorsed by both Beijing and Taipei, one of the few policies the two governments agree on.)

Signs in the sinuous scripts of Cambodian and Thai or the letter blocks of Korean would require "romanization," too, but Vietnamese, which is already written in "modern Latin" letters, would not.

City council members bought the argument that requiring every business to have a sign in "modern Latin" would make Monterey Park safer (even if the sign was incomprehensible in English). Police and fire units, council members agreed, needed content in "modern Latin" letters to identify a business in an emergency.

Enthusiasm for the signage law has faded since the council's vote. The Monterey Park fire chief told a reporter that his units rely on GPS coordinates for location confirmation, weakening one argument in favor of letters. And at least one council member has had second thoughts about his vote.

If Monterey Park businesses were required to turn Chinese characters into letters, what would the sign say? According to Google Translate, YAKE YISHENG is the pinyin transliteration of the characters ç??ç§?å?»ç?? that signify dentist. Barber (ç?å?å¸?) is LIFA SHI. Car insurance (???é?©) is QICHE BAOXIAN. (The extra marks indicating tonal variations have been omitted.)

These phrases are hardly less disorienting than the corresponding set of ideograms. Even in one of the older transliteration systems, the resulting words would be "readable" but otherwise meaningless. And breaking down the Chinese character sets to individual English words would result in an illiterate caricature of written Chinese.

Generic signs in English -- barber, dentist, accountant -- next to expressive Chinese or Thai or Korean scripts seem even more diminished, as if passersby could be lured to shop or do business in Monterey Park by a single word in English.

In 19th century New York, the poet Walt Whitman saw a new language being concocted on the signboards of the city's brawling streets. Whitman believed that speech in public -- in the form of appeals and declarations -- would become our common speech. He was, so to speak, a vernacular imperialist.

That language today -- as beautiful and muscular as Whitman dreamed it -- has limits to its power in a linguistically plural culture. There are conversations underway over our heads on billboards and shop fronts that ignore American speech entirely. Their loud yearnings and claims fall on my deaf eyes, but I wouldn't coerce those speakers into mumbling something for my sake.

Although I know that something else -- a word said or seen in passing -- is lost.

The Monterey Park city council has scheduled a final vote on its "modern Latin" sign ordinance for August 7. It will ultimately take a minimum of three votes to pass.

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