Linguistic Landscape

            Linguistic Landscape “K-Town”

Korea Town, also known as “K-Town ” is located on 32nd Street, between Madison and Sixth Avenue, right in the heart of Midtown Manhattan. Although New York City is known for its very versatile cultural communities, Korea Town adds its own vibrant colors to New York’s palette with bright neon signs that sometimes indicate only in Korea what the establishments are. The overall aesthetic of the two-street-long town is entirely different from the rest of Manhattan, and this particular ambiance can be perceived immediately when walking into these streets. Most signs are vertical (See Figure 2) and contain LED lights so that they stand out more at night and attract people. It is very common to see these kinds of vertical signs in Asia since originally, and the writing system was intended to be vertical, so this feature is preferred and, in my opinion, is more visible from both sides of the street while walking, contrary to having to stand in front of an establishment to read the sign, therefore being able to catch more attention of passerby. On top of that, almost all of the signs within the area are in Korean, which is completely understandable as the area primarily targets an audience that has either knowledge or completely knows Korean. However, there are many tourists and residents to be found there as well. The whole environment is entirely different from most places in Manhattan excluding other Asian towns such as both China towns in NYC. This allows people to visit K-Town to get a feel of Korean Culture, which is extremely refreshing amongst the streets of Manhattan and the well-known American feeling roaming around.

Figure 1

In the tradition of Asian languages, languages are typically written and stylized vertically(See figure 2); languages such as Korean, Chinese, and Japanese have a historical and cultural background with this particular type of writing. Early Chinese writing, which influenced both Korean and Japanese text, was usually done in bamboo or wooden strips that were tied together and read vertically, which would fit perfectly the format of scrolls they used before books were invented. Vertical writing harmonized with traditional Chinese and Japanese art, which often emphasizes vertical composition and is included alongside drawings, paintings, and other graphical illustrations, aligning with certain philosophical views that mimic the intrinsic flow of nature, like water flowing downwards on a cascade or bamboo trees growing upwards. Practical considerations also played a role, as early writing tools and surfaces influenced the direction of writing, with brush strokes in Chinese calligraphy naturally suited to a top-down motion. This tradition was preserved over time due to cultural continuity and the great reverence for tradition that these cultures practice towards their history and past. Today, both vertical and horizontal writing are used in these languages, with horizontal writing becoming more common in modern contexts, particularly in digital media, as it is more Westernized, where it aligns better with the left-to-right reading patterns of many global languages and the interfaces of social media, websites, and other online spaces.

Figure 2

Korea Town has a well-known history of how it came to be such a prominent part of Manhattan and overall such a highlight in New York City. Throughout the 1970s – 1990s, Korean immigrants became the third-largest immigrant group in the United States. The population increased from 71,000 in 1970 to 290,000 in 1980, increasing in number rapidly over the years. During these periods, Korea was going through a harsh economic situation that significantly contributed to and affected the number of Korean citizens migrating to the United States. As a result of this, Koreans began to flourish as a community in midtown Manhattan, and as years went by, Korea Town was formed by the growing community they built with effort and time.

Something I noticed when I visited Korea Town, was that all the stores, businesses, and commercial posters were mainly about Korean dishes and activities popular in Korea, such as Karaoke and Korean pubs/restaurants.(See figures 4-5) These activities and places are not only appealing to Koreans and Korean Americans for the sense of familiarity that they provide these communities but also provide a sense of discovery for both locals and tourists who seek a change of environment in the agitated and chaotic city. I also noticed there were stores dedicated explicitly to K-pop and Korean skincare, which over the recent years have not only taken over Korea but become a global hit that is preceded by its popularity and fans all over the world, meaning that Koreans, residents of New York and tourists can find in Korea Town something that they might be interested in. The way the linguistic landscape is laid out over such a tiny town completely contrasts with the rest of Manhattan. Because of this contrast, the two-street-long town submerges almost everyone in Korean culture and entertainment, providing an easy and quick alternative to visiting Korea itself. The general perception of language in Korea Town truly stands out from the rest of the borough; the way it is presented with bright neon signs and vertical signs contrasting most western style signs in horizontal and normally plain without lights, also contributes to the ambiance of the scenic scene at K-Town.

Figure 4

Figure 5

Another particularity I noticed during my visit to Korea Town, as seen in Figure 4, is the implementation of the standardized vertical writing system into English words such as “Karaoke” in the sign, written in a vibrant red with a cyan overline and vertically that highlights the letters and help them pop out. This especially appealed to my attention because it serves as a mix between Western and Eastern culture and represents that mix perfectly: a community formed by Koreans in the middle of Manhattan in the United States, with signs that implement the style of Korean vertical writing but yet are written on English, it is the perfect appeal to the Korean community and the locals and visitors that seek to view something new in the streets of Manhattan.

Figure 6

Personally, I tend to visit Korea town frequently since I enjoy doing Karaoke. Like most people nowadays, I normally only carry a card. On several occasions, I have had to go to Citibank (figure 6) to take out some cash; it wasn’t until one of my most recent visits that I finally noticed that the very familiar Citibank sign above the ATM included a Korean text beside the name. It was a very funny and particular experience, realizing that I had not noticed the text in Korean besides the English one, and my brain had just ignored it somehow. A similar situation happens when walking into Korea town. you will immediately notice that the sign with the street name also contains Korean characters right under the English sign that says “Korea Way”. This is interesting because you rarely get to see other texts on the street’s name signs and because it immediately introduces what you are going to see in Korea Town with the mix of Korean culture and American culture.

Figure 7

While in Koreatown, it is possible to appreciate how much the culture of a country and/or group of people can affect, change, and influence the settings, layout, and aesthetics of the language they use. It is truly an intricate and fun experience. The entire language landscape can be unique to the area while also trying to blend with New York City.