Does what it says on the tin...
March 16, 2010 11:46 PM   Subscribe

Why are boxes and packaging so very often bilingual with English and French specifically?

This may, in fact, be confirmation bias, but I've noticed that a lot of times you buy somewhat expensive electronic components and other goods, the boxes tend to have both English and French, and only those languages on them. (And not just high-end components; I've seen lower-priced consumer goods with the same polyglotism.)

Case in point, the box to my new flat screen Panasonic tv. It has every feature described in both French and English. Unpacking and transport instructions include Spanish. I'm not sure if this is some sort of social commentary, but it seems strange to me.

My hard drive box also has only English and French on it. Why not English and German? Or English and Spanish?

I know these packages are designed for multiple markets to reduce the number of variants they need--is it just that they can only fit so many on the box and English and French happen to be, alphabetically, very close to each other?

What languages show up on these boxes in Germany? German and Dutch?

Just curious why French is paired so often. (Definitely see Spanish a fair amount of the time too, but still.)
posted by disillusioned to Society & Culture (25 answers total)
 
Canadia.
posted by knowles at 11:49 PM on March 16, 2010 [11 favorites]


Things are often packaged for the North American market, which includes the US (where English is the primary language) and Canada (where English and French are both official languages.)
posted by contraption at 11:50 PM on March 16, 2010


English, French and Spanish are all official languages in the component countries of North America.

FYI, packaging for even mundane items like cosmetics and toothpaste includes Portuguese, Greek, Dutch and others where I am (UK).
posted by idiomatika at 11:54 PM on March 16, 2010


Because the manufacturers don't want to have to make one box for Canada, where we require both languages, and one for English-only United States.

Parce-que les fabricants ne veulent pas produire une boite pour Canada, ou nous avons besoin deux langues, et une pour anglais-seulement Etats-Unis.

Basically what the others said.
posted by battlebison at 11:55 PM on March 16, 2010 [6 favorites]


Aha. The Québécois! Of course! Man, that just did NOT click with me.
posted by disillusioned at 11:57 PM on March 16, 2010


Part of the problem is with Ottawa being so close to Quebec, just a quick hop across one of the bridges or 2 hour drive to Montreal, a lot of the politicians have a Quebec background. And since Ottawa is the capital of Canada where parliament is located... we Canadian English speakers/readers have to put up with this crap as well. C'est La Vie.
posted by hungrysquirrels at 12:07 AM on March 17, 2010


What languages show up on these boxes in Germany? German and Dutch?

I don't know if you wanted a serious answer, but here you go:

The box my toaster came in has English, German, French, Dutch, Portuguese, Spanish, and Italian feature descriptions on the side. The box my landline telephone came in has German, English, French, Italian, Dutch, Spanish, Portuguese, Danish, Finnish, Norwegian, Swedish, and Turkish (yes, it's very small print). My Xbox 360 came with English, French, German, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, Polish, Hungarian, Czech, Slovakian, and Greek. The box my TV came in only has English, which is weird since it was both manufactured and sold in Germany. The manual, of course, has just about every single language spoken by more than three people on earth.

Packaged foods vary. My soymilk, pasta sauce, and tins of soup all have German, French, and Dutch ingredient lists and promotional claims on them. Sometimes packaging is only in German, though, presumably when the manufacturer doesn't go after the entire EU as a market. Other times I'll see weird combos like German, Swedish and Greek. I also have a box of Indian spice mix, manufactured in Pakistan and purchased in Singapore, which has English, Arabic and some other script that I'm too woefully ignorant to identify on it. What market they're aiming for, I can't even guess.
posted by cmonkey at 1:07 AM on March 17, 2010 [2 favorites]


Blame Canada.
posted by Jacqueline at 1:53 AM on March 17, 2010


In Germany, packaging is usually German, or else German, Dutch & French (& more). If Dutch is paired with just one other language, it's usually French as it means it can be distributed in Belgium as well as the Netherlands.
posted by different at 2:28 AM on March 17, 2010


It's Canada's fault, and we're so sorry!
posted by fish tick at 4:44 AM on March 17, 2010 [1 favorite]


Yeah, European packaging for the same items (esp. short instruction booklets) often has about a dozen languages, while North America gets English, French and Spanish. I have a toothpaste tube sold by cheap Euro-retailer Lidl which has copy in English, Finnish, Swedish, Danish/Norwegian (not quite sure how they manage that), Italian and Greek.

In East Asia, you'll sometimes see booklets with Japanese, Korean and Chinese (both Simplified and Traditional) bundled with electronics, depending on the target markets.
posted by holgate at 6:00 AM on March 17, 2010


a box of Indian spice mix, manufactured in Pakistan and purchased in Singapore, which has English, Arabic and some other script that I'm too woefully ignorant to identify on it.

Tamil? It's one of Singapore's official languages.
posted by holgate at 6:03 AM on March 17, 2010


I was struck by the space-saving ingenuity of the typography on this box for a lightbulb I bought in the UK. I'm not exactly sure how many languages it covers, but it's quite a few.
posted by xueexueg at 6:22 AM on March 17, 2010 [1 favorite]


If you were a producer of said consumer good wouldn't it be cheaper for you to print out various languages on one box than have multiple boxes for different places in the world? I think its a mix of money factors and also the knowledge that people from all over use their products.
posted by boomcha76 at 6:29 AM on March 17, 2010


I'm thinking the average consumer is more likely to buy the product that has the the least amount of "foreign language clutter" on the package, thus the different packages for different areas of the world. Nobody wants to struggle to discover what's in the box.
posted by fish tick at 7:10 AM on March 17, 2010


Other factors to consider in package design are that different parts of the world use different types of electrical power, and DVD Region Codes, which would require changes to the items inside the box.
posted by cardboard at 7:21 AM on March 17, 2010


Tamil? It's one of Singapore's official languages.

No, after looking through Wikipedia, I think it's Hindi because there's a line that runs through the top part of the text, and is a logical addition to such a packet of spice. Although the ingredients are only in English and Arabic.
posted by cmonkey at 7:28 AM on March 17, 2010


My maxipads have English, French, and Spanish. I assume the same package is sold in the US, Canada, and Mexico.

Occasionally in the US you'll get a geographic split where if you live in the North you get a French/English package that's sold in the Northern US and Canada, and in the South you get a Spanish/English package that's sold in the Southern US and Mexico, and you have one packaging plant serving the north and one serving the south.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:39 AM on March 17, 2010


The bilingual packaging is actually legally required in Canada.

It's Canada's fault, and we're so sorry!

I'm not sorry - you'd be surprised at how vastly your vocabulary grows from reading the "other language" on the packaging! ... and how funny "pamplemousse" sounds.
posted by urbanlenny at 7:52 AM on March 17, 2010


Hilariously enough, my HTML issue was due to my bilingual keyboard (the <> are in a weird place in the French setup and I always mess them up/forget to look at the preview); I need accents frequently enough (I work for the Gov o' Canadia) that I tend to keep it in French.
posted by urbanlenny at 7:54 AM on March 17, 2010


Best way to being to familiarise oneself with French is to read the shampoo bottle en français while sitting on the toilet. What else are you gonna do?
posted by fso at 8:02 AM on March 17, 2010


hungrysquirrels: Part of the problem is with Ottawa being so close to Quebec, just a quick hop across one of the bridges or 2 hour drive to Montreal, a lot of the politicians have a Quebec background. And since Ottawa is the capital of Canada where parliament is located... we Canadian English speakers/readers have to put up with this crap as well. C'est La Vie.

How bitter of you! Try thinking of it as a feature, not a bug.
posted by oulipian at 8:57 AM on March 17, 2010


Part of the problem is with Ottawa being so close to Quebec, just a quick hop across one of the bridges or 2 hour drive to Montreal, a lot of the politicians have a Quebec background. And since Ottawa is the capital of Canada where parliament is located... we Canadian English speakers/readers have to put up with this crap as well. C'est La Vie.

Bah. 22% of Canadians speak mainly French at home (wikipedia). Compare that to the 12% of Americans who speak Spanish at home (wikipedia again). And French speakers don't live exclusively in Quebec. There are francophone communities accross the country, not to mention the Acadians in the maritimes (they make up 33% of the population in New Brunswick).
posted by kitcat at 2:46 PM on March 17, 2010


Three products from the same company, bought recently in Norway:

My Philips electric water kettle came in a box with a large photo with short description in English on two sides of the box. On the other two sides, there's several smaller pictures with a short description in 30 different languages. On one of these box sides, there also a short product description in German, written in a bigger font, on the other box side this is written in Dutch. The top of the box also has a short product description in 30 languages, including Estonian, Latvian, Turkish and Korean.

The user manual inside the box is a booklet with 13 different languages.

My Philips flat screen tv came in a box with English text on one side, French on the other side, and unpacking instructions in English, French and Spanish.

My Philips home cinema sound system came in a box with English on one side and on the box top, French on another side, and feature description written in 8 different languages on the two short box sides. The two short sides of the box also has a short product description written in a bigger font in German and Spanish.

I have a toothpaste tube sold by cheap Euro-retailer Lidl which has copy in English, Finnish, Swedish, Danish/Norwegian (not quite sure how they manage that), Italian and Greek.

In the Nordic countries, it's not unusual to have product descriptions on toothpaste tubes, shampoo bottles, packaged food etc written in mixed Swedish/Danish/Norwegian, to save space. If the Swedish and Danish words are too different, they put in a slash to separate the Swedish word from the Danish word. This is part of the text on the back a Sensodyne toothpaste tube:

"Tandkräm/Tannkrem/Tandpasta/Hammastahna

S/N/DK:
Effektivt skydd/beskyttelse for känsliga/følsomme tänder.
- Motverker effektivt ilningar/ising i tändarna.
- Skyddar/Beskytter mot karies."

There's also a separate product description in Finnish.
posted by iviken at 3:14 PM on March 17, 2010


Here in Poland, I've seen obvious combinations like Polish/German, Polish/Czech/Slovak, or Polish/Ukrainian, but I've also seen just Polish/Spanish, just Polish/Greek, or just Polish/Romanian, which makes you wonder if the people who work in the packaging department ever talk to the people in the shipping department.
posted by mdonley at 3:41 PM on March 17, 2010


« Older What are some crazy coincidences throughout...   |   How do I explain programming to a 12-year-old? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.