No X No Y?

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We've often discussed the stylistic choice between hypotaxis, where semantic and pragmatic relations are signaled with explicit connectives and syntactic embedding, and parataxis, which relies more heavily on context and common sense to communicate the same relationships, using phrases strung together like beads on a string.

The paratactic style is more modern, more demotic, and usually shorter. But sometimes, as in the case of this flashing highway sign, it's also harder to interpret:

According to Brian Hamacher and Carolyn Ryan, "Road Rage: Hackers Say 'No Latinos' on Highway Sign", NBC News Miami 5/25/2010,

A highway sign flashing "NO LATINOS NO TACOS" greeted drivers on the Palmetto Expressway in Northwest Miami-Dade, after hackers managed to alter it early Tuesday morning.

The sign was in the northbound side of the 826, right near the Northwest 25th street exit.

It's unknown how long the sign had been flashing the message, but by 6 a.m., members of the Florida Highway Patrol and a road crew had turned the sign away from the highway and were working to erase the message.

Apparently some hackers have learned to crack the password protection on these portable highway-status signs:

Last year, a string of road sign hacks were made in three separate states.

In Austin, Texas, a sign cautioned drivers to the "ZOMBIES IN AREA! RUN." Another in Collinsville, Illinois said "Daily LANE CLOSURES DUE TO ZOMBIES." And another in rural Indiana read "RAPTORS AHEAD – CAUTION."

Many drivers, and the NBC News article, interpreted the sign as a double anti-Latino-immigration slogan: "(There should be) no Latinos (here, and also) no tacos". But Alex Pareene at salon.com saw another interpretation:

Everyone blames racists for the hacked highway sign that says, "NO LATINOS / NO TACOS." But I think they meant that without Latinos, Americans wouldn't have tacos. And that's a pro-immigrant message. Because who hates tacos? No one!

There's certainly plenty of precedent for the idea that "No X No Y" implies a conditional relationship between the lack of X and the lack of Y, generally with an implied modal as well: "If there (is, were) no X then there (will, can, should, would) be no Y".  Examples include "No justice / no peace" and "No shirt / no shoes / no service". [And, predating all of these, as DRL pointed out by email, "No tickee, no washee".]

[Update -- Dan Bruno in the comments links to this 2006 precedent for the conditional interpretation:]

The conditional interpretation is potentially offensive in its own way, among other things because it stereotypically trivializes the contributions of Latinos in the U.S., but it might indeed have been intended as a pro-immigrant rather than anti-immigrant message.

[Hat tip to Gene Buckley.]

[Some other relevant LL posts: Discourse: branch or tangle?", 11/6/2003; "Homo hemingwayensis", 1/9/2005; "The evolution of disornamentation", 2/21/2005; "Inaugural embedding", 9/9/2005; "Parataxis in Pirahã", 5/19/2006; "Sex & language stereotypes through the ages", 9/10/2006; "Baseball conditionals", 5/23/2007; "Roeper on recursion", 6/24/2007; "A principle that no one can convince me that doesn't exist", 8/18/2007; "Ontological promiscuity vs. recursion", 2/10/2008; "Presidential parataxis?", 1/24/2009.]

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63 Comments »

  1. Ethan said,

    May 26, 2010 @ 7:55 am

    I definitely read this conditionally (i.e. If there are no Latinos, there will be no tacos). I didn't even consider that it could be read differently until it was pointed out to me.

  2. Zubon said,

    May 26, 2010 @ 8:00 am

    I share the pro-immigrant interpretation. I immediately thought of "No justice / no peace" when I saw it.

    I am struck by a third interpretation, in which "NO TACOS" comes first. That would suggest reducing the number of taco outlets as a method of border control.

    Am I wrong to think that this sign would have made more sense in the American Southwest than in Florida? Tacos are not typical Cuban food.

  3. Dan Bruno said,

    May 26, 2010 @ 8:11 am

    There is some precedent for reading this conditionally as well:

    http://www.moonbattery.com/archives/2006/05/illegal-burrito.html

  4. Marinus said,

    May 26, 2010 @ 8:14 am

    I for one think that a sign with the meaning 'no Latinos, and no tacos either' is too ludicrous to think somebody could have seriously meant that as the message. The conditional reading (no Latinos, thus, no tacos) is hardly any more plausible. Given the tradition to use hijacked signs for jokey messages (a hacker tradition in general), I find a reading of the sign as a mocking parody far more plausible. I read it as someone making their most exaggerated officious-and-stupid-cop impression, and drawling: "No illegal immigrants are allowed here, and none of those tacos or other la-tee-no nonsense either!" I mean, the message is clearly ridiculous, and should probably be read as a send-up.

    I'm not an American, and very far away form the action, but I'd be aghast at the possibility that such a stupid, nonsensical message could be even be a candidate for taking at face value. Even as a sign held aloft in one of the more jingoistic rallies it would be bizarre, and that is a context where people are egging each other on. This is something somebody though fit to put out there without a similar raucous context.

  5. Mark P said,

    May 26, 2010 @ 8:17 am

    A quick Google found a site with this message:

    "DO NOT under any circumstances run around hacking into electronic road signs using the information contained in this step-by-step guide of how to transmit hilarious messages to passing motorists."

  6. Michael said,

    May 26, 2010 @ 8:18 am

    speaking of misinterpretations, how about "No woman, no cry"?

  7. Don Monroe said,

    May 26, 2010 @ 8:18 am

    This example sounds like the traditional sign:

    No Shoes
    No Shirt
    No Service

    meaning that if you're not wearing a shirt OR (I assume it's not AND) not wearing shoes, you won't be served. Like "If we had no hispanics, we'd have no tacos."

    A contrasting example appears at toll booths on the New Jersey Turnpike:

    Reduce Speed
    Get Ticket

    Obviously it's intended to mean that you should do both of those things (the ticket is used at the other end to calculate your toll), but I invariably read it that you will get a traffic ticket if you slow down.

  8. Matthew Kehrt said,

    May 26, 2010 @ 8:18 am

    I'm pretty sure the conditional meaning was meant. I've definitely seen the tongue-in-cheek argument that restricting immigration will decrease the amount of mexican food before.

  9. James said,

    May 26, 2010 @ 8:32 am

    Yes, I'm sure the conditional is intended. The most salient parallel to me is No Farms No Food.

  10. Rob Gilliam said,

    May 26, 2010 @ 8:36 am

    There's room on the sign for "NO LATINOS?" "NO TACOS!" – simple punctuation wins the day again.

    (More grammatical would be "NO LATINOS:" "NO TACOS." but using the question/exclamation form is snappier)

    [assuming they have access to punctuation characters]

  11. John said,

    May 26, 2010 @ 8:38 am

    I'm with Marinos about it being a mocking "We don't want X or Y."

    BTW, it is very easy to "hack" these machines. Apparently the default password is rarely changed so that workers can easily change the messages.

  12. Simon Tatham said,

    May 26, 2010 @ 9:00 am

    The faint ambiguity between "[if] no X [then] no Y" and "no X [and also] no Y" has occasionally amused me in the past. There used to be a building site near my office with a site-safety sign reading

    NO HAT / NO BOOTS / NO JOB

    and I could never quite shake the feeling that it would have been improved by a line of graffiti at the bottom reading "Please Give Generously".

  13. Simon Tatham said,

    May 26, 2010 @ 9:01 am

    (Grump. My formatting looked fine in the preview there, but disappeared when posted for real.)

  14. Mark F said,

    May 26, 2010 @ 9:15 am

    Looking at the two messages side by side, I find the condescending-but-pro-immigration interpretation inescapable. When the hackers were typing it in I'm sure that's what they thought too. But when the two messages are alternating, on the sign, you don't have "No X, No Y", you have

    "… No Y, No X, No Y, No X, No Y, …"

    which will look to passing drivers like both X and Y are being opposed.

  15. Henning Makholm said,

    May 26, 2010 @ 9:21 am

    The paratactic style is more modern

    Hm? I associate it more with time-worn Latin soundbites.

    [(myl) Think Hemingway or Elmore Leonard as opposed to Gibbon or Henry James.]

  16. Margaret L said,

    May 26, 2010 @ 10:35 am

    I'm not so sure that the conditional interpretation is offensively trivializing. As I read it, the whole point is poking fun at the stupidity of (some) white Americans. "You don't care about human rights or America's economic dependence on immigrants? Okay, dummy, let me put this for you in terms you will understand."

  17. Nijma said,

    May 26, 2010 @ 10:44 am

    Makes you want to reconsider the London underground "No Wet No Cold" poster |link|.

  18. Sili said,

    May 26, 2010 @ 10:50 am

    No God. Know Peace.

  19. J. Goard said,

    May 26, 2010 @ 10:54 am

    Michael:

    Beat me to it!

    The important thing there is that the second "no" (meaning 'don't') is actually a different word. The vowel is pretty much a schwa.

    When I was a kid, before ever paying attention to the lyrics, I do remember thinking it meant something like "I lost my woman, but I'm still not gonna cry."

  20. Adrian Morgan said,

    May 26, 2010 @ 11:04 am

    Where, on the plausibility scale, would you place the interpretation that involves bartering in conjunction with slave trading? That is: in order to purchase a taco, you must give us a Latino in exchange.

  21. Ellen K. said,

    May 26, 2010 @ 11:11 am

    Seeing the picture, without realizing that it was a highway sign, nor that was a flashing sign, but rather, reading it as two separate signs (or the same sign at different times, or photoshopped), I read "tacos" as another term for latinos.

  22. Jim said,

    May 26, 2010 @ 11:42 am

    That was in the Miami area. I wouldn't immediately connect Latinos to tacos in that context. Cocaine, more likely, and Republicans.

  23. Q. Pheevr said,

    May 26, 2010 @ 11:54 am

    Well, given that these messages were presented on highway signs, I think it's worth considering the conventions of the genre. Ordinarily, "NO X" on a road sign means either of two things:
    X is prohibited (or 'There should be no X'; e.g., "NO TRUCKS")
    X is not provided (or 'There is no X'; e.g., "NO SHOULDER")
    (Some are ambiguous; I think "NO EXIT" can be felicitously interpreted as meaning either 'There is no exit here' or 'Do not exit here.') Conditionals of the "No shirt, no shoes, no service" variety do not seem to be used in this genre, perhaps because the additional pragmatic processing they require is not easy to perform at highway speeds.
    Under the conventions of their ostensible genre, then, there seem to be four possible interpretations, as the two messages should probably be interpretable independently of each other:
    Latinos are prohibited / Tacos are prohibited
    Latinos are prohibited / Tacos are not provided
    Latinos are not provided / Tacos are prohibited
    Latinos are not provided / Tacos are not provided

  24. Paolo said,

    May 26, 2010 @ 12:07 pm

    Interestingly, No X No Y is now used also in colloquial Italian (and in some headlines, especially online) thanks to a highly successful Martini commercial starring George Clooney (No Martini? No party!). It is definitely not grammatical in standard Italian but it's easily understood by everybody as "[if] no X [then] no Y".

  25. nonpoptheorist said,

    May 26, 2010 @ 12:26 pm

    Arguing which message is inferred by the boards is a rather unemotional outlook on this act. Judging by the mentality of those actually messing with the signs, I think we're probably looking at a small group of average to above average intelligence friends, who are going for some form of one-upmanship, an in-joke to share amongst anonymous friends online. It is likely therefore that they utilised the two closely situated boards to display an apparently racist confused message, winding up the authorities (both police and linguistical) with no answer forthcoming. Ooh, did I say 'anonymous'? Maybe I ought to /b/e clearer here. The great internet hate machine will have thought cleverly here, creating a racist joke using a non-racist word to confuse. If they'd used a derogatory term for latinos then they got 15 seconds of fame, rather than 15 minutes.

  26. Ken Brown said,

    May 26, 2010 @ 12:35 pm

    King James VI & I defending the Church of England at Hampton Court:

    "No bishop, no King. When I mean to live under a presbytery I will go to Scotland again."

    I too read it as "If no Latinos then no tacos".

    Maybe it was just put up by stupid racists…

  27. y said,

    May 26, 2010 @ 12:39 pm

    Gibbon and Henry James are moderns. Think King James: "No bishop, no king."

  28. Charles in Vancouver said,

    May 26, 2010 @ 1:12 pm

    Indeed, "No Woman, No Cry" also came to mind… at least 3 radically different interpretations come to mind:
    1) No, dear, do not cry.
    2) I have no woman but I won't cry.
    3) If you have no woman, you won't need to cry. (This in fact was my first reading!)

  29. Boris said,

    May 26, 2010 @ 1:19 pm

    @Q. Pheevr,
    On the other hand, a flashing sign with two alternating messages almost always implies that the two are connected (e.g. Left Lane Closed / Starting May 26). Also it is rare to see both messages begin with a no since the no is usually a consequence of something else (Road Construction Ahead / No Trucks) or the beginning of a long message that doesn't fit on one screen (No diesel / This rest area), so you can not really use road sign logic here.

  30. Dan T. said,

    May 26, 2010 @ 1:28 pm

    When only one part of the message is displayed at once, it's vulnerable to a lot of misinterpretation when you just see that one part. If it's displaying "NO LATINOS", that makes it look like there's a ban on latinos proceeding onto that highway, something that would make me concerned if I were a Latino (and concerned about racism in the highway department even though I'm not). If it's displaying "NO TACOS", I wouldn't be sure what to make of it; does it mean that the Taco Bell at the roadside service area up ahead is all out of taco shells so its customers need to order something not requiring them?

  31. mollymooly said,

    May 26, 2010 @ 1:34 pm

    I think it means whatever "Bong hits for Jesus" meant.

  32. Adrian Bailey (UK) said,

    May 26, 2010 @ 3:50 pm

    "But I think they meant that without Latinos, Americans wouldn't have tacos." Well, duh.

  33. Ray Dillinger said,

    May 26, 2010 @ 3:55 pm

    Sigh. To the extent that it means something, it means that the author uses willful surrealism to get a rise out of the authorities.

    This is not a message placed by racists; this is a message placed by someone who thinks that pretending to be a (very stupid) racist will make authorities such as the sign company and highway patrol dance amusingly for his or her entertainment. Its implausibility as a real hate message is part of the joke; the more trivial, meaningless, or ambiguous the tune the authorities can be made to dance to, the more this type of hacker likes it.

    The same sort of person, if they could figure out how to solve the logistical problem, would put Groucho glasses and noses on the presidential statues on mount Rushmore and laugh for months as he or she imagined the desperate meetings and phone calls and confusion as the Homeland Security guys, FBI, Park Rangers, National Guard, etc, were trying to figure out whether it was done by a "terrorist group" and if so what their "Cause" might be.

  34. Chris Brew said,

    May 26, 2010 @ 4:22 pm

    No names, no pack drill

  35. a soulless automaton said,

    May 26, 2010 @ 4:45 pm

    Given the demographics that might perform such a prank, it strikes me as immediately obvious that the most likely scenario is: 1) The conditional meaning was intended, as with the picture in Dan Bruno's link; 2) It is quite plausibly, in fact, a direct reference to said image; 3) It was done for the lulz.

    I honestly find it surprising that other interpretations would even come to mind. Go figure.

  36. Brian said,

    May 26, 2010 @ 5:13 pm

    Groucho glasses and Mount Rushmore …?

    GENIUS

  37. Scriptor Ignotior said,

    May 26, 2010 @ 6:55 pm

    Concerning the terminology, we could make a three-way distinction:

    1. Simple juxtaposition of elements
    2. Coordination of elements
    3. Subordination of elements

    The literature appears to be unanimous about 1 (that is parataxis) and about 3 (that is hypotaxis). But what is 2? From OED at "paratactic":

    Pertaining to or involving parataxis; co-ordinative.

    But from OED at "parataxis":

    The placing of propositions or clauses one after another, without indicating by connecting words the relation (of co-ordination or subordination) between them.

    Well well. Of course the etymology of hypotaxis supports confining the term to subordination (hypo- and sub- being cognate). See this for one of many respectable sources that follow the etymology. For studied avoidance of the term parataxis see this source.

  38. Scriptor Ignotior said,

    May 26, 2010 @ 7:01 pm

    Further to my last, uncertainty regarding parataxis is discussed here, in note 4.

  39. Doug said,

    May 26, 2010 @ 7:14 pm

    Another old example of the conditional reading of "No X, no Y" is this quote from William Penn, cited in a number of places on the web:

    "No pain, no palm; no thorns, no throne; no gall, no glory; no cross, no crown."

  40. nemryn said,

    May 26, 2010 @ 7:55 pm

    No Latinos
    No tacos
    Parataxis only
    Final Destination.

  41. Simon Cauchi said,

    May 26, 2010 @ 8:32 pm

    Consult the dictionaries of proverbs for several more sayings of the pattern "No X, no Y". The one that took my fancy was from T. Pecke's Parnassi Puerperium (1659): "No chink, no drink."

  42. Simon Cauchi said,

    May 26, 2010 @ 8:43 pm

    And in Peculiar Proverbs: Weird words of wisdom from around the world (Chichester, Summersdale Publishers, 2007) I find what's said to be a Manx proverb: "No herring, no wedding".

  43. Jessica said,

    May 26, 2010 @ 9:43 pm

    In Japan a lot of students write 'No ______ No Life' on their notebooks. For example…

    'No Make No Life' (make = make-up)

    'No Pink No Life'

    and many more somewhat interesting variations which don't come to mind at the moment.

  44. ellael said,

    May 27, 2010 @ 12:58 am

    @Charles in Vancouver and others

    Strange, it never struck me that the meaning of Marley's 'No woman, no cry' was ever up for debate. To me it was always clearly the 'no, my woman, do not cry' sense. The other two you propose never occurred to me. I can see that they are plausible, I just never even considered them.

  45. Michael Moncur said,

    May 27, 2010 @ 2:19 am

    Here in Salt Lake City, someone hacked one of these signs and it read "THERE IS NO GOD" for several hours. I was very, very amused.

  46. Kenny Easwaran said,

    May 27, 2010 @ 2:34 am

    It reminds me of a sign I saw in Canberra that says "Drink drive / Die in a ditch". I assume they meant it in the conditional reading rather than a conjunctive reading.

  47. Private Zydeco said,

    May 27, 2010 @ 3:33 am

    …"ethnic" food…
    Discuss…

  48. Charles in Vancouver said,

    May 27, 2010 @ 12:45 pm

    Well allow me to add, as an 80's child growing up in a household of parents who skipped all popular music for CBC radio after the folk era, I was not exposed to Marley for a while. Anything released in the 70's I probably didn't hear until I was a teenager. Incredibly, the first time I'd even heard the song was actually when the Quebec band Dubmatique paid tribute to it with "Ragga Dub":
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bktMps3e2Uw"
    and I saw it on "FrenchKiss", which was a show MuchMusic used to air to show English Canadians some francophone music.

    In the multilingual "Ragga Dub", the refrain is "No People, No Pride" which clearly takes the conditional meaning (if you have no people, you cannot have pride). Then I listened the original "No Woman, No Cry" by Bob Marley and I patterned my interpretation the same way until I finally clued in.

  49. Army1987 said,

    May 27, 2010 @ 3:35 pm

    Any Italian would get the conditional meaning for that sentence because of an ad with the punchline ‘No Martini? No party’ which was transmitted very often on Italian TV a coupla years ago.

  50. April K said,

    May 27, 2010 @ 3:37 pm

    No pain. No gain.
    Or my favorite variation (often aimed at a Marine Corps-bound friend) – No brain. No pain.

    I second the folks who read the message as "if x then y"

    I won't even get into a discussion of whether tacos are actually Mexican food.

  51. Bobbie said,

    May 27, 2010 @ 4:14 pm

    The bumper sticker reads:
    No Jesus. No heaven.
    Know Jesus. Know Heaven.

    (or varations thereof)

  52. Theo Vosse said,

    May 27, 2010 @ 4:39 pm

    One day, a computational linguist will develop a statistically trained semantics module that will prove everyone wrong. Until then, It seems the assertion "But sometimes, as in the case of this flashing highway sign, it's also harder to interpret" has been sufficiently proven.

  53. Troy S said,

    May 28, 2010 @ 11:40 am

    Since it's an alternating message, the converse condition is equally likely:
    No tacos -> No Latinos

  54. Jeff R. said,

    May 28, 2010 @ 3:00 pm

    Hm. I'd always mondegreened the lyric as "No woman, no crime". And then interpreted in in the conditional.

    No wife, no horse, no mustache?

  55. Ray Dillinger said,

    May 28, 2010 @ 7:12 pm

    @Theo Vosse: Computational linguists have already developed statistically trained semantics module that prove everyone wrong. I know, I've done it myself. It's easy!

    It's a lot easier, in fact, than producing a module that proves wrong only those who actually are.

  56. Ray Dillinger said,

    May 28, 2010 @ 7:14 pm

    Sigh. Noun-verb agreement says: 'prove' in the above message should be 'proves.' Making that mistake on the language log is embarrassing.

  57. Sarra said,

    May 29, 2010 @ 10:33 am

    I've a lovely motorway (=highway) sign-spot ripe for dissecting – is there a way I can contact your contributors en masse in order that whoever most fancies it can have a chew on it.

  58. Sarra said,

    May 29, 2010 @ 10:35 am

    I fell asleep halfway through writing that comment, obviously. Here's the missing '?' – ?

  59. Adrian Mander said,

    May 30, 2010 @ 4:18 pm

    Here in BC there is a "bait car" program, in which unmarked cars with GPSes and cameras that take pictures of whoever is driving are placed in parking garages, in the hope that this will deter car theft. Anyhow there are these posters in parking garages that advertise this program, and they say:

    STEAL A BAIT CAR,
    GO TO JAIL.

    Pretty clearly this is intended as a kind of conditional. I was thinking that you would get the same overall effect if you used a period instead of a comma, like so:

    STEAL A BAIT CAR.
    GO TO JAIL.

    I would call this a Dirty Harry conjunction, since it presupposes a conditional and invites the listener to satisfy its antecedent, because the speaker would personally enjoy satisfying its consequent; and the end effect is of a threat that deters the satisfaction of the antecedent.

  60. John G said,

    May 30, 2010 @ 9:45 pm

    Someone who parks his (or possibly her, but I doubt it) car beside my bike has a bumper sticker saying "without Jesus there is no peace" (= No Jesus, No Peace" but my recollection is that it spells out the conditional.) My problem is that I always read it as a threat of forceful conversion to Christianity – which I suspect is not the meaning that the owner of the car has in mind.

    So: not just would we not have tacos if we did not have Latinos, but if we drive off the Latinos, they will take their tacos with them.

    I am inclined to agree with the suggestion that the highway sign was intended as Marinus said: a parody, not just as a crude message that Latinos have brought benefits that even a redneck can value.

  61. BaltoCath said,

    June 1, 2010 @ 2:15 pm

    Reminds me of a baseball cap Cheech Marin wore in one of his movies. On the front it read: NO CERVEZA NO TRABAJO.

    Words to live by :-)

  62. On the Grammar of Meditation: Parataxis « Speculative Non-Buddhism said,

    May 16, 2013 @ 6:56 pm

    [...] Image: See the discussion on this image at Language Log. [...]

  63. Steve Lee said,

    May 17, 2013 @ 12:57 pm

    Here's how the NC Coastal Federations uses the conditional:

    http://207.58.161.185/~restorat/wp-content/uploads/2009/09/no_wetlands_no_seafood_bumper_stickeredited_4001.jpg

    No wetlands
    No seafood

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