Next day's Chinese lesson

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Following up on "Chinese Lesson for Today," we have another specimen of writing on a wall related to the bodily functions that requires grammatical explanation. Here is a temporary sign at a construction site in Shanghai, taken by Mollie Kirk around '08:

Jìnzhǐ xiǎobiàn, fǒuzé sǐrén 禁止小便,否則死人

Direct translation: "It is prohibited to urinate, otherwise dead man."

Nuanced translation: "Urinating prohibited; if you do, you're a dead man."

Free translation: "Piss here and heads will roll."

Interpretive translation: "No urinating on pain of death."

The sign is not attached to an electric grid, so we cannot factor electrocution into our analysis. And this Shanghai construction site sign, although reminiscent of the famous Taipei "Yánjìn jiù dì sǐwáng“ 嚴禁就地死亡 ("DYING RIGHT HERE IS STRICTLY PROHIBITED") sign, is altogether different in intent and construction.

First order explication:

jìnzhǐ 禁止 ("prohibit")

xiǎobiàn 小便 (long term readers of Language Log are already familiar with "minor convenience," so I needn't repeat why it means what it does)

fǒuzé 否則 ("otherwise")

sǐ rén 死人 ("die person")

People who are not attentive to or fussy about grammar and syntax will uncritically read the whole sign roughly like this: "Prohibit piss; otherwise die person," i.e., "someone (will) die." When we get right down to the nitty-gritty of the grammar, however, the story becomes much more complicated.

Before going deeper into the grammar, however, I should point out that virtually everyone who reads this sign will feel uncomfortable with the construction of sǐ rén 死人. Somehow, it just doesn't seem natural. Why? First of all, sǐ rén 死人 by itself as a noun with an attribute preceding it might mean "dead person" or "dolt, dunderhead." However, in the present instance we can rule that possibility out because the conjunction fǒuzé 否則 ("otherwise") requires that a verb or verbal clause follow it. Consequently, either sǐ 死 ("die") or rén 人 ("person") must be a verb. In this case, it is obvious that sǐ 死 ("die") is the verb. But this causes a problem: what to do with the noun rén 人 ("person")?

There are two main reasons why sǐ rén 死人 ("die person") presents a problem: 1. in Mandarin, a noun that precedes the verb usually functions as the subject, whereas a noun that follows a verb functions as an object; 2. sǐ 死 ("die") is an intransitive verb and normally does not take an object. Consequently, we need to understand the relationship between sǐ 死 ("die") and rén 人 ("person") in some other fashion than that of intransitive verb + object, which would be an impossibility. What happens in such cases is that the intransitive verb becomes causative, hence sǐ rén 死人 ("cause a person to die").

Grammatical translaton: "It is prohibited to urinate [here]; otherwise (i.e., if someone ignores this prohibition and urinates here anyway), [his / her peeing] will cause [that] person to die."

The explanation above is strictly my own, formulated before I consulted with anyone else. Among over a dozen other native speakers (all professional teachers of Mandarin) and very advanced non-native speakers (all graduate students or teachers of Mandarin) whom I asked about the Shanghai construction site sign, I received in addition (among others) the following interpretations:

1. [native speaker] I think SI3 REN2 here is a curse. The sign says: Prohibition of urine. Otherwise, you XXXX (curse word)

2. [non-native speaker] I'm not completely confident, but I would analyze "sǐrén" here as a verb-noun compound which basically acts as a verb with the meaning "to make (a person) die." So a rough translation would be "Urination is prohibited – otherwise (=if you do not follow this prohibition), you will be killed." I'm not sure why, but it sounds like it has a slight Cantonese (or at least southern) flavor to me.

3. [native speaker] I would read SI3 REN2 as meaning "someone will die", or "I'll kill you". So: "Urination forbidden, or expect to die." That's the best I can do. I'm probably wrong.

4. [non-native speaker; the author separately notes that his explanation is "tentative"] 死 and a few other verbs like it seem to have special properties in Chinese. They are transitional event verbs ('fall', 'arrive' etc.) to be contrasted with other process verbs that are not telic, like 'change' and 'grow'. So 死人 ['die person'] is parallel to 下雨 ['fall rain'], with the 'patient' noun placed after the intransitive verb following the general tendency for indefinite nouns to occur after the verb. I might hazard a connection between 死人 and 有人死 ['there is a person {who} dies'], with 有 providing cover for 人.

5. [native speaker] considering the context and the people who wrote this sign, I would read SI REN as: people (will) die.

6. [non-native speaker] Well, whenever I see such things I always think of the importance of the order of the components. This sort of thing reminds me of the observation that "xia4yu3", "fall-rain" is not an example of impenetrable Chinese abstraction, but merely exists in contrast with the other possible ordering "yu3xia4 (le)", which one would say if the anticipated rain finally began to fall. Same with "lai2le ke4ren2" ["came guest"] vs. "ke4ren2 lai2le", where order differentiates indefinite vs. definite. So in this case I feel indefiniteness: "No peeing here, or somebody's gonna die!" or some such. That's how I would translate it. So I guess it's a little verb phraselet, "[some] person dies", vs. "ren2si3 (le)", "[that] person dies".

That's a hilarious sign, by the way, no matter how we eggheads perceive it.

7. [native speaker] I don't know why, but to me si3ren2 just means "you'll die."

8. [non-native speaker] Well, as regards intransitive verbs in such constructions, people contrast for example che1 lai2 le 车来了 'the bus [etc.] has come' with lai2 che1 le 来车了 'a/some bus [etc.] has come', the idea being that within the former (S-V order), the noun is definite (a specific bus, the bus we are waiting for > "the bus") whereas in the latter (V-S), it is indefinite. Analogously, the force of si3 ren2 死人 on this sign is certainly 'someone will die'–who, exactly, being inexplicit. My preference was to understand this as achieving a kind of rhetorical effect: 'piss here and heads will roll.' However, my wife [VHM: a native speaker] suggests the writer has simply been clumsily imprecise ("mei2 wen2hua4" ["uncultured"), so….

Of course, there are cases in classical where intransitive si3 is followed directly by a nominal argument, but there, the argument fills some oblique role (Zhuangzi: 勇不足以死寇 'valor too scanty to face death at the hands of bandits') — quite incomparable to what is going on here….

9. [native speaker] I would say SI3 is the transitive verb and REN2 being its object. I would say SI3 here means "to cause people to die." This expression is often heard in colloquial conversations, such as: 这种药不能乱吃,否则会死人的。(This kind of medicine can't be taken randomly, otherwise people can die.) I didn't check any grammar books. This is simply my explanation.

10. [native speaker] Chinese really have come up with some weird signs nowadays! My interpretation of 死人 here is that whoever does what's forbidden will pay with his life. Grammatically analyze it? You got me. Here is my best guess: the intransitive 死 takes on a transitive form (死人), because this expression is passive in meaning (人被杀死/害死/弄死 etc.). I think there are two important differences between 死人了 and 人死了: 1) the former is a general reference (someone), the latter specific (the person in concern); 2) the former implies a unnatural death (homicide, suicide etc.), the latter a natural one. Did I even remotely answer your question?

11. [non-native speaker] As for your 禁止小便,否則死人, without grabbing some native speakers and eliciting their responses and trying similar sentences, my guess is that 死人 is here an inversion of 人死 — in other words, 'Urinating prohibited, otherwise you're a goner.' On the model of the not infrequent 死了不少人 'There have died many people' (or 來了客人 'There have come some guests'). But I wonder if 死人 might here even somehow be a transitive verb with object: 'it will kill you'. Hmm…

12. [non-native speaker] My analysis would be that the verb si3 is intransitive and takes one argument, that of ‘Theme’, i.e., the entity affected by the verb. In the phrase ‘ren2 si3’, ‘ren2’ is the 'grammatical subject' (i.e., the surface subject based simply on word order) but not the 'logical subject' (i.e., the subject based on thematic relations). In the phrase you cite, ‘si3 ren2’, ren2 is both the grammatical and logical object. It is the grammatical object because it occupies surface object position in terms of word order, and it is the logical object because it functions as ‘Theme’ (because ‘Theme’ is usually associated with the object).

(the following example modified from Wikipedia):
* Our children planted a tree.
* A tree was planted by our children.
In the first example, tree is the grammatical and logical object. In the second example, tree is the logical object but the grammatical subject.

13. [non-native speaker] My guess is that it means "don't urinate [here] or somebody will die". 死人 seems to be one of those cases where a subject and verb are reversed. I think YR Chao talks about this in his grammar.

14. [native speaker] It is usually understood this way: no pee, otherwise someone (you) will die. It is apparently a threat. 'si3ren2' could not be interpreted as 'dead man' since "otherwise" is adverb/conjunction word here.

15. [non-native speaker] I presume you are referring to the analysis of 死 ("die"), which to me appears to be functioning here as a transitive verb (a use I have never encountered before). Though this might not be indicative of a new grammatical trend, there are two other words that are now frequently used in China as transitive verbs, fang1bian4 ("convenient") and lian2xi4 ("contact, link"), that were never taught as such when I was studying Chinese and which I never heard used that way when I was a student in Taiwan thirty years ago.


There are many other possibilities for understanding the second clause of Jìnzhǐ xiǎobiàn, fǒuzé sǐrén 禁止小便,否則死人, e.g., fǒuzé (jiù huì yǒu) sǐrén 否則(就會有)死人 or fǒuzé (huì yǒu) sǐrén 否則(會有)死人 (both meaning "otherwise (there will be) a dead person," with jiù huì yǒu or huì yǒu being understood.

It is evident that there is considerable disagreement and confusion over how to understand the language of this seemingly simple sign, in particular the sǐ rén 死人 ("die person") part. It is also worth noting that native speakers invariably take a direct, intuitive approach to their understanding of the language on the sign (unless they have received higher education in literature, language, or linguistics), whereas non-native speakers are far more analytical in their approach.

Bottom line: "You pee here, you die" or "If you piss here, I'll kill you."

[A tip of the hat to Jerry Norman, South Coblin, Julian Wheatley, Cornelius Kubler, Jerry Packard, David Moser, Shengli Feng, Carrie Reed, Melvin Lee, Jonathan Smith, Matt Anderson, Jeff Rice, Cynthia Ning, Gloria Bien, Maiheng Dietrich, Liwei Jiao, Yunong Zhou, Jiajia Wang, Lala Zuo, and Zhiping Yi.]



31 Comments

  1. Wm Annis said,

    August 31, 2010 @ 8:39 am

    Do native speakers think the syntax wackiness results from trying to fit the warning into 4-character clauses (a la chéngyŭ)?

  2. rgove said,

    August 31, 2010 @ 9:10 am

    Wm Annis: That was the first thing I thought as well. There seems to be a very strong tradition of structuring public signs into lines with an equal number of syllables. 4 syllables for the proscribed act and 4 syllables for the threatened consequence is particularly common.

    See here for more examples.

  3. A-gu said,

    August 31, 2010 @ 9:13 am

    For some reason the phrase 死人 as a verb+noun compound is familiar to me, and I spent time in Taiwan. So perhaps those who feel this phrase has a southern flavor are right.

    Barely related, but I'm also reminded of one of the great threats used in Holo Taiwanese:

    … 汝知死的汝! Li tsainn si e li!

    [If you do something unacceptable...] You'll understand death, you!

  4. Adam said,

    August 31, 2010 @ 9:43 am

    They take this more seriously than the French. I've seen DEFENSE D'URINER, but never SOUS PEINE DE MORT.

  5. D. Sky Onosson said,

    August 31, 2010 @ 10:23 am

    I ask this naively: is it possible that the author of the sign was not a native speaker of Mandarin, or even writing in another "dialect"? I don't know much about the language situation in Shanghai, though I have heard of Shanghainese which is presumably different enough to warrant its own name. The only Chinese I know at all is Mandarin, and certainly not enough to be able to tell the difference myself between it and other dialects/languages written in Hanzi .

  6. Victor Mair said,

    August 31, 2010 @ 12:12 pm

    Commenter no. 14 has, upon careful reflection, changed his interpretation: "It is more like a curse than a threat." Along with commenter no. 1, that makes two native speakers who think that SI3 REN2 ("die person") is a curse.

  7. John Chew said,

    August 31, 2010 @ 12:52 pm

    If it's a curse and not a threat, I suggest the looser translation "Piss off and die!" :)

  8. Victor Mair said,

    August 31, 2010 @ 1:22 pm

    16. [native speaker with a Ph.D. in Chinese linguistics, head of top language programs in China and the United States] I think it is a curse that created by someone who really hates people do 小便 xiao3bian4 there. "Fou ze si ren" could mean "otherwise it will cause death". I don't know if my interpretation is right or wrong. What do you think?

  9. Victor Mair said,

    August 31, 2010 @ 1:25 pm

    17. [non-native speaker, head of one of the top Chinese language programs in the United States and author of a leading textbook of Mandarin] Causative. It will kill people. What a weird sign. Since when does urine kill people? If it means (someone) will kill you, it doesn't seem correct. Ren2 should be (other) people. The whole thing sounds fishy, esp since usually signs would just say the first four words. But I guess if you really wanted to scare folks…

  10. JimG said,

    August 31, 2010 @ 1:28 pm

    Is there any unstated assumption in China regarding urine's effects on the health of others, or its effects on the structural integrity of walls? Must we assume that death comes to the first actor instead of unspecified others?

  11. B. Ma said,

    August 31, 2010 @ 3:31 pm

    As a Cantonese speaker, people around me use 死人 all the time, usually meaning that (doing) something will lead to death, as in the drugs example from person 9. Also it sounds like something you hear in action movies or TV shows, e.g. "hide us in your house or someone will die!" or "if you don't give me money (to pay off a ransom/high-interest money lender), a person will die". In these examples the speakers know who is going to be killed but it could both be the speaker or someone else.

    As for the sign, the whole thing is a bit odd. I find the use of 禁止…否则.. strange, because using "or else" in the second clause means that the first clause should be some sort of imperative or conditional. "Urinating is prohibited" is describing the situation, and it can't just be followed by a consequence – I would have to say either "Urinating is prohibited, and people who urinate will die" or "Don't urinate, or else you will die". Can't think of how to say it in 2×4 characters off the top of my head.

  12. Richard said,

    August 31, 2010 @ 4:31 pm

    I think this is analyzed too much. It's ungrammatical in Mandarin, it's ungrammatical in Shanghainese though, like in Cantonese, "死人" can be used an a general expletive (like "m'fucker" in English). This sign may actually be grammatical in some regionalect, though I'm inclined to think that the writer just wanted to fit his warning in a 4-block chengyu format, didn't want to say to the pisser specifically that he would die (would sound too harsh), and this was the best he could do.

  13. Rubrick said,

    August 31, 2010 @ 5:17 pm

    In one case Victor wrote "translaton", an obvious typo for "translation". However, I like the notion of "translaton" being the fundamental, irreducible unit of translation.

  14. Nick Lamb said,

    August 31, 2010 @ 6:38 pm

    Is it conceivable that once again Western influence is responsible? Of course native users may rule this out – but is there an obvious better choice than 死人 for "dead man" in a translation of the cliche "You're a dead man"? This might seem awkward in English too if it had not become a set phrase, used by an endless succession of bad guys in violent movies and TV shows. It is no stretch to imagine Chinese construction workers enjoying them, perhaps in the form of poorly translated bootleg versions as occurred with the popularity of "Kung fu" movies in the US.

  15. Alex said,

    August 31, 2010 @ 6:43 pm

    I saw a similar sign in Cusco warning that a wall was electrified and that urinators would be electrocuted. It went something like "No orinar bajo pena de electrocucion." (No urination on pain of electrocution.)

    Pee does undermine adobe walls and eventually cause them to collapse, but rigging the wall to kill anyone too drunk or illiterate to read the warning seems extreme. I'm hoping it was a bluff.

    Is it possible that the sign in Shanghai was also warning/threatening about a booby trap?

  16. groki said,

    August 31, 2010 @ 6:50 pm

    Rubrick "translaton":

    yeah, and what's lost in translation would be due to a 2nd law of linguodynamics, whereby semantic entropy always increases.

  17. Victor Mair said,

    August 31, 2010 @ 8:08 pm

    18. [non-native speaker] There is something I feel needs to be considered here. As I recall, some grammarians call it the “presentative construction”. It involves verbs that show some sort of motion or change of state and usually indicate some negative effect on the speaker. So for example, one can say, 我們昨天來了客人 “Yesterday we had guests come (on us).”, i.e., their arrival was in some way inconvenient. Perhaps it was unexpected, or maybe it was at a busy time, etc. Now, I have seen 死 used in this type of construction. For example, 我們那次大戰死了很多人. “In that battle we lost a lot of men.” It seems to me that your example may well belong to this type of construction. I have often felt that these “presentative constructions” are really transitive/causative uses of the verbs in question.

  18. Mark Elliott said,

    August 31, 2010 @ 8:42 pm

    Most possibilities have been covered here, but let me offer two freer versions:
    "Piss here, you die!"
    or, for New Yorkers,
    "Don't even think of pissing here."

  19. mondain said,

    August 31, 2010 @ 10:23 pm

    As in '死人了'(10) and '会死人'(9), to me '死' here is more likely a verb '(people) die' rather than adjective 'dead (people)'. I also agree with No. 1 that it's a curse ‘死人[之灾/祸]’, however the cursed may not be limited to the person who urinates, it may be incurred upon his/(her?) family as well. Perhaps it is possible to find similar structures using '死人' as the consequence in conditional sentences in divination or dream interpretation texts, referring to the deaths of family members.

  20. Debbie said,

    August 31, 2010 @ 11:35 pm

    What if it were simply graffitti written by someone disgruntled by all the construction? (Back to the piss off and die message).

  21. ian said,

    September 1, 2010 @ 7:29 am

    hey guys, i know that his doesn't count, but i couldn't resist sticking the chinese characters into google translate . the result –
    "prohibition of urine , or dead".

  22. Jon Lennox said,

    September 1, 2010 @ 8:30 am

    Is the sign still there? Maybe you should try urinating there, and then interview whoever shows up with repurposed construction equipment.

  23. Victor Mair said,

    September 1, 2010 @ 12:25 pm

    19. [native speaker] I think the sign is a kind of threat, so "si ren"
    means someone will die, that implies that the person who urinated will die.

  24. Victor Mair said,

    September 1, 2010 @ 2:27 pm

    20. [non-native speaker] This reminds me of graffiti I took a picture of in a casino bathroom in Atlantic City.

    赌博害死人

    There the verb object structure is obvious, because of the verb resultative compound and the logical sense of it, "gambling kills" or "gambling hurts you to death" or "gambling ruins people"

    Can't really make an analogous translation with "peeing kills you to death" or "peeing kills people" though. Interesting.

  25. Elly said,

    September 2, 2010 @ 12:00 am

    So, is this the Chinese version of a parody on the It's a Wonderful Life line? Some variation of: Every time someone pees here, someone/an angel gets his/her wings.

  26. Pomplemoose said,

    September 2, 2010 @ 5:44 am

    In the alleyway of my former block in Washington, DC, somebody had scrawled "LOOK YOU NO PISSIN".

  27. mollymooly said,

    September 2, 2010 @ 11:56 am

    @Adam:
    DEFENSE D'URINER is, at least, less oblique than the British "Commit no nuisance".

  28. Richard said,

    September 3, 2010 @ 12:44 pm

    The use of 死人 as an epithet is not because of Western influence, or if it is, it's of rather old provenance, as my grandparents' generation uses it. Granted, many English words did enter Shanghainese before WWII, and through Shanghainese, Mandarin. For instance, the word for humor: 幽默. Many other instances as well*. I very much doubt 死人 is of Western origin, though; you have to remember that "dead man" would be negative in any language, and familiar to any culture, since all humans die, so just because your culture uses

    *Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chinese_language):
    Foreign words, mainly proper nouns (names of people, places), continue to enter the Chinese language by transcription according to their pronunciations. This is done by employing Chinese characters with similar pronunciations. For example, "Israel" becomes 以色列 (pinyin: yǐsèliè), "Paris" becomes 巴黎 (pinyin: bālí). A rather small number of direct transliterations have survived as common words, including 沙发/沙發 shāfā "sofa", 马达/馬達 mǎdá "motor", 幽默 yōumò "humor", 逻辑/邏輯 luójí "logic", 时髦/時髦 shímáo "smart, fashionable" and 歇斯底里 xiēsīdǐlǐ "hysterics". The bulk of these words were originally coined in the Shanghainese dialect during the early 20th century and were later loaned into Mandarin, hence their pronunciations in Mandarin may be quite off from the English. For example, 沙发/沙發 and 马达/馬達 in Shanghainese actually sound more like the English "sofa" and "motor".

  29. Richard said,

    September 3, 2010 @ 12:45 pm

    . . .just because your language uses a term doesn't mean it was imported in to another language.

  30. Richard said,

    September 3, 2010 @ 12:54 pm

    Oh, and remember that most Chinese think their language has no grammar. Add that to the grammatical differences between various Chiense languages and wenyanwen (which is mixed in to everyday speech in all regionalects despite the grammatical differences), and this sign would be unremarkable to 99.99% of the native Chinese speakers out there, all of whom would understand the meaning of this sign to be "pissing here is a bad thing to do, I'm emphasizing that by figuratively saying someone will die if you do piss here". Despite the mountain Mair is trying to make out of this molehill, I don't think Victor can find a single native Chinese speaker who would disagree with what I just said, so there really isn't much disagreement about the meaning of the sign (at least amongst people who know Chinese), despite what the good Prof says.

  31. J.H. said,

    September 7, 2010 @ 10:45 am

    FWIW, I've lived in Hong Kong all my life, so I've always been surrounded by Cantonese (it's spoken at home, just not by me) and 死人 has at least two uses, from my experience:

    1. As a verb: 喂,冇食呀!會死人嘎! ("Hey, don't eat ah! Will kill person ga!", i.e. "Hey, don't it it! You'll die!")
    2. As a (weakish) intensifier: 嗰個死人八婆! ("That die-person bitch!", i.e. "That damn bitch!")

    Maybe there are more, but these are the first that come to mind. As suggested above, this sign was probably written by a native Cantonese speaker, or at least someone who doesn't speak Mandarin natively. I think case 1 fits nicely with the message, giving a meaning of, "Peeing here is prohibited, otherwise you'll die." The cause of death is ambiguous in this case.

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