Wordless traffic signs in China

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On the blog "Mama's Got Wanderlust", the following sign appears without adequate explanation:

Before turning to the next page, Language Log readers are encouraged to try their hand at an explanation. Write down on a piece of paper what you think the sign means BEFORE you turn the page. Scout's honor!

My first respondent, Brendan O'Kane, sent in this ingenious — and very Philly-ish explanation: "No Mummers!"

The sign is meant to inform drivers that, if their vehicles are carrying hazardous materials, they are not permitted to enter the street where this sign is posted. How do I know for sure that this is the intended meaning? Because I have found the key to this sign and scores of other traffic signs in China. Before I show the key to readers, however, I would like to request that they divide themselves into two groups: those who know how to read Chinese and those who do not. The reason for this is that the key I am about to reveal provides verbal explanations for all of the signs that are included.

I suspect that, if one does not read the Chinese verbal explanations, well over half of all the signs in the key will be opaque to most people who encounter them. The complete key contains hundreds of signs in eleven categories. Our sign is the last in category #2 (signs of prohibition).

Honest injun! If you refrain from reading or are unable to read the Chinese explanations, don't you find more than half of the signs completely impenetrable?

All right, I've kept you in suspense long enough. Here's the key:

http://www.chetx.com/jiaotongbiaozhi/jinlingbiaozhi.htm

[A tip of the hat to Elliot Sperling and thanks to Gianni Wan]

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69 Comments »

  1. Irina said,

    July 4, 2012 @ 1:54 pm

    If you refrain from reading or are unable to read the Chinese explanations, don't you find more than half of the signs completely impenetrable?

    No, only three in fact: the one you posted, and the two with cyclists going up or down a slope. The rest are either exactly the same as signs we have here (Netherlands), or the same except that the Chinese signs have added text, or easy to puzzle out, like "no bike taxis". (Goodness, did I just say 'either' with two instances of 'or'?)

  2. jf said,

    July 4, 2012 @ 1:57 pm

    Hey… I got that one! It would have been even more obvious if the sign was at the entrance to a bridge or tunnel where I see similar admonitions all the time.

  3. Rob P. said,

    July 4, 2012 @ 1:57 pm

    I think I was doing pretty well up to "No Tubas."

  4. Atte said,

    July 4, 2012 @ 1:58 pm

    They're pretty much the same as European road signs, so I think I understood most of them without knowing a word of Chinese.

    On the other hand, Google Translate claims that the prohibition signs specifically *permit* minibuses, agricultural vehicles and animal-drawn carts.

  5. Mike said,

    July 4, 2012 @ 2:01 pm

    My first thought was, "Explosions Ahead", but the prospect of needing a permanent sign for such a message is alarming, especially in the capital.

    #1: Blanket prohibition or arbitrary police action ahead?
    #8: No Model Ts?

  6. Avinor said,

    July 4, 2012 @ 2:03 pm

    There are a few odd ones, such as the one shown, but most of them look like the standard international road signs that you can find all over Eurasia. I'd say it's American road signs that stand out internationally by having so much of the information spelled out.

  7. Giacomo Ponzetto said,

    July 4, 2012 @ 2:12 pm

    Following in Irina's footsteps, those Chinese signs seem analogous to Italian ones too. The one you posted is almost identical, and Italy regales you with this one as well.

    Admittedly, China separately forbids vehicles that Italy doesn't put on signs, such as — I presume — cargo bikes and bike taxis. Certainly I risk getting the precise taxonomy wrong, but it seems less than completely impenetrable — unlike the Chinese text!

  8. Cy said,

    July 4, 2012 @ 2:12 pm

    While certainly opaque to me, I admittedly do not drive hazardous cargo anywhere in China. Hopefully it is not as opaque to such workers.

    Incidentally, I know that learning the little "t" for "tonnes" (in a couple of the signs on that page) becomes cognitively insignificant when parsed, but I always wonder about the parallel situation in, at least, the U.S. – how much of a political cuss-storm would occur if Americans were expected to learn a chinese orthographic symbol on public signage? People would likely get elected over such matters.

  9. Chris Hunt said,

    July 4, 2012 @ 2:20 pm

    I don't find it all that difficult – but many of the signs are the same as those used in the UK, and the rest are mostly easy to figure out.

    What I find interesting is the number of distinct vehicle types that the Chinese need to prohibit individually. There are (apparently) roads where cargo-carrying tricycles are banned but everything else is OK.

    I think I might adopt the "No Cycling Uphill" sign as my own personal logo next time I'm on two wheels.

  10. Steve Kass said,

    July 4, 2012 @ 2:22 pm

    I love that sign! [2007 photo] When I show it to people their first guess is usually "no exploding cars."

  11. KWillets said,

    July 4, 2012 @ 2:30 pm

    "No trains" (I read it ideographically.)

  12. Henning Makholm said,

    July 4, 2012 @ 2:30 pm

    My first reaction after I clicked through was that

    If you refrain from reading or are unable to read the Chinese explanations, don't you find more than half of the signs completely impenetrable?

    must be sarcasm, intended to poke fun at the fact that perfectly ordinary pictographic road signs could need so many characters of explanation each. I was about to respond in kind with "there are a few ones in section 7 that are easy enough to understand", but … several commenters have already implied that the comment can be taken at face value?!?

    Okay, I haven't ever seen the "no exploding roofs" one before, and I my best guess would have been that it was actually an ordinary "no motor vehicles" sign that some prankster had defaced with an orange sticker. Especially since the red slash is behind the explosion (somehow I've never noticed before that the red slash on prohibition signs always goes behind the pictogram).

  13. Jeff Carney said,

    July 4, 2012 @ 2:40 pm

    "No cars wearing heads of orange cabbage."

    But that's silly. There is no orange cabbage, right?

  14. Henning Makholm said,

    July 4, 2012 @ 2:54 pm

    @Rob, that's a trumpet, not a tuba. Tubas have the mouthpiece at the same end (in general terms, and sticking out to the side) as the bell.

    The trumpet, naturally, represents a horn.

  15. David Scrimshaw said,

    July 4, 2012 @ 3:00 pm

    It's really more of a bugle. Modern trumpets have valves.

  16. Stu said,

    July 4, 2012 @ 3:01 pm

    As an american, for one, I found the signs to be pretty impenetrable. Many seemed illogical (can't go both forward and right at the same time? Are the Chinese now in the habit of putting their imprimatur on nature, just so it knows not to get fresh?), and other ones appear to require a whole lot of context that I at least can't understand.

    It sounds as though they were pulled from Europe, which suggests to me that the reason American signs aren't like this largely has to do with Europe having a relatively homogenous set of signs because there's lots of crossover between countries and too many languages to have everything spelled out. America doesn't suffer from that problem.

  17. Daniel said,

    July 4, 2012 @ 3:01 pm

    I was sure this image meant "no entry to official vehicles". The explosion on the roof put me in mind of flashing police lights, and I thought the image was supposed to represent a police car.

    Why there would be a specific location prohibiting entry to official vehicles was beyond me, however.

  18. IrishReader said,

    July 4, 2012 @ 3:06 pm

    Yes, the vast majority of these look like standard international roadsigns to me, and I parsed them easily. I see they provide more detail on their open quay signs (which are in section 1 — cars falling into the water to the right or the left). In Ireland we have only one version: the car driving straight off the open quay into the water.

  19. Peter Taylor said,

    July 4, 2012 @ 3:51 pm

    @Henning Makholm, are you sure the signs you've seen before have that diagonal line? British ones, at least, don't.

    (Incidentally the British sign for "No vehicles carrying explosives" appears to be the same as the Chinese one except for the diagonal line and the colour, which is much yellower. But the PDF might not give an accurate idea of the colour of a real sign).

  20. Dan Lufkin said,

    July 4, 2012 @ 3:52 pm

    I wonder if you or any of the regulars ever came across Nipponoodles, a column that used to run in the Pacific Stars and Stripes in the 1950s. The author compared being a foreigner in the Orient with taking a perpetual Rorschach test. The column had a kanji with a fanciful interpretation, usually pretty witty. Googling 'Nipponoodle Stars Stripes' Google-whacks to a link to an article in Time magazine that's behind a paywall. I do hope that Nipponoodles still survives in someone's Cold War scrapbook.

  21. leoboiko said,

    July 4, 2012 @ 3:56 pm

    You don't get it, some components in each sign are intended as phonetic determinatives.

  22. Keith Ivey said,

    July 4, 2012 @ 4:58 pm

    Peter Taylor, if the red circle means "no" all by itself, why is the slash used in the signs prohibiting turns in the PDF you linked to? It also seems odd to use it in the "school crossing patrol" sign, which then seems to mean "don't stop".

  23. Avinor said,

    July 4, 2012 @ 5:06 pm

    @Stu

    They are standardized in the 1968 Vienna Convention on Road Signs and Signals, which is global in scope. For some reason mostly ignored by the Americas.

  24. Maureen said,

    July 4, 2012 @ 5:36 pm

    Apparently the 1968 Vienna Conventioneers played a lot of Mille Bornes.

    "For some reason mostly ignored by the Americas."

    Some July 4th reason, yup.

  25. Jon said,

    July 4, 2012 @ 5:40 pm

    Like others, I found that the only signs that didn't seem to have an obvious, plausible meaning were the ones that appear to say "No cycling downhill" and "No cycling uphill". What do they mean?

    As Irish reader says, the sign system is international rather than European, and Wikipedia says it is a UN system, the Vienna convention on road signs. It's ratified by 62 countries around the world, but oddly not by the UK, Ireland, Spain or China, who appear to conform. Nor by the USA, of course.

  26. Bobbie said,

    July 4, 2012 @ 6:35 pm

    "No orange peacocks!"
    Seriously, as an American who has never driven a car overseas, I have no idea what some of these mean. I would love to know what the ones with various colors mean (all-white, red-and blue, etc)

  27. Eugene van der Pijll said,

    July 4, 2012 @ 6:51 pm

    All-white in a red circle means "no entry for any vehicles".
    The blue sign with red circle and cross means "no stopping", the blue sign with red circle and dash means "no parking".

    Most of the signs are clear for me. I don't recognize some of the vehicles depicted, the downhill/uphill ones are unclear, and I don't know the general meaning of the one to the left of the STOP sign: I know it as the sign for a customs checkpoint, but it could possibly be some similar thing depending on the text on the sign.

    The "no overtaking" (and "end of no-overtaking") sign has an unfamiliar design, but is perfectly clear. Unless it means something else than "no overtaking".

  28. Faith said,

    July 4, 2012 @ 7:04 pm

    I'm Canadian and I am not at all sure I understand any of them. At first I thought I was getting them, but then it seemed like there were two different prohibitions on flat-bed trucks, one on empty flat-bed trucks and one on full flat-bed trucks. That makes no sense at all. Then I started wondering how many of them I really did get, or if I was just making up meanings.

    Doesn't the fact that the Europeans understand them and the North Americans don't indicate that the signs have just been memorized by people with regular exposure to them, rather than actually providing a message pictorially?

  29. marie-lucie said,

    July 4, 2012 @ 7:46 pm

    When I first came to North America (decades ago), I was surprised that US road signs had words on them rather than pictures. The one that puzzled me for a long time was "WATCH FOR ROCK ON THE ROAD". I knew "rock" as a countable noun and imagined that there was danger of large rocks falling on the road and crushing cars. Later I realized that "rock" could also mean 'small pieces of rock'. The Canadian sign shows the profile of a cliff with several rocks falling from it, a real danger in some mountainous areas.

    Another sign that long puzzled me was "CARS WILL BE IMPOUNDED". I did not know the meaning of the verb 'to impound', nor that the place where cars belonging to motorists who parked illegally were taken was called a "pound". So I thought that "to impound" had something to do with "to pound" on something to flatten it. I remembered a documentary which had much impressed me years before, which showed old wrecks being crushed into large brick-like masses. It seemed a harsh punishment for parking in the wrong place or at the wrong time..

  30. will said,

    July 4, 2012 @ 8:33 pm

    I thought the sign banned vehicles that don't meet emissions standards; perhaps China has something like California's requirement of annual smog tests. The vehicle seems to be belching smoke out the back.

  31. rgove said,

    July 4, 2012 @ 8:35 pm

    Since nobody has explained the meaning of the cycling uphill/downhill signs, here is my translation:

    CAPTION: Cycling uphill prohibited
    EXPLANATION: Indicates cycling uphill is prohibited. This sign is placed at the entrance of a section of road where cycling uphill is prohibited.

    I'm sure that clears everything up.

  32. marie-lucie said,

    July 4, 2012 @ 8:59 pm

    cycling uphill/downhill

    This probably means that except on flat ground cyclists are supposed to walk their bikes. Perhaps cycling uphill and downhill – especially with another person or a heavy load on the bicycle – cause additional disturbances in traffic, as well as dangers to the cyclist.

  33. Robin said,

    July 4, 2012 @ 9:06 pm

    My guess was "Don't set your car on fire," which is not quite as unlikely an instruction as it sounds: the California driver handbook, at least, contains the instruction "Do not shoot firearms on a highway or at traffic signs."

  34. Bobbie said,

    July 4, 2012 @ 9:07 pm

    When I click on the key, all I see the Chinese writing. Is there supposed to be a translation somewhere?

  35. EndlessWaves said,

    July 4, 2012 @ 9:20 pm

    It's interesting that it's apparently a UK sign, I don't think I've ever seen it. All the hazardous material warnings I've seen are either written or use the standard with the diamond shaped signs.

    I guessed it was something to do with not allowing cars in poor condition (fuel not being properly burnt and coming out of the exhaust and similar problems). So it did manage to convey a subset of it's intended meaning.

    As to the bugle, it's frequently embossed on the steering wheel of cars here in the UK to show which parts activate the horn so the 'no horns' meaning is crystal clear. Even Fords have it, so I'd be surprised if it was entirely absent from American cars.

  36. un malpaso said,

    July 4, 2012 @ 10:32 pm

    1: No zen allowed.
    2. Do not. Just do not.
    3. No cars allowed here.
    4. No produce/chicken trucks allowed here.
    5. No empty trucks allowed here.
    6. No buses allowed.
    7. No short buses allowed.
    8. No trailers towing other trailers allowed.
    9. No tractors allowed.
    10. No old-timey fire engines allowed.
    11. No motorcycles allowed.
    12. No tractors or trucks allowed.
    13. No bicycles allowed.
    14. No horse-drawn carts allowed.
    15. No human-propelled cargo carriers allowed.
    16. No tuck-tuks allowed.
    17. No leaving wheeled trailers or wagons in the road.
    18. No heading down to the riverside/seaside.
    19. No heading up the hill.
    20. Do not walk, person.
    21. No left turn.
    22. No right turn.
    23. Further progress is forbidden.
    24. You can't turn, so stay where you are.
    25. Don't go left or straight.
    26. Don't go right or straight.
    27. No u-turn.
    28. No passing.
    29. No guitar chord transcription allowed.
    30/ No. Just no!
    31. No, but in a nicer way.
    32. No bugle playing.
    33. Speed limit 3 meters per hour.
    34. 3.5 meters per hour.
    35. 10 terabytes per hour.
    36. Barbell lifters must go 7 terabytes per hour.
    37. This is Route 40.
    38. This is no longer Route 40.
    39. Ahead: Flat bridge over Chinese pagodas.
    40. STOP!
    41. Pray for your migrant soul.
    42. Heaven is red, Hell is black.
    43. No exploding cars allowed here

  37. Erik said,

    July 5, 2012 @ 12:16 am

    Coming from the American side of the pond, some of these are definitely confusing. Didn't know what the trombone meant, but honestly, I can't think of a less confusing image for that. I interpreted the "don't bike up/downhill" ones correctly, but I was sure that I was wrong because it had never occurred to me that someone would want a sign like that. The empty sign and the ones with the blue background and the red slashes are completely confusing to me. I also don't know what's up with the 3m, but I was able to guess the 7 ton truck limit. If I saw the 40, I'd be thinking maybe speed limit in kph, but I wouldn't be confident in that. If I saw the black one with the little slashes in it, I'd be confused again. Similarly, I got the no-passing one, but I'm baffled about the black one with the slashes. The black arrow down/red arrow up one is also a mystery.

    Most of the no vehicles of this type kind of make sense, but if I was driving a weird vehicle that didn't look *exactly* like what was pictured, I would be a little doubtful. I mean, what's the difference between the two tractory things?

  38. D.O. said,

    July 5, 2012 @ 1:22 am

    3m and 3.5m signs are for height and width limits in meters.

  39. Peter Taylor said,

    July 5, 2012 @ 1:51 am

    Keith Ivey said

    Peter Taylor, if the red circle means "no" all by itself, why is the slash used in the signs prohibiting turns in the PDF you linked to?

    I don't know. I could speculate that the designers thought that those specific signs might be confused with the triangular signs warning about sharp curves.

    It also seems odd to use it in the "school crossing patrol" sign, which then seems to mean "don't stop".

    That doesn't have a red circle or a slash. The red triangle means "Warning" (with the exception of "Give Way", which is upside down).

  40. Rubrick said,

    July 5, 2012 @ 1:58 am

    "Peacocks and phoenixes are not permitted to crossbreed on the roofs of sedans."

  41. Rubrick said,

    July 5, 2012 @ 2:06 am

    un malpaso: Very, very nicely done.

  42. JREL said,

    July 5, 2012 @ 2:21 am

    what's the difference between the two tractory things?

    My imperfect Chinese tells me the first one represents a motorised tricycle (probably of this sort) whereas the second looks more like a regular tractor.

    I have to say most make perfect sense to me. I'd never seen the uphill/downhill cyclist thing, and I can't conceive of a situation where you'd need such a prohibition, but I found the meaning of the pictogram immediately perfectly transparent.

    I think Stu was on to something when s/he said that the absence of writing has the potential to increase the cross-linguistic nature of these signs. I was mildly surprised, coming from the Continent, at the amount of writing found on regular UK road signs (slow, reduce speed now, give way, etc), resulting in large signs and lots of text, and, of course, in even larger (bilingual) signs in Wales. Then again, the French also have their Cédez le passage… it might be indicative of monolingual countries (or countries that see themselves as such).

  43. Neil Tarrant said,

    July 5, 2012 @ 2:36 am

    I assumed that the sign was an effort of vandalism, since the orange 'cloud' sits on top of the diagonal line, and looks like a sticker applied to an existing sign.

  44. IrishReader said,

    July 5, 2012 @ 5:52 am

    For those who wish to compare, this link shows the roadsigns in use in Ireland. Signs with words on them must be in English and Irish.

    http://www.rulesoftheroad.ie/understanding-traffic-signs/index.html

  45. Keith Ivey said,

    July 5, 2012 @ 7:43 am

    Peter Taylor, the "school crossing patrol" sign (the last one in the top row) does have a red circle, which should if consistent indicate a prohibition on what it contains, which is the word "stop" and some students crossing.

  46. Hugo said,

    July 5, 2012 @ 9:09 am

    I find that most of these a quite easy to understand! Not only for alien motorists but also even for people who are not even accustomed to road sign conventions. Actually, some road signs in Canada are much harder to parse than these. The following image is our own "no hazardous materials" sign. IMO, it is much more opaque than the Chinese one…

    http://www.mtq.gouv.qc.ca/portal/page/portal/Librairie/elements_perimes/tunnels_bois/tunnel.jpg

  47. Flex said,

    July 5, 2012 @ 9:46 am

    It took me a minute, my first thought was that it prohibited the transportation of turkeys on the roof of an automobile. That's probably a good idea, but I have no idea how commonly people transport turkeys on the roof of an automobile so as to require a separate sign to prohibit it.

    But once I saw that the orange bit was flames, then it was clear. It means no setting off fireworks through the sun-roof of a car.

    I jest. It was pretty clearly an inflammable materials prohibited sign. For the demographically minded, I'm an American who has driven in Europe and Asia so I might have seen it before.

  48. boris said,

    July 5, 2012 @ 10:44 am

    I was thinking "end area patrolled by police". One of the few things, as an American who doesn't drive even in America, that I know about international traffic signs is that a line over something can mean "end" (although that's usually black). Another relevant thing is that I do know that a number inside a red circle is a speed limit sign. Still, I think I got just over half of them. That just shows that these pictograms are not as self-explanatory as one may think (although I guess standardizing them allows one to learn them once and be able to drive in any country that uses them without knowing the language).

    I guess, by this point, someone who has read some of my posts will say "but you're from Russia. They use these signs there too". I left when I was 11 and I only recall the following signs from that age: stop, yield, and do not enter. Coincidentally, those look the same as in the US (minus the writing)

  49. Will said,

    July 5, 2012 @ 10:54 am

    [Off topic: Can we respectfully refrain from using the term "honest injun"? It's 2012.]

  50. Peter Taylor said,

    July 5, 2012 @ 2:18 pm

    @Keith, ah! There are two school crossing patrol signs. I was looking at the one on the top-left of p4. The one you're talking about is affixed to the end of a pole held by the "school crossing patrol officer" (I had to look that one up: informally, "lollipop lady"), and only applies when said officer walks into the road. Having someone standing in the middle of the road with the sign should be sufficient hint to override any generalisations one might have internalised.

  51. marie-lucie said,

    July 5, 2012 @ 3:00 pm

    If there is a French sign saying CEDEZ LE PASSAGE, it must be because the previous wordless sign was unclear. In my now distant recollection, all road signs were wordless, except the STOP sign (identical to the one in English-speaking countries).

  52. mollymooly said,

    July 5, 2012 @ 4:28 pm

    The sign in the OP is described in the 1971 European Agreement supplementing the 1968 Convention on Road Signs and Signals as “NO ENTRY FOR VEHICLES CARRYING MORE THAN A CERTAIN QUANTITY OF EXPLOSIVES OR READILY INFLAMMABLE SUBSTANCES”.

    Presumably the kind of driver who carries explosives regularly (and legally) will be aware of its significance. The principle is, "if I don't understand it, I probably don't need to worry about it"; which only works (if at all) in one's own country/language/culture.

    The diagonal red band makes the prohibitory nature if the sign more obvious, but may obscure the icon indicating what exactly is being prohibited.

    @marie-lucie: I believe "Cédez le passage" was added in France in 1984 as a warning on entering roundabouts because the rule was changed; previously, traffic entering the roundabout had priority over traffic already on the roundabout.

    For a similar reason, speed limit signs in Ireland have "km/h" written under the numerical limit, because until 10 years ago the limits were in miles per hour (written with just a number, no "mph" underneath).

  53. Victor Mair said,

    July 5, 2012 @ 5:49 pm

    @ Will

    Yes, it is off topic, and you have no sense of irony, which was clearly intended, just as it was with the "Scout's honor!" remark. I graduated from Dartmouth in 1965 and know what happened to the college mascot after that.

  54. Victor Mair said,

    July 6, 2012 @ 12:48 am

    The signs in category 2 are actually easier than those in many of the other categories. I invite readers (especially those who were able to figure out the category 2 signs *without looking at the verbal explanations in Chinese*) to try their hand at some of the other categories as well.

  55. Eugene van der Pijll said,

    July 6, 2012 @ 3:17 am

    Section 1: different colours than in Europe (here, they are white with a red border), but all understandable except for "warning: 慢".

    Section 3: all familiar or easily guessable.

    Section 4: the intent of these signs is clear, but I can't read Chinese so I can't read them.

    Section 5: no problems here

    Section 6: look like temporary warning signs for roadworks. Again, I can't read the Chinese texts, but their intent seems clear.

    Section 7: no problems with the pictographical ones or the ones with the numbers. The signs with Chinese texts are useless for me.

    The other sections describe road markings; I haven't looked at those in detail.

  56. Victor Mair said,

    July 6, 2012 @ 4:34 am

    Miraculous! It would seem that some Europeans understand these signs better than many Chinese! Here's a typical response I've received from several of my Chinese acquaintances.

    This was sent to me by one of my Peking University graduate students who grew up in Shandong and has never left China:

    Wǒ bù míngbái túpiàn lǐ de biāozhì shì shénme yìsi, zhuǎnwān bùyào zhuàngchē? 我不明白图片里的标志是什么意思,转弯不要撞车?("I don't understand what the sign in the picture means. Don't crash when going around a corner?")

  57. Quixotrist said,

    July 6, 2012 @ 10:52 am

    I read the sign displayed as "cars taking this street/parking on this street will be blown up."

  58. blahedo said,

    July 6, 2012 @ 12:06 pm

    I'll echo what Faith said earlier: a lot of the people posting and saying how easy the signs are, are missing the point. If they're "easy" because you have been exposed to similar signage at home (or in your travels), then that is not an indication that the pictograms are particularly decipherable! For instance, I did know what the two blue-and-red signs meant (no stopping, no parking), but only because I'd travelled to Europe and seen them there. I was totally baffled by the signification of the black diagonal lines, although I gather that they generally mean "end restriction". Some are pretty clever; the 7t one "clearly" means that it's 7 tonnes per axle, although if I hadn't seen the plainer 10t sign next to it I wouldn't have known that. The one with up-and-down arrows was pretty opaque until I saw its partner in section 3—I guess it means something like "you're in the lane for oncoming traffic"?

    And yes, many of the signs in the other sections are pretty baffling too (although many are clear). In section 3, the 50 with road underneath it? What does the road signify? And the one in the first column just below that, looks like a bookmark with a line through it; no clue what it's for. In section 1, many are familiar, but half of them are pretty opaque to me….

  59. EndlessWaves said,

    July 6, 2012 @ 7:33 pm

    Obviously some of the confusing ones depend on context, the round one with triangles at the top and bottom with a 3.5m figure between them would be typically attached to an obstacle across the road such as a bridge.

    Likewise the up and down arrows would typically be posted on a narrow single lane road and the bolder arrow shows who has priority.

    A speed limit in a blue sign usually signifies a minimum speed, I don't know what the white bit is though – possibly some attempt to depict minimum

    The sign on the next row merely informs of a crossroads ahead (the thicker branch indicating that the main road carries on straight across)

    The greyed out sign mean the same as in computer terms, something is not currently valid. The extra information in the thin black lines across the picture were presumably added to address colour blindness issues but from the comments it does seem to have interfered with the main message (although again, if you knew you were currently in the zone…)

    I do much prefer the Chinese no overtaking signs to the UK ones, they're much clearer than a red car beside a black car.

  60. Max said,

    July 7, 2012 @ 3:29 am

    When I was in Beijing I jokingly interpreted this as "no blowing up cars" or "no lighting fireworks on top of cars", while wondering if one was permitted to do so on other streets. I had also never seen the "no firecrackers" sign, which I was able to interpret, but doesn't seem to be on the key. I may have been helped by the fact that it was around the lantern festival and people were lighting firecrackers all over the show.

  61. Eugene van der Pijll said,

    July 7, 2012 @ 4:37 am

    @blahedo:
    I'm not saying that all of the signs (or even most of them) are guessable if you're unfamiliar with the system. What I do believe is this:

    * The set of road signs as used in China and elsewhere uses a "language", which must be learned to be understood. I call this a language because it has some "grammar" rules, such as "a round sign with red border is a prohibition" and "a triangular sign is a warning". It also has vocabulary: all the different icons.

    * A large fraction of the vocabulary is easily learned, because it's pictographic. Compare this with a language with a vocabulary that is 50% onomatopoeic.

    * The traffic sign language is easy to learn, especially compared to learning a real language such as English. Also, there are currently more people that speak this same traffic sign language than any single real language. (I checked if India uses the same signs; it does).

    * It is ok to point at one funny word in a language you don't understand (like the one in the original picture). It is a bit embarrassing to point at a page with common "words" in this language, and say that few people would understand these, and then be told that, no, this is the most widely spoken language on earth. It is completely missing the point if you then point at another page written in this language but containing other words, and then say, but surely nobody understands these.

    I should have made an exception for the number sign in section 3; it was the single sign I didn't know. Google Translate says it indicates a minimum speed. The one below indicates that you're approaching a crossroads where you have priority on the side roads; over here it would be a triangular sign with the same icon.

  62. boynamedsue said,

    July 8, 2012 @ 1:14 am

    I agree with Eugene on this, there are a lot of weird moments of americentrism on this blog. I'm reminded of the "&enius" tattoo post, where the Daily Mail was berated for not recognising a uniquely American script. I'd have thought linguists were in the business of knowing that kind of thing.

  63. kpt said,

    July 8, 2012 @ 2:00 am

    When we were in Beijing for a few months, we enjoyed interpreting some of these perversely (we didn't drive, so it didn't matter much). Our favorite was the horn, which we decided surely meant "no jazz".

    (Yes, after a few seconds, we figured out that it meant "no horns", but ours was a lot more fun, so we stuck with it. And our proscription was far more faithfully followed by drivers than the intended one.)

  64. Ben Hemmens said,

    July 8, 2012 @ 2:31 am

    If you compare US and Vienna Convention signs (easy to find in Wikipedia), there is a significant core set of shared symbols. Of course, the yield and stop signs as we know them originated in the USA and then became standard in the convention. But things like no U-turn, one-way streets, no entry, the "school" warning sign etc. are all very similar.

    This convergence is hardly coincidental; these signs are probably the ones that drivers need to recognise and process quickly in order to avoid collisions.

    If you look at the text-based signs in the US that have graphics-based equivalents in the Vienna Convention system, they are mostly about issues
    a) that are not so critical for life and death and where drivers can afford a second or two to read them (e.g. parking). I noticed that the text "PED XING" sign was missing from the Wikipedia page; if the authorities now prefer the pictogram version, that would agree with what I just said.
    and
    b) that apply to special groups of drivers who (in principle) have some training on their meanings; e.g. truck drivers will be taught about the weight and axle-load size and hazardous-goods restrictions, etc.

    So you are perfectly right: to understand the expanded pictogram language, drivers need a bit of initiation; and they get this in driving school in the relevant countries. But the most universal and best-observed traffic signs, "stop" and "yield", are completely arbitrary, abstract symbols and that should be a hint that pictograms, too, have their limits.

  65. Victoria Simmons said,

    July 8, 2012 @ 2:38 pm

    "Don't set off fireworks while driving." Good general life advice.

  66. Toni Keskitalo said,

    July 8, 2012 @ 3:55 pm

    Of course, most of the traffic signs are similar to those used in Finland, too. An example: Of the warning signs I have difficulty interpreting the ones with a steep mountain: "傍山险路". Does it mean that there is a steep fall on either side? Also the one with the text "慢". Web search suggests it means 'slow'.

  67. Ted said,

    July 10, 2012 @ 1:07 pm

    I would have read the OP sign to mean "No Entry: Something In This Street May Cause Your Car to Explode." (That is, assuming it's a legitimate sign — like others, I interpreted the position of the slash under the orange cloud as an indication that the orange cloud was added later and unofficially.)

    Of the other signs, I found the "no passing" one incomprehensible, although once another commenter referred to the existence of such a sign in the lexicon, it was pretty easy to deduce which one it was.

    The other one that has me stumped is the cross-over-chevron at the end of Section 1. This looks more like a Marine's rank insignia patch than anything related to traffic control.

  68. Barry B said,

    July 13, 2012 @ 10:26 am

    Most of the signs are fairly easy for this non-Chinese speaker to grasp, though a few leaving me guessing. I suspect the "no French horns" is meant to be extrapolated into the general; however, signs that meant "no sackbuts," "no cornetts," and "no thereobos" would go over big at an early music festival.

    The 7t/axle sign is unusual. In lieu of reading what it actually means, I shall conclude it stands for people who play craps on moving axles, and the Chinese government's way of kindly informing them of the hazards this presents.

    The Philly resident with the Mummers remark was right on target.

  69. Saskia said,

    November 21, 2012 @ 12:18 am

    Hi, I'm Australian and don't know Chinese, and yes, I found most of these signs hard to understand. A lot of them look like they mean slight variants of the same thing (like the "no entry" type signs in red, green and blue colours…). That got me. I was also confused by the "no trumpet" sign – thanks for the explanation above, whoever that was! And of course, the signs which simply consisted of a Chinese character, I was unable to read.

    The OP looked to me at first like "no exploding cars", but I knew that couldn't be it. Then I thought it might be, as above "don't come in here or your car might explode," which I thought was unlikely, but then I gave up.

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