Sign everywhere

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The following sign was posted on Weibo (China’s Twitter clone):

As it appears on the sign, the translator must have parsed the three characters 签到处 as qiān dàochù, though the correct grammatical order and wording for “sign everywhere” would be dàochù qiānmíng 到处签名.

Instead, 签到处 should have been parsed as qiāndào chù, lit., “signing-in place”, i.e., “sign-in desk” or “registration desk / department”, as one might encounter at a conference or workshop.

The erroneous rendering on the sign is taken directly from Google Translate.

This is a good example of how Pinyin (Romanization) with proper word division is clearer than writing only in characters without any spacing. If this kind of misunderstanding is possible with only three characters (and it happens a lot in daily life), one can well imagine the types and quantity of reading errors that result from character texts that have no spaces at all (as in Classical Chinese) or only when marked by punctuation as in Modern Chinese.

[A tip of the hat to Gianni Wan]



19 Comments

  1. Duncan said,

    March 11, 2013 @ 9:14 pm

    Perhaps because I read this in the feed first (with a reader that’s text only, stripping the markup and images), I imagined a sign nearly obliterated by signatures… along with the desk, and the wall behind it, and the door(s), and maybe even the faces and clothing of the people at the desk. “Sign everywhere”.

    What a disappointment to see a clean sign, not a single signature anywhere!

  2. Nathan Myers said,

    March 11, 2013 @ 11:00 pm

    I imagined a harried functionary interpreting a terse instruction, “Post this sign everywhere”, with no referent of “this” to be seen. Instead of impossibly posting myriad signs of unknown content, the recipient posted the only available referent, once.

  3. Victor Mair said,

    March 11, 2013 @ 11:08 pm

    In “A glazed panel in the absence of manifestations” (http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=4509), signs were lacking. Here we’ve got them everywhere.

    From a friend who probably wouldn’t want to be named:

    =====

    Well, someone’s gotta say it, so it might as well be me: The sign said
    you’ve got to have a membership card to get inside. Unh!

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uYsBDmqJfjQ

    Sorry. Couldn’t help myself.

    =====

  4. David J. Littleboy said,

    March 12, 2013 @ 2:08 am

    “This is a good example of how Pinyin (Romanization) with proper word division is clearer than writing only in characters without any spacing. If this kind of misunderstanding is possible with only three characters (and it happens a lot in daily life), one can well imagine the types and quantity of reading errors that result from character texts that have no spaces at all (as in Classical Chinese) or only when marked by punctuation as in Modern Chinese.”

    Huh? Are you actually claiming that real live native speakers of Chinese have these problems? IMHO, that would be very strange.

    Aren’t these signs perfectly normal Chinese that effectively conveys the intended intent to educated native speakers of Chinese?

  5. Michael Watts said,

    March 12, 2013 @ 2:37 am

    I have a different problem with the claim (“If this kind of misunderstanding is possible with only three characters (and it happens a lot in daily life), one can well imagine the types and quantity of reading errors that result from character texts that have no spaces at all (as in Classical Chinese) or only when marked by punctuation as in Modern Chinese.”)

    The emphasis “only three characters” makes no sense. The shorter the message, the easier it is to get the meaning confused. This is why longer messages are more easily decrypted, and longer hangman phrases are more easily guessed before your little guy is dead.

  6. Vanya said,

    March 12, 2013 @ 5:33 am

    “one can well imagine the types and quantity of reading errors that result from character texts that have no spaces at all (as in Classical Chinese)”

    This is certainly true for Classical Chinese – but it is probably too late for pinyin, or any phonetic system, to help with that now. The lack of spacing in ancient Latin and Greek texts also makes them difficult to read in the original format.

  7. Rowland said,

    March 12, 2013 @ 5:44 am

    Classical Chinese doesn’t even use any punctuation, so it’s possible to make some spectacular misunderstandings.

  8. Guy said,

    March 12, 2013 @ 5:51 am

    Other than dodgy translation, I’m not sure what this sign is supposed to an example of?

    簽到處 really only has one possible meaning in Chinese (the other meaning “sign everywhere” is not grammatically correct, as pointed out by the original poster).

    Also, as an aside, if you had asked me what qiāndào chù meant with no context, I’m not sure I would’ve even understood. Whereas if I’d been shown the characters 簽到處 I would’ve known instantly what it referred to (score one for instant character recognition!). I suspect a lot of Chinese speakers would feel the same.

  9. Victor Mair said,

    March 12, 2013 @ 7:55 am

    These kinds of parsing problems do come up all the time with “real live native speakers of Chinese”, even educated ones, but particularly so for those who are not highly educated (the majority of the population). Such difficulties with Chinese character texts that lack word separation (the usual state of affairs, of course) increase when writers are sloppy and don’t pay attention to the avoidance of possible misinterpretations. Parsing is also a challenge in the computer analysis of texts.

  10. julie lee said,

    March 12, 2013 @ 10:56 am

    @Michael Watts: “The shorter the message, the easier it is to get the meaning confused. This is why longer messages are more easily decrypted,”

    I’d say this is true at least with the sign in question.
    The sign 簽到處,QIAN DAO CHU (literally “sign arrive place) would be an abbreviation of 簽名報到處 QIAN-MING BAO-DAO CHU (literally “sign-name report-arrival place”) In English, “Registration”, “Registration desk” or “Check-in”. Another example of the Chinese love of abbreviation. I haven’t lived in China for a long time and am not familiar with the phrase QIAN DAO CHU, though I understood it after a moment of thought. The longer unabbreviated string of words would have been instantly clear to anyone who reads Chinese.

  11. julie lee said,

    March 12, 2013 @ 11:28 am

    @Michael Watts: “The shorter the message, the easier it is to get the meaning confused. This is why longer messages are more easily decrypted,”

    Abbreviation aside, I would disagree. As a rule, longer strings of characters are more difficult to decrypt because there are more possibilities of parsing,
    The sign in question 簽到處 QIAN DAO CHU “sign arrive place” is relatively easy to decrypt because there are only two possible ways of parsing it:
    QIANDAO CHU “sign-arrive place” or QIAN DAOCHU “sign everywhere”. DAOCHU means “everywhere” in Chinese. QIAN DAOCHU is ungrammatical in Chinese ( the grammatical construction would be DAOCHU QIAN “everywhere sign”) . The parsing QIANDAO CHU “sign-arrive place ” is grammatical and can mean “sign-on-arrival place”.

    As a rule, longer strings of characters are more difficult to decrypt because there are more possibilities of parsing,

  12. Long Haired Freaky Person said,

    March 12, 2013 @ 12:08 pm

    Signs, signs, everywhere are signs
    Blockin’ out the scenery, breakin’ my mind
    Do this, don’t do that, can’t you read the sign?

  13. Lane said,

    March 12, 2013 @ 1:21 pm

    I was wondering why it took so long for Long Haired Freaky Person to come along and make the obvious point.

  14. Rubrick said,

    March 12, 2013 @ 2:45 pm

    @Lane: He in fact made the point in the link in Victor’s comment, albeit anonymously

  15. Victor Mair said,

    March 12, 2013 @ 2:45 pm

    @Long Haired Freaky Person and @Lane

    That was actually already in the comment I posted at 11:08 p.m. on March 11 (the YouTube).

  16. Mat Bettinson said,

    March 13, 2013 @ 6:17 am

    In my experience native Chinese speakers have superhuman powers at not being confused by any of the vast array of ambiguities that arise from Chinese text, of which I think word segmentation is about the least of them.

  17. David J. Littleboy said,

    March 14, 2013 @ 1:24 pm

    “In my experience native Chinese speakers have superhuman powers”

    That’s my experience here in Japan, but the linguistic problems they face are rather different. As a general linguistics issue, one is usually wrong if one thinks there’s something wrong with a language.

    Inversely, this blog has a lot of gleeful articles on hard-to-correctly-decipher newspaper headlines. So clearly English is also a problematic language (although that conclusion is not one that I’ve seen anyone draw).

  18. Victor Mair said,

    March 15, 2013 @ 12:58 pm

    @Mat Bettinson

    Since you maintain that, “of the vast array of ambiguities that arise from Chinese text, …word segmentation is about the least of them”, would you please tell us several types of ambiguities that are obviously much more significant and troublesome than word segmentation?

  19. Dakota said,

    March 15, 2013 @ 9:24 pm

    Isn’t anyone going to discuss the furor over “venomous skirt swishing” comments made by North Korea about South Korea’s President Park Geun-hye?

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