Sign of the times

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The following sign is posted in a New York City shop window:

The words are Russian and mean "We speak Chinese." One wonders to whom the sign is directed. Chinese in New York City who do not know English would be even less likely to know Russian. An awareness of the futility of posting the sign in Russian is evident from the 10 yuan bill that has been affixed at the top. People from mainland China would at least get a hint from the 10 yuan bill that the shop is eager to deal with Chinese, though we cannot assume that they would necessarily be able to accept RMB for items purchased.

All in all, the signage in and around the shop is a bit mystifying (click on the image below for a larger version, or right-click "Open Link in New Window" for an even larger one):

Without making a detailed study of the words lurking about in the shadows and reflections, I see references to kosher, pharmacy, "White Chocolate Bliss" made from NAVAN Natural Vanilla Liqueur and Godiva White Chocolate Liqueur, and so forth. These are all things that I'm sure Russian-speaking Chinese wandering the streets of New York City are eager to spend their RMB on.

Seriously, though, the person who wrote the sign in Russian (or someone else in the shop) undoubtedly can speak Chinese (Mandarin), but almost certainly cannot write it.

[Hat tip to Victor Steinbok]


  1. Mark Liberman said,

    April 1, 2009 @ 8:34 am

    Could this be a residue of Mao-era student exchange programs?

  2. Anonymous said,

    April 1, 2009 @ 9:19 am

    This is obviously a joke. In Russia, Chinese rivals only Turkish in the "incomprehensible language" category, so to claim that you speak either is the height of hilarity. My guess is that the owners thought this would be an amusing way to let the other Russian speakers know the owners are Russian.

  3. David Fay said,

    April 1, 2009 @ 9:24 am

    A connection to Harbin in Heilongjiang Province seems likely (Wikipedia says that after the Russian Civil War Harbin became the largest enclave of Russians outside of Russia). An American friend of mine descends from a Russian Jewish family from Harbin (her mother speaks Russian and Chinese). She traveled there not long ago with her elderly parents to see the community in which her parents were raised. Perhaps Chinese tourists from Harbin also visit the US.

  4. WL said,

    April 1, 2009 @ 9:53 am

    Once while traveling in China, a street vendor tried to pass off to me a copy of the Little Red Book in Russian as English. Those backward N's? Oh, mere typos!

  5. Graeme Wood said,

    April 1, 2009 @ 10:14 am

    I believe this is Abyb Liquor, on the 1600 block of Gravesend Neck Road in Brooklyn.

    [(myl) If so, the Google Maps street view suggests that the sign is not aimed at attracting random tourists visiting New York, but rather reflects either some unusual feature of neighborhood cultural history as per David Fay's suggestion, or a shopkeeper with an odd sense of humor.

    Perhaps someone in the neighborhood could stop in and ask. ]

  6. Vrag Naroda said,

    April 1, 2009 @ 10:54 am

    The guy could have ran it through Google translate, which yields
    which is not really proper, but at least understandable.

  7. Cecily said,

    April 1, 2009 @ 11:19 am

    The first time I went to China, a star attraction at a local park in Xian was a myna bird that "spoke" Russian, though I don't know whether it had belonged to a Russian speaker or been trained for novelty value. All the other birds people brought along chirped prettily or made sounds identified as Mandarin. (Xian is a long way from Harbin and Russia.)

  8. aaron said,

    April 1, 2009 @ 11:30 am

    At some coin shows where I take a table (HK and Honolulu especially) I have a sign in my case describing my business that has my picture on it, with the legend underneath in Chinese "ghost man speaks bad Cantonese, try me". Although a huge percentage (>99%, I bet) of my target audience would understand that just fine in English, the amusement value of having it in characters is just too much fun to ever think about switching back. Also, I can tell those who are illiterate in Chinese (like me) that it means anything!

  9. said,

    April 1, 2009 @ 11:32 am

    Seems plausible that it's aimed at Chinese immigrants to me. It wasn't that long ago that Russian was more popular than English as a foreign language, and you'll still be taken as a Russian if you're a Caucasian traveling or living in the more northern parts of China.

    Translating the sign into Chinese would – of course – be better. But maybe they can't write characters, or read them for that matter. Or maybe they don't really speak Chinese beyond the basics of numbers. Since all the sign needs to do is get them a few extra customers a month to be worth it, it isn't a bad deal. And the Russian language is an advertisement of sorts about the nature of the shop anyway. So interesting, but not really strange.

  10. Russian-speaking Chinese wandering the streets of New York City « Lingoproz Live! A passion for language - The mag for language professionals by said,

    April 1, 2009 @ 12:35 pm

    […] Chinese wandering the streets of New York City April 1, 2009 — lingoproz Found on Language Log on 1 April 2009 By Victor […]

  11. Kenny Easwaran said,

    April 1, 2009 @ 1:12 pm

    In David Foster Wallace's book Infinite Jest, I recall a description of a storefront in Boston (perhaps in an area with many Brazilian immigrants?) that said "on parle Portugais ici".

  12. Benjamin said,

    April 1, 2009 @ 1:17 pm

    Definitely true about a caucasian traveling in the northern part of China being taken for Russian. It happened to me a number of times in Harbin last summer.

  13. Ben Teague said,

    April 1, 2009 @ 2:10 pm

    Could this be a cousin of the "Aquí se habla Yiddish" sign I once saw in a NYC shop?

  14. bulbul said,

    April 1, 2009 @ 3:24 pm

    Meh. Russians in NYC are, as could be expected, way behind Slovak medical professionals.

  15. vanya said,

    April 1, 2009 @ 3:38 pm

    I agree with Anonymous it's probably a joke to other Russian speakers – and possibly a joking reference to the China/Russia "conspiracy" to institute a new reserve currency – hence the 10 yuan bill.

  16. le_mous said,

    April 1, 2009 @ 6:59 pm

    One more observation, might they be advertising a.. Less-than-legal place of currency exchange?

  17. John S. said,

    April 1, 2009 @ 9:03 pm

    I agree that this is probably a joke, however, it is possible that it is meant in sincerity if there is a large population of people from the area around Harbin, where Russian is a prominent second language alongside officially mandated Mandarin.

  18. rootlesscosmo said,

    April 1, 2009 @ 10:06 pm

    The items on display look a lot like the high-priced goods at San Francisco's International Market, a deli with an almost exclusively Russian-speaking staff and clientele. I have a gloomy suspicion it's a merchant-to-customer joke meaning, in effect, "There goes the neighborhood."

  19. comwave said,

    April 2, 2009 @ 1:32 am

    Isn't there any possibility that the shop owner is a Chinese? The sentence may say that h/she can read and write Russian. That is, "Russian customers, don't worry to come. I can commuincate with you even though I use Chinese. I know how to write and read your language."

  20. Luke said,

    April 2, 2009 @ 2:15 am

    As a side note, the renminbi on display is an old (though still useable) bill. All contemporary currency displays Mao's portrait. The old bills (which included now-discontinued denominations of 2 yuan and 1, 2, and 5 jiao) showed people from some of China's indigenous cultures.

  21. Alan said,

    April 2, 2009 @ 2:56 pm

    This is as puzzling as the graffiti I saw on the back of a bus seat years ago which said, if I remember correctly, "Yr Eidal am Cwpan y Byd" — "Italy for the World Cup" in Welsh.

  22. Jerome Chiu said,

    April 2, 2009 @ 10:22 pm


    This reminds me of a certain international (I mean: very international) sixth-form college located somewhere in South Wales.

  23. D.O. said,

    April 2, 2009 @ 11:34 pm

    For what it worth, the sign has a correct Russian expression, but more frequent construction for signs is without "Мы". You see, Russian grammar takes care of the precise "pronoun" even when it is not spelled. I have no idea what is the more frequent phrasing in Harbin or in Brooklyn.

  24. Terry Hunt said,

    April 3, 2009 @ 8:18 am

    Alan said: "This is as puzzling as the graffiti I saw on the back of a bus seat years ago which said, if I remember correctly, "Yr Eidal am Cwpan y Byd" — "Italy for the World Cup" in Welsh."

    The cynical deduction would be that Italy were playing against England. More charitably, Italians are not unprominent in the UK catering industry – when I lived in St Andrews, Scotland, most of the local take-aways seemed to be owned and staffed by the Palumpo family, for example – so perhaps an Italian from a chip-shop in North Wales was responsible.

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  26. Philipp Angermeyer said,

    April 4, 2009 @ 2:15 pm

    Southern Brooklyn has a very large Russian population, Russian is the de facto vernacular of that are, alongside English (2000 census has around 30% Russian in those ZIP codes). However, the neighborhood where the store is located (particularly around Avenue U) also has a Chinese enclave. Instead of speculating about some Chinese-language learning context back in Russia or China, I think it should be pointed out that it would be entirely plausible 1) for a Russian-speaker to be exposed to Chinese in New York, and acquire some spoken knowledge, and 2) for a Chinese-speaking resident of South Brooklyn to acquire some knowledge of Russian, and even of the Cyrillic alphabet.
    Most stores in the area have bilingual Russian/English signs (see my 2005 Language in Society paper), and many stores on Avenue U have trilingual Russian/English/Chinese signs. I have a picture of a store that announces in 4 languages that one can use welfare coupons there (Russian, English, Chinese and Spanish), all handwritten with varying (un-)familiarity with the respective orthography and writing system.

  27. Stephen said,

    April 5, 2009 @ 4:10 am

    I like the unofficial currency exchange idea best.

  28. Kenneth said,

    April 6, 2009 @ 5:35 pm

    Recently on the subway in Beijing, I stood next to a trio of dressed up Chinese, speaking perfect Russian.

    My Russian fluency is pretty out of practice now, so I couldn't understand all of it (but a lot more than I could of the Mandarin being spoken otherwise by the other passengers.) They were on their way to a party (it was Friday night.)

    It got me wondering about the Harbin connection, and just what percentage of the population of that region speaks Russian as something like a first language. I could not detect any accent, sounded like native Russian to me.

    (I also like the idea of a joke or of an illicit currency exchange – but it would be fun to discover there's actually enough of a population to make this sign worthwhile.)

  29. Harry Campbell said,

    April 7, 2009 @ 5:06 am

    "Yr Eidal am Cwpan y Byd" — "Italy for the World Cup" in Welsh."

    perhaps an Italian from a chip-shop in North Wales was responsible.

    Any native speaker (or halfway competent learner) would surely mutate the "c" to give "Yr Eidal am Gwpan y Byd".

  30. Adam K said,

    April 19, 2009 @ 11:00 pm

    As a resident of Metro-Deroit, I find similar signs placed all over a small city a little bit outside the limits of the city of Detroit: Dearborn, MI. In the city there are many signs written in Arabic and English. There are even some signs written in strictly English. There was one sign in particular that I came across where the business owner hanged "We speak in English" in bold Arabic lettering only. There was no English lettering outside of these words. After going inside to inquire about the sign, I learned the store-owner could in fact speak English. But, he could not write it.

    As the original post predicted, that was the logical explanation for the apparently futile sing. Good luck trying to read your receipt, though!

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