Toxic shellfish warning in seven foreign languages

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Stephen Hart sent in this photograph of a sign that appears on Ediz Hook in Port Angeles, WA (and probably elsewhere in the state):

There are two things about this sign that stand out:  1. the choice of languages; 2. the fact that the translations are by and large of good quality.

As for #1, it's interesting that the sign is translated into Laotian and Cambodian, but not into Thai, into Chinese, Korean, and Vietnamese, but not into Japanese.

As for #2, the translations do not slavishly follow the original English wording, but they are effective and idiomatic on their own terms — at least the ones I'm familiar with read well and get the message across accurately.


Wéixiǎn! Yǒudú de bèilèi. Qiè wù shíyòng! 危險!有毒的貝類。切勿食用!

"Danger! Toxic shellfish. Do not eat!"

Korean (with the help of Haewon Cho):

Wihem! Chimyengcekin tokseng cokaylyu. Mekci masipsio!

위험(危險)! 치명적( 致命的)인 독성(毒性) 조개류(類). 먹지 마십시오!

"Danger! Deadly toxic shellfish. Do not eat!"

Vietnamese (with the assistance of William Hannas):

"Danger.  Clams [and] oysters [i.e., shellfish] infected with poison.  Don't eat."

Laotian (read by Pattira Thaithosaeng):

an ta ra:i. sad na:m pa pʰe:t mi: pɯək tʰi: mi: sa:n bɯə. ha:m kin.

"Danger! Shellfish which have toxins."

As Pattira informs me, if there were Thai, it would probably be something like this:

an ta ra:i. sad na:m pra pʰe:t mi: plɯək tʰi: mi: sa:n bɯə. ha:m kin.

อันตราย! สัตว์น้ำประเภทมีเปลือก ที่มีสารเบื่อ. ห้ามกิน!

Note from Pattira:

As you can see, Thai and Lao scripts look very similar and these languages are generally mutually intelligible. Please note, though, that pra and plɯək are different from the Lao transliteration. In Thai, we use more consonant clusters and fancier writing, but the meaning is mostly the same.  We use some words differently though. For example, we say kæ̂w แก้ว as drinking glass while Lao people say cxk จอก (which sounds like a traditional Chinese drinking cup for Thais)

It seems that the Washington State Department of Health was being commendably conscientious when they prepared this sign.

[Thanks to Kate Baldanza, Fangyi Cheng, and Yixue Yang]


  1. Bart Bart said,

    September 16, 2016 @ 11:31 am

    Awesome translation, although I guess one might question whether the skull and crossbones and the pictures of the shellfish wouldn't get the point across for everybody anyway. Aiming to communicate to people with zero literacy might be the best strategy.

  2. Ernie in Berkeley said,

    September 16, 2016 @ 11:59 am

    It's odd that Spanish is missing.

  3. David B Solnit said,

    September 16, 2016 @ 12:11 pm

    Minor note: the translations of the Lao and Thai omit the final clause, ha:m kin "eating prohibited".

  4. J.W. Brewer said,

    September 16, 2016 @ 12:24 pm

    The Census Bureau's data for the state of Washington (obviously it may vary regionally within the state) gives the following as the top nine non-English languages present in the state, ranked in descending order by number of speakers who are not also fully fluent in English: Spanish, "Chinese" (all lumped together because they only specify a topolect for less than half of all "Sinophones"), Vietnamese, Korean, Russian, Tagalog, Ukrainian, Japanese, and Cambodian, thus capturing six of the seven. Lao is more common than Thai, although there are a few other languages not on the sign (Amharic, Gujarati …) with fewer than Cambodian but more than Lao. As to the more common ones not addressed by the sign, Ukrainian-speakers can probably make out the Russian, regardless of the insult to their sense of national dignity. I'm less certain of the rationale for the exclusion of Tagalog and Japanese (unless maybe someone thinks the Japanese can figure out enough of the kanji in the Chinese warning to get the gist THESE HERE SHELLFISH BE POISONED?), but it may be relevant that for those language groups in the state the percentage of speakers who are LEP rather than fully bilingual is a minority and a lower percentage than for most/all of those on the sign. If someone wants to figure out what set of counties or metropolitan areas is a better proxy than the entire state for likely visitors to Port Angeles (assuming you'd want to look more broadly than just the county it's in?) they can find links to lots and lots of the census people's geographically fine-grained language-use data at For all I know the state's Lao-speaking population is concentrated nearby while the Tagalog-speakers are way off near Spokane or something.

  5. Ellen K. said,

    September 16, 2016 @ 12:37 pm

    @Ernie in Berkeley. Spanish is there, right on the middle of the non-English versions, right above Russian.

  6. Ernie in Berkeley said,

    September 16, 2016 @ 12:38 pm

    Ah, so it is. Sorry!

  7. Guy said,

    September 16, 2016 @ 12:42 pm

    @ Ernie in Berkeley

    Spanish is included, although I'm not sure what motivated the choice of "comer" instead of "coma". I can find examples of similar signage with a google image search so it's possible that the infinitive (interpreted as equivalent to English "no eating"?) is idiomatic here, but I would have expected an imperative (which I can find more easily with a Google image search).

  8. Ellen K. said,

    September 16, 2016 @ 1:01 pm

    Yes, the infinitive would be normal here. I've no idea why. On signage saying not to do something, the infinitive is used. It's something that strikes me as odd.

  9. Guy said,

    September 16, 2016 @ 1:19 pm

    @Ellen K

    So negatives only? If phrased positively would there ever be an infinitive?

  10. Francisco Pérez Escudero said,

    September 16, 2016 @ 1:29 pm

    The use of the infinitive as imperative is accepted when the message is addressed to a general audience, not an individual. I think the origin of this is a possible omission in the way of ""Es mejor…", "No se debe…". Therefore, it would have been wrong to say "¡No coma!"/"¡No comas!" (for just one addressee, formal/informal, respectively), and it would have sounded too straightforward to say "¡No coman!"/"¡No comáis!" (it is also incorrect to use the imperative in a negative sentence, so *"¡No comed!").

  11. Peter said,

    September 16, 2016 @ 1:30 pm

    @Guy – the use of "comer" rather than "coma" seems natural to me. I'd use the subjunctive imperative when speaking to a specific person, but the infinitive imperative lends a sense of generality – it's used a lot in signs and in things like instruction manuals or recipes.

    If I were telling you specifically not to eat the shellfish – say if I knew you had an allergy – I'd say no lo come (or coma, depending on our relationship); for a sign addressed to a general and unspecified audience I'd write "No comer". You see the same construction in "No Smoking" signs – the vast majority say "No fumar", the only place you're likely to see the subjunctive form would be in a more verbose sign ("Por favor no fume" – "Please don't smoke").

  12. Peter said,

    September 16, 2016 @ 1:34 pm

    @Guy – Yes, you can see positive infinitives too. A recipe might say "Batir los huevos" ("Beat the eggs"), or a document might suggest you "Ver las notas abajo" ("See notes below".)

  13. Guy said,

    September 16, 2016 @ 1:38 pm


    I think I may have been thrown by the fact that I would not expect "No eating" in this context in English signage.

    Do you think most native Spanish speakers understand this as a nominal use of the infinitive? ("No debe haber fumar"?)

  14. Gene Callahan said,

    September 16, 2016 @ 1:54 pm

    @Guy: Italian forms negative commands using the infinitive.

  15. Peter said,

    September 16, 2016 @ 2:14 pm

    @Guy – I agree, "No Eating" would be odd in this context (although I can't quite put my finger on why, since a lot of English "Do not X" constructions work fine when rendered as "No Xing".)

    I'm not sure where the "haber" there came from, but most people would understand "No debe fumar" as a nominal use, yes (although I'd hazard they'd do so intuitively and without knowing the terminology.)

  16. J.W. Brewer said,

    September 16, 2016 @ 2:38 pm

    I think "No eating" in an Anglophone-signage context typically means "we don't want people leaving behind stray french fries and candy bar wrappers here" (and "No food or drink" feels more idiomatic to me than "no eating or drinking") as opposed to "we don't want people to die from ingesting something poisonous." I think similarly it would be more idiomatic to say "don't smoke" if you are focused on the addressee's health and well-being but "no smoking" when the message is more "go do it somewhere else where it doesn't affect me."

  17. Peter Taylor said,

    September 16, 2016 @ 3:01 pm

    There's a third thing which stands out to me, and that's the language name in English in small text after each translation. I wonder for whose benefit that's there.

  18. David Marjanović said,

    September 16, 2016 @ 3:37 pm

    The use of the infinitive as imperative is accepted when the message is addressed to a general audience, not an individual. I think the origin of this is a possible omission in the way of ""Es mejor…", "No se debe…".

    This is normal all over Europe; English is actually the odd one out here. On the sign, Russian uses the infinitive, too.

    Speaking of Russian, though, it talks of "mollusks"; I wonder how idiomatic that is.

  19. Bob Ladd said,

    September 16, 2016 @ 3:48 pm

    @Gene Callahan, @Guy: Italian NEG+infinitive negative commands are only for use with individual addressees with whom the speaker uses the tu form. The polite imperative form (for someone you address using lei) uses the present subjunctive regardless of whether it's negative or positive. Imperatives addressed to the public frequently use the second person plural imperative form, again whether negative or positive. So in the present case, we might get Non mangiate!, though Vietato mangiare ('forbidden to eat') would be more likely on an official sign.

  20. Gregory Kusnick said,

    September 16, 2016 @ 4:21 pm

    I'm guessing the choice of languages is driven less by statewide demographics than by which immigrant populations are most likely to be harvesting shellfish on state beaches.

  21. Guy said,

    September 16, 2016 @ 6:42 pm


    The "haber" was to make the nominal use explicit. English "no smoking" is syntactically a noun phrase (with "no" as the determinative and "smoking" as the nominal), and is essentially a shorter way of saying "there is no smoking permitted here". But actually the examples make it seem like that analysis is hard to support for the Spanish infinitives-as-directives.

    @David Marjanović

    I'm not sure English can really be said to be any different on this point, since the same form of the verb is used for infinitive, imperative, and subjunctive uses, except for the issue of supportive "do", which is possible in imperative but not subjunctive or infinitival clauses. So the distinction is basically neutralized in English. Unless you mean that to-infinitivals are never used do give directives?

  22. Guy said,

    September 16, 2016 @ 6:44 pm

    Or to put it more succinctly, "no smoking" and "no pets" are essentially grammatically the same.

  23. maidhc said,

    September 16, 2016 @ 11:38 pm

    I haven't observed much collecting of shellfish (other than by my brother-in-law), but I've watched people crabbing recreationally in Washington, and a lot of them were Asians. I didn't go up to them and ask their national origins. However, I'd imagine that the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife has a pretty good idea of which people are out there, and whether Japanese-speaking people like to dig their own clams.

  24. tangent said,

    September 17, 2016 @ 12:03 am

    i think "No eating" is indeed more idiomatic for when the issue is the act of eating (teleconference hears chewing), and "Don't eat" for when the issue is the fact of having eaten (poisoning the eater or consuming someone's lunch).

    But more determinative is the object. You could say "Don't eat [anything] while driving" just fine, and "No eating the white-flowering camas" is valid (though in chatty register).

  25. David Marjanović said,

    September 17, 2016 @ 6:06 am

    except for the issue of supportive "do", which is possible in imperative but not subjunctive or infinitival clauses. So the distinction is basically neutralized in English. Unless you mean that to-infinitivals are never used do give directives?

    It's the "do", or rather "don't", that clinches it. "Don't smoke" is an imperative; "no smoking" is, as you say, a noun phrase; German nicht rauchen is "not" + infinitive. You'll also find the compound noun Rauchverbot, "smoke-ban", but no imperative, negated or not.

  26. Peter Taylor said,

    September 17, 2016 @ 9:05 am

    @Guy, haber + noun means exist, so if you can find a native speaker who thinks that *no debe haber fumar is grammatical then they will probably tell you that it means smoking must not exist.

  27. Rodger C said,

    September 17, 2016 @ 10:41 am

    Unless you mean that to-infinitivals are never used do give directives?

    Not to worry!

  28. ella said,

    September 17, 2016 @ 10:51 am

    reminds me somewhat ominously of a sign that the protagonist created and posted in Neal Stephenson's novel Zodiac, which was about a fictional environmental catastrophe that hit the Eastern seaboard.

  29. Francis Boyle said,

    September 17, 2016 @ 10:54 am

    Am I missing something? Isn't don't eat the shellfish is imperative (as David Marjanović says) while "No eating of the shellfish" in the infinitive. The latter is unidiomatic but just the sort of thing you would see on signs in the days before it became fashionable to make everything pseudo-personalised. Is this what is happening in the Spanish?

  30. Ethan said,

    September 17, 2016 @ 12:26 pm

    Here is another sign from the same Washington State agency, using a different grammatical form in Spanish:
    No coma almejas amarillas…

  31. Chinook Man said,

    September 17, 2016 @ 12:47 pm

    Here in Washington State, I see government messaging using a targeted choice of languages. Along the Spokane River and at Fish Lake near Spokane, the fishing advisories are in English and Russian, just because most fishers there speak those languages. There are lots of Somali speakers in WA too, but I don't know if they fish much: you typically find more written Somali in Dept of Social & Health Service and Dept of Motor Vehicles messages, for example.

    As for the acceptability of e.g. "No Eating" vs. *"No Eating the Shellfish", has anyone noted that the OK formations are unergative vs. not-OK plain-old-transitives?

  32. James Wimberley said,

    September 17, 2016 @ 1:08 pm

    The 2D barcode is the key here. It would be OK to drop all the translations as long as they kept that. A website can include information in an arbitrary number of languages, and readers have Google Translate for the rest. A Zen notice would just have DANGER SHELLFISH with the skull and crossbones (assuming this is universally comprehensible), plus the code.

  33. Guy said,

    September 17, 2016 @ 1:35 pm

    @Peter Taylor

    "There should be no smoking (here)" is essentially the meaning I was going for. An existential construction.

  34. Guy said,

    September 17, 2016 @ 2:19 pm

    @Chinook man

    Usually, once an -ing form has a determiner attached to it, it's a noun and takes complements like a noun, not a verb.

    "The cat killing the bird made me sad"

    "the killing of the bird made me sad"

    *"The killing the bird made me sad"

    There are a few exceptions, mostly in fixed phrases:

    "once that happens, there will be no stopping her"

  35. Peter said,

    September 17, 2016 @ 2:21 pm

    @Guy – I'd phrase that as "Aqui no se debe fumar".

  36. Guy said,

    September 17, 2016 @ 2:21 pm

    There's also an exception for genitive subjects in formal style, if you count those as determiners: "the cat's killing the bird made me sad".

  37. Guy said,

    September 17, 2016 @ 2:26 pm


    but that's not "fumar" being used in a noun-like function, as in "comer ensalada es saludable". The main purpose of the example was to see if "no fumar" was being parsed as that type of use of the infinitive in Spanish. This discussion has convinced me that it's almost certainly not.

  38. Peter Taylor said,

    September 17, 2016 @ 2:38 pm

    @Guy, I agree that it's almost certainly not, for the simple reason of word order. No dogs signs in Spanish read Perros no, but No smoking signs read No fumar.

  39. Giacomo Ponzetto said,

    September 17, 2016 @ 5:34 pm

    @Bob Ladd, everything you say about Italian is grammatically correct, but my experience of signage in Italy is different. While vietato + infinitive is definitely the normal way of forbidding something, I cannot immediately recall any sign in the plural infinitive, while I recall several in the singular infinitive (e.g., in national parks: Rifiuti: riportali con te). Here I'd find most natural an impersonal infinitive, as in Spanish and as in non disturbare or non parlare al conducente.

  40. Giacomo Ponzetto said,

    September 17, 2016 @ 5:37 pm

    I meant plural and singular imperative

  41. Martha said,

    September 17, 2016 @ 5:59 pm

    J.W. Brewer: Regarding the lack of Tagalog on the sign given the number of Tagalog speakers in Washington, I'd say the rationale behind that is that since English is a national language of the Philippines, the Tagalog speakers would be fine with just the English.

  42. Power Tye said,

    September 18, 2016 @ 1:37 am

    We live in Western Washington and visit the coast often. I have seen these signs and appreciated how they reflect a good understanding of the immigrant populations that harvest shellfish. I clearly remember a trip to the beach when I was young. A relative described how sick he became after eating toxic shellfish, ("I thought I was going to die.") It is encouraging to know the state communicates well to protect those who speak languages other than English.

  43. Graeme said,

    September 18, 2016 @ 3:14 am

    Forgive my naïveté. But are there scripts in the world that don't employ an exclamation mark (or which employ a non standard one)?

  44. Kate Bunting said,

    September 18, 2016 @ 3:22 am

    At Baltasound harbour in the Shetland Islands there is a notice about not bringing dogs ashore (for fear of rabies). I forget exactly which languages are represented (I was there in May), but it included Russian and one or two Scandinavian languages, presumably chosen for the boats which are likely to put in there.

  45. Wolfgang Lederhosen said,

    September 18, 2016 @ 7:23 am

    This is slightly off-topic, but I think that in modern German, one reason to prefer the infinitive over an imperative for texts like this is that with the infinitive variant, the object may be omitted ("Bitte _nicht_ (die Stackenblochen) essen" / "(Bitte) (die Stackenblochen) (bitte) nicht essen" / "(Bitte) keine Stackenblochen essen"), whereas in the imperative variant, the object must be included ("Bitte essen Sie die Stackenblochen nicht" vs. *"Bitte essen Sie nicht"), making the latter lengthier; I assume this is in contrast to languages that are more pro-drop, such as Spanish.
    A reasonable avoidance of the imperative for Signese in languages that similarly require inclusion of the object may or may not have contributed to a general (SAE?) tendency to perceive this as an appropriate style for signage even in languages where there is no such justification, so that writers tend to opt against using an imperative construction even there. This begs the question why English Signese would be less affected by such an interlingual stylistic convention than Spanish, the latter otherwise being at least as pro-drop as English.

    By the way, in German, for cases like this, an altogether different construction may be the most common solution, such as a skull symbol with "Lebensgefahr! Muscheln nicht zum Verzehr geeignet".

  46. Guy said,

    September 18, 2016 @ 4:08 pm

    Armenian and Greek use different symbols. In Japanese if a question has the question particle か in it you would usually use the Japanese-style period: 元気ですか。
    But without the question particle you would typically use a question mark to indicate a question tone: 元気? also, as you can see if that shows up on your screen okay, the ? is typically wider than usually do it fills up the "square" of one character.

  47. Guy said,

    September 18, 2016 @ 4:09 pm


    For that last comment.

  48. Guy said,

    September 18, 2016 @ 4:14 pm


    Except your question was about exclamation points, I haven't had enough coffee apparently.

  49. Torrontés said,

    September 20, 2016 @ 1:43 am

    In Japanese, the sentence-final particle "yo" can be roughly interpreted as an exclamation mark.

  50. Christian Saunders said,

    September 20, 2016 @ 2:11 am

    Is the world of signage really that bad that people are impressed when a single sentence is done well?

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