Urination is inhuman

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David Moser has sent in another example for what he calls our xiaobian 小便 ("lesser convenience") collection:

The sign says: Xiǎobiàn bùshì rén 小便不是人. A literal translation would be "Urination is not a person." Since that doesn't make sense, we might reinterpret the sign as "Urination is not human." But that doesn't make sense either, since we all have to urinate at regular intervals: what could be more human?

It helps to recognize that signs often have an implicit spatial restriction — thus a sign that says "Sleeping Prohibited" means only that you can't sleep in the area of the sign.

And saying that someone bùshì rén 不是人 "not a person" is a grave and idiomatic insult in China. This sign's somewhat telegraphic use of the phrase occurs elsewhere as well:

Dǎ wǒ bùshì rén 打我不是人 ("[Whoever] beats / strikes / hits me (is) not a person")

A similar construction can be found in phrases like

Màrén shì wángbā 罵人是王八 ("[Whoever] curses someone is a bastard")

Some have suggested that Xiǎobiàn bùshì rén 小便不是人 is a more colloquial version of the classical / literary Xiǎobiàn zhě fēi rén yě 小便者非人也 ("Whoever pisses [here] is not human / a person") or, more explicitly expressed, Zài cǐ xiǎobiàn zhě fēi rén yě 在此小便者非人也. And I have received numerous vernacular amplifications of Xiǎobiàn bùshì rén 小便不是人:

1. Zài zhèr xiǎobiàn de rén bùshì rén 在這兒小便的人不是人!

2. Yàoshi nǐ zài zhèr xiǎobiàn, nǐ jiù bùshì rén 要是你在这儿 小便,你就不是人!

3. Shuí zài zhèr xiǎobiàn, shuí jiù bùshì rén!誰在這兒小便,誰就不 是人!

The classical and vernacular formulations all mean essentially the same thing, but none of them are as terse and trenchant as the original, colloquial Xiǎobiàn bùshì rén 小便不是人.

Perhaps we should analyze this construction as topic/comment rather than subject/predicate:

Topic: As for the matter of urination
Comment: if you do it here, you are not human / a person

Or more succinctly, "Urination? Not human".

Some of the other posts in our "lesser convenience" collection:

"Linguistic advice in the lavatory: speaking Mandarin is a great convenience for everyone", 9/11/2007
"Just the Queen invites irrigation", 4/8/2008
"Chinese lesson for today", 8/29/2010
"Next day's Chinese lesson", 8/31/2010
"It is forbidden to urinate here. The penalty is bang.", 9/2/2010

[Thanks are due to Melvin Lee, Yunong Zhou, Maiheng Dietrich, Haitao Tang, and Robert Sanders]



27 Comments

  1. peterm said,

    February 6, 2011 @ 9:12 am

    "Only an animal would urinate here" ?

  2. Mr Fnortner said,

    February 6, 2011 @ 9:12 am

    Perhaps "you're not a person/not human" is more gracefully translated as "you're an animal," leading to interpretations such as "If you urinate here, you're an animal," and "Only an animal would urinate here." Or (English only) "Urine animal."

  3. Mr Fnortner said,

    February 6, 2011 @ 9:13 am

    Thank peterm.

  4. Dan Milton said,

    February 6, 2011 @ 10:04 am

    This reminds me that I saw an inscription on the wall of a cemetery in Kabul, so large and neatly painted that I asked for a translation. "If you are a Moslem, do not urinate on the gravestones." I did not take this as permissive to the infrequent infidel visitors.

  5. Kevin Wong said,

    February 6, 2011 @ 10:15 am

    It probably does mean something like, "if you urinate here, you're not human". I found this other website, which has something very similar.

    "在此小便者是狗不是人!" which i would translate to mean, "if you urinate on the streets, you're a dog, not a human". Apparently, urinating on the streets is a bit of a problem in small Chinese towns, and all this is is an attempt to shame people into stopping.

    http://info.zhuhai.gd.cn/News/20100402/634058144907579755_1.aspx

  6. Jens Fiederer said,

    February 6, 2011 @ 10:28 am

    I don't think this is unique to Chinese – I believe that when you call somebody a "Mensch" (German for "human") in Yiddish, this is a value judgment rather than a biological classification – you are classifying them as a GOOD human.

    Similarly, in German you can say something is "unmenschlich", meaning "inhumane".

  7. Jing Tsu said,

    February 6, 2011 @ 11:19 am

    For other similar constructions, see 无毒不丈夫 or 不到长城非好汉. It seems that, in all three instances, there is a sense of daring someone to do something with a prohibitive force.

  8. Twitter Trackbacks for Language Log » Urination is inhuman [upenn.edu] on Topsy.com said,

    February 6, 2011 @ 11:56 am

    […] Language Log » Urination is inhuman languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=2947 – view page – cached David Moser has sent in another examplefor what he calls our xiaobian 小便 ("lesser convenience") collection of interesting linguistic signs: Tags […]

  9. BM said,

    February 6, 2011 @ 3:06 pm

    Hmm, why the mixing of simplified and traditional in the same post?
    By the way, I always thought the "vernacular" pronunciation of 誰 was shéi.

  10. Xmun said,

    February 6, 2011 @ 3:21 pm

    Sometimes urination is really not human, yet equally unwelcome. Once when I was in San Miguel de Allende in Mexico I photographed some graffiti (it was all in capital letters but for convenience I reduce it to lower-case):

    Levante
    la porquería
    de su perro
    o comasela
    no sean puercos
    las calles de
    nuestra ciudad
    no son water de
    perros

    (Pick up the filth of your dog or eat it. Don't be pigs. The streets of our city are not a toilet for dogs.)

    Note that in Spanish the word for "filth" is an abstract noun derived from "pig".

  11. Xmun said,

    February 6, 2011 @ 3:23 pm

    Oops. Of course whoever wrote the graffiti was complaining about dog defecation, not urination.

  12. Yao Ziyuan said,

    February 6, 2011 @ 3:29 pm

    "Inhuman" is a little too extreme, and only refers to atrocities like what Hitler did. That Chinese sign certainly doesn't mean you'd be Hitler if you urinate there. It actually mean "subhuman", as only "subhuman species" like dogs and bulls would pee freely in the public.

  13. ahkow said,

    February 6, 2011 @ 5:07 pm

    Maybe it's a prohibition against dimunitiveness.

    [小][便不是人]: If you are small, you are not human.

  14. army1987 said,

    February 6, 2011 @ 6:22 pm

    So does 小 have the same ambiguity as wee has? Interesting…

  15. Mark Mandel said,

    February 6, 2011 @ 7:19 pm

    I cannot let this topic pass without quoting from th e KJV, I Kings 16:11:

    And it came to pass, when he began to reign, as soon as he sat on his throne, [that] he slew all the house of Baasha: he left him not one that pisseth against a wall, neither of his kinsfolks, nor of his friends.

    Of course, it means 'killed all the adult males' or something close to that, but there you have it in THE WORD OF GOD*

    *diligently translated out of the original languages.

  16. Victor Mair said,

    February 6, 2011 @ 8:39 pm

    From Jing Wen:

    This kind of sentence is quite common in Middle Egyptian. The verb itself can mean "the one who does it" and the verb is called a participle. For example, the verb mr, which means to love, can also mean "the one who loves". The phrase wbn m pt means "the one who rises in the sky" (wbn=rise, m=in, pt=sky).

    A participle can be used as a noun or an adjective. Perhaps a possible explanation is that "小便" is a participle functioning as a noun. Therefore the sentence "小便不是人" is grammatically right. I think we can find many sentences, such as "yǒu yuán qiān lǐ lái xiāng huì" 有缘千里来相会 (If two people are predestined [for each other], they will meet even thought they are separated by a thousand tricents) and "qiān shòu yì, mǎn zhāo sǔn" 谦受益,满招损 (If you receive things humbly you will benefit, but if you grasp for a lot, you will experience loss), that contain participles functioning as nouns — so long as one introduces the concept of a participle.

  17. Jonathan Dushoff said,

    February 6, 2011 @ 11:32 pm

    "Who" should be "shei" not "shui".

  18. Matt Pearson said,

    February 6, 2011 @ 11:46 pm

    The sentiment seems to be common in many parts of the world. I once ran across the following, spray-painted on a wall in Madagascar: "Alika no mamany eto", literally "It's dogs who piss here".

  19. Lareina said,

    February 7, 2011 @ 12:22 am

    Those who urinated here are considered animals?
    @ Jonathan: 'Shei' and 'Shui' are both acceptable as Who is pronounced as Shui in most northern topolects in China

  20. WillSteed said,

    February 7, 2011 @ 1:04 am

    It's possible, though admittedly less likely, that an expanded version of the whole thing could also be

    小便不是人所做的
    Xiao3bian4 bu2shi4 ren2 suo3zuo4 de
    "Pissing isn't something that people do"

    or

    小便不是人这里所做的
    Xiao3bian4 bu2shi4 ren2 zhe4li suo3zuo4 de
    "pissing isn't something that people do here."

  21. Tom S. Fox said,

    February 7, 2011 @ 5:11 am

    Why do you always say "sign" instead of "graffito"?

  22. WS said,

    February 7, 2011 @ 9:48 am

    "小便者非人也!" — 非也!非也!子不语怪力乱, 何独作厕上观?

    小便 今人语. 雅称小解. 古语曰 泾溲 更衣. 又曰 如厕 出恭.
    非人 今人作古语 不得其旨. 古人谓所托非人 意即非此人也. 斥人则如畜产 竖子 禽兽 云云. 即背人伦 无异于禽兽. 骂得何其畅快 何必扭捏作非人云云.

    This sentence in said "classical Chinese" is like saying "Thou shalt not piss/weewee here." It must be a scholarly joke as it plays with styles to creat a seemingly correct rendition of the meaning. 小便, a colloquial contemporary word; 非人, a wrong translation of 不是人 to classical Chinese as I explained above. Personnally, I don't think that Confucious would care about pissing in street corners or before a wall and that his disciples would write down such a sentence that I'm going to write: 此处小解者 畜牲也.

    Anyway, in another Chinese expression, I'm just 吃饱了 没事干 and hope that no one should be offended.

    Happy Chinese New Year then!

  23. KevinM said,

    February 7, 2011 @ 3:52 pm

    "But that doesn't make sense either, since we all have to urinate at regular intervals: what could be more human?"
    Well… Could be an example of the wishful thinking that sometimes takes semantic form, at least in English. Cruelty is a distressingly common human trait, but "inhuman" means "cruel."

  24. chris said,

    February 8, 2011 @ 9:56 am

    [Whoever] curses someone is a bastard

    Is this intended to be ironic, or is "bastard" not considered a curse in the relevant dialect of Chinese?

  25. David L said,

    February 11, 2011 @ 9:48 pm

    Why are Chinese signs so expressive?

    Having lived in Vietnam for several years, I find the signs here quite literal. The equivalent sign I've seen in Vietnam painted on the wall is simply:

    Cấm Đái (Forbidden to piss)

    And all other signs I've seen are simple to understand as long as you understand the grammar. But from what I've seen on this site, a lot of Chinese signs are quite confusing even to people who speak Chinese fluently.

  26. marie-lucie said,

    February 25, 2013 @ 3:40 pm

    Spanish porqueria 'filth' derived from puerco 'pig': there is a parallel in French, with cochonnerie 'filth, filthy thing or act' from cochon 'pig'.

  27. Evan said,

    April 1, 2013 @ 7:13 pm

    I might be a little bit late to comment on this, but I think the main trouble (as has already been suggested) is with the character 人. My guess is that it is a sort of pun on modern Chinese 人, human, and the Confucian virtue of 仁, humanity/benevolence, both pronounced as rén. Confucius writes at length about what is and is not 仁, in this sense, so it might have a meaning of "inhuman" and be intentionally referencing the (I think well-known) Confucian virtue at the same time. Of course, I may be reading way too much into a spray-painted government slogan.

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