Topolectal traffic sign

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This has apparently been around for awhile, but I'm seeing it now for the first time:

Since I've not found any online explanation or demonstration of what language it is and what the characters actually mean, I've decided to work on it a bit.

The line at the top of the sign says:

Píngguǒ jiāojǐng gāng méng dǐng 平果交警刚蒙顶

The first four characters mean "Pingguo Police" (Pingguo is a county in west-central Guangxi Region).  As I begin the writing of this post, I don't know what language the next three characters represent, but they most likely mean "remind you", or words to that effect.  Thus, something like "Pingguo Police remind you" for the first line.

The two lines of large characters beneath that say:

kěn lou bù hāi shì 肯嘍布嗨視
hāi shì bù kěn lou 嗨視布肯嘍

For a speaker of Modern Standard Mandarin (MSM), these lines make absolutely no sense (lit., "willing — final particle calling attention to, or mildly warning of, a situation — cloth — hi / hey / alas / oh — look at; hi / hey / alas / oh — look at — cloth — willing — final particle calling attention to, or mildly warning of, a situation").

When I first read this it wasn't immediately clear to me what language these two lines represent either, but I'm pretty sure that, character by character they mean (that's because such signs are common all over China):

hējiǔ bù kāichē
kāichē bù hējiǔ


drink alcohol don't drive car
drive car don't drink alcohol

Initially I thought that perhaps these two lines were in a local Sinitic topolect, since bù 布 sounds like MSM bù 不 ("don't") and hāi shì 嗨視 sounds somewhat like kāichē 开车 ("drive car").  But I don't know any Sinitic language or topolect in which the word for alcohol sounds like "lou"; they all sound more or less like jiǔ 酒.  Off the top of my head, I also don't know any Sinitic language or topolect in which the word for "drink" (verb) sounds like kěn.  Consequently, I hypothesized that these lines must be in Zhuang language, which is not only the largest "minority" language in Guangxi, but also in the whole of China.

So I ran down to my dungeon study in the basement and began to rummage through boxes of old books that I had acquired three decades ago when I used to go to Guangxi to have Xin Tang, our journal of Romanized Mandarin, printed in Nanning, the capital of Guangxi Region.  Incredibly, I found some of my old Zhuang dictionaries buried beneath boxes of other books.  Having unearthed them, I was rewarded to find that the Zhuang word for "alcohol" is laeuj!  So that's what the lou 嘍 (lit., "final particle calling attention to, or mildly warning of, a situation") stands for.

The Zhuang word for "don't" is mbouj, so that's what the bù 布 (lit., "cloth") stands for.

The Zhuang word for "eat" (apparently it can also mean "drink" in some Zhuang dialects) is gwn, so that's what the kěn 肯 (lit., "willing") stands for.  Here I need to note that using "eat" for "drink" is perfectly compatible with the Mandarin of that area:  chī shuǐ 吃水 ("eat water", i.e., "drink water"), chī chá 吃茶 ("eat tea", i.e., "drink tea").  See "Don't eat the water" (3/17/15).

[Update at 9:45 a.m. on 3/6/17:  just received from Pattira Thaithosaeng the information that "drink alcohol" in Thai is ดื่มเหล้า (IPA: dɯːm law).  That is wonderful confirmation of my hypothesis about kěn lou 肯嘍 being a transcription of Zhuang gwn laeuj ("drink alcohol").  Note that Zhuang gwn can also mean "drink".  In addition, Zhuang has the word ndumq for "drink", which is very close to the Thai word mentioned by Pattira.   As I have explained in previous Language Log posts, Zhuang and Thai are related languages.]

The Zhuang word for "drive car" is hai ci, so that's what the hāi shì 嗨視 (lit., "hi / hey / alas / oh — look at") stands for.  I suspect that hai ci must have been borrowed into Zhuang from Mandarin kāichē 开车 ("drive car").  Thus we have this interesting round trip phenomenon:  Mandarin kāichē 开车 –> Zhuang hai ci –> Mandarin hāi shì 嗨視.

In other words, what they're doing on this sign is using Chinese characters to record the sounds of Zhuang.  Since the Zhuang people have their own Roman letter script, one wonders who this sign is intended for.  People who read characters don't know the Zhuang vocables they are being used to transcribe here, and people who know Zhuang language would know their own Roman letter script better than the characters.

For an extensive description and lively discussion of Zhuang orthographies see this post and the comments that follow it:

"The languages on Chinese banknotes" (9/16/13)

In the past, we have had readers familiar with Zhuang language (e.g., David B. Solnit) comment on some of our posts.  If any of you who know Zhuang read this post, please confirm and refine my findings or enlarge upon them if you can.  This is especially needed for the first line at the top of the sign.  As I've already noted, the first four characters are purely Chinese and mean "Pingguo Police"; they represent the only straightforward Sinitic words on the sign.  The next three characters (gāng méng dǐng 刚蒙顶) must stand for Zhuang words, because they make no sense in terms of their literal Chinese meanings:  "just / barely / only / exactly / firm / hard / tough / rigid / strong / etc. — illiterate / ignorant / unconscious / dim-sighted / cover / hoodwink / cheat / receive / deceive / drizzle / mist / etc. — top / apex / crown of the head / gore / withstand / etc., etc. (many more highly varied meanings).  I'm pretty sure that the second character, méng 蒙 (lit., "illiterate / ignorant / unconscious / dim-sighted / cover / hoodwink / cheat / receive / deceive / drizzle / mist / etc." in first, second, and third tones) stands for Zhuang "mwngz" ("you"), but I need help from those knowledgeable in Zhuang for the other two characters, gāng 刚 (lit., "just / barely / only / exactly / firm / hard / tough / rigid / strong / etc.") and dǐng 顶 (lit., "top / apex / crown of the head / gore / withstand / etc.").

Final thought:  I'm wondering if that policeman in the photograph, who is standing next to the sign with his right hand on it and what might be interpreted as a look of bewilderment on his face, knows what words are written on it.

[h.t. Xun Gong; thanks to Fangyi Cheng, Jinyi Cai, Yixue Yang, and Iset Qiao]


  1. chh said,

    March 6, 2017 @ 1:48 pm

    Can't you also say something like /kin law/ in Thai for drink alcohol?? That would be much closer to the Zhuang form of both words.

  2. Matt_M said,

    March 6, 2017 @ 5:44 pm

    @chh: Yes, /kin law/ (literally, "eat alcohol") is a normal way of saying "drink alcohol" in Thai.

  3. Victor Mair said,

    March 6, 2017 @ 11:03 pm

    From Pattira Thaithosaeng:

    After reading your article, I realized that Thais also use the word for "eat" and "drink" interchangeably.

    Eat = กิน (IPA: kin)

  4. Joshua Rosenzweig said,

    March 7, 2017 @ 3:19 am

    I don't know Zhuang or Thai, but I assumed from the context that it's "Pingguo Police Remind You:" or the like. Based on this discussion of the same sign ( it seems like it might be 刚 = gangj (speak, 讲), 蒙 = mwngz (2d person pronoun), 顶 = dingq (listen, 听)

  5. Dan Lufkin said,

    March 7, 2017 @ 10:32 am

    I recall that in (modern) Hebrew you "drink" a cigarette.

  6. CuConnacht said,

    March 7, 2017 @ 10:44 am

    Dan Lufkin: So also in Arabic and Turkish.

  7. Anonymous Coward said,

    March 7, 2017 @ 12:43 pm

    Joshua Rosenzweig: Cool! So both verbs are perfectly Sinitic…

  8. Guy said,

    March 7, 2017 @ 12:52 pm

    @Dan Lufkin –

    As a native Hebrew speaker (with quite a few friends who smoke):
    No one says to "drink" a cigarette in modern Hebrew (and I don’t think "drinking" was ever used to describe acts of smoking in the days of yore as well).
    In Hebrew, you “smoke” a cigarette (the verb is לעשן), and “drink” (לשתות) only fluids.
    (BTW, even for soup, Hebrew speakers usually use “eat” and not “drink”, unlike Mandarin speakers’ “drink soup” – 喝汤).

  9. Victor Mair said,

    March 7, 2017 @ 2:15 pm

    "it might be 刚 = gangj (speak, 讲), 蒙 = mwngz (2d person pronoun), 顶 = dingq (listen, 听)"

    We need confirmation from Zhuang speakers whether gangj and dingq are Sinitic or Zhuang, and why they are sandwiching a Zhuang pronoun.

  10. Anonymous Coward said,

    March 7, 2017 @ 4:02 pm

    VM: Borrowed from Sinitic to Zhuang, of course. Zhuang, like Vietnamese, abound with Sinitic loans in even the most basic words, and this is an excellent example of it.

  11. Adrian said,

    March 7, 2017 @ 11:17 pm

    I read that Zhuang can be written in Sawndip, but I take it that the sign is not in Sawndip? What is the relationship between the Sawndip and Mandarin writing systems? Thanks.

  12. Victor Mair said,

    March 8, 2017 @ 8:00 am


    Correct. That sign is not in Sawndip. It is in regular Chinese characters being used to transcribe the sounds of Zhuang.

    Sawndip is a script derived from, but not the same as, Chinese characters that has been used to write the Zhuang language for over a thousand years. In these respects, it is similar to Chữ nôm for Vietnamese. As a matter of fact, throughout history there have been nearly two dozen Siniform scripts, but, aside from the Chinese script itself, they are all either dead or dying. See:

    Zhou Youguang, "The Family of Chinese Character-Type Scripts: Twenty Members and Four Stages of Development", Sino-Platonic Papers, 28 (September, 1991), 1-11.

    Superficially Sawndip may looked to the untrained eye as being quite similar to regular Chinese characters used to write Mandarin, but to someone who is actually familiar with the latter it seems frustratingly odd, like Xu Bing's famous Tiānshū 天书 (A Book from the Sky), which I wrote about in this post:

    "The unpredictability of Chinese character formation and pronunciation" (2/6/12)




    Wikipedia (Sawndip literature)

    Wikipedia (Chữ Nôm)


  13. Adrian said,

    March 8, 2017 @ 11:04 am

    Thanks. I guess one wouldn't see Sawndip signs because it's officially deprecated, though according to the Wikipedia article a Sawndip sign would be comprehensible to more people than one in the official alphabetic script, despite the changeover having taken place 60 years ago! I take it that signs/texts in Nanning are generally in MSM, though I dare say there's a significant minority who can't understand them either.

  14. Bathrobe said,

    March 10, 2017 @ 6:30 pm

    Actually, I think topolect is slightly inaccurate in this title. This is Han characters being used for a separate language, not for a topolect of Chinese.

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