Wherever You Please

« previous post | next post »

Although unintentionally humorous unilingual signs and labels are not as numerous as those that are bilingual, one does come upon them from time to time. Randy Alexander sent me this notice that he saw on a shop front window in Changchun, Jilin. It may be translated: "Starting from today, it is forbidden to urinate or defecate anywhere you please in this place. Fine 200-500 RMB." I get the "anywhere you please" from SUI2DI4 随地 ("anywhere; everywhere; any old place; wherever you please"), which is widely used in such phrases as SUI2DI4 TU3TAN2 随地吐痰 ("spit any old place"). The latter, by the way, is one form of Pekingese behavior that the authorities are trying to curb before the fast-approaching Olympics.

On this official Olympics website, it is stated that some Chinese netizens have tried to justify the habit of spitting by quoting 5,000-year old proverbs.  I'm certain that their case was not very convincing, particularly since there are no 5,000-year old Chinese proverbs, and I seriously doubt that the netizens were quoting early Sumerian proverbs in favor of spitting (are there any?).

I should point out that, apart from government attempts to improve the manners of Beijingers, linguistic etiquette is undergoing radical changes as well, as demonstrated in a recent paper by Mary Erbaugh. (See "Saying 'Hello' to 'Ni Hao'", WSJ 6/20/2008.)

In any event, this Changchun shop window notice against unrestrained urinating and defecating reminds me of the "Forbidden to die" sign that we discussed back in early June. There the prohibited location for dying was JIU4DI4 就地 ("right here; on this very spot").

As Randy comments on the Changchun storefront sign, "It's funny how it implies that it was perfectly OK before today to defecate [and urinate] there."

For DA4XIAO3BIAN4 大小便 ("greater and lesser convenience," i.e., "defecate and urinate"), we have to go back a bit earlier to "Linguistic Advice in the Lavatory: Speaking Mandarin Is a Great Convenience for Everyone".

If you're interested in the small sign at the bottom left of the Changchun shop window, it means "Recommended by the Shop Director." I wonder if it's the director who's going to enforce the ban on urinating and defecating in front of his shop, or if he can call on the police to catch those who commit this infraction?


  1. Jed Davis said,

    July 25, 2008 @ 12:50 pm

    Speaking of unintended implications of signage, I'm reminded of a sign (in English) I once saw at a PATH train station, forbidding anyone not an employee of the Port Authority from disrobing or remaining unclothed in the trains or stations. (Paraphrased from memory.) So, clearly, if you work for them then you're allowed to run around naked all you want within their subway system.

  2. Barbara Partee said,

    July 25, 2008 @ 2:28 pm

    Is there any chance that the Chinese "anywhere you please" has some of the potential positive/negative polarity "ambiguity" (or adaptability; I guess it's still an open question whether to analyze it as ambiguity) of English "anywhere at all"? (and "anywhere whatever", I think, and even simple "anywhere", though in a context where "anywhere" can be taken as a negative polarity item (NPI), that's usually the default interpretation and special intonation is needed to get the positive 'anywhere you please' reading)

    What I'm calling positive is what's known as the free choice reading, as in "ask any doctor", "He can solve any problem". "Spit anywhere you like". NPI is as in "He didn't go anywhere", "He couldn't solve any of the problems", "You can't spit anywhere here".

    The contexts that permit NPI reading (negative and many others) often permit the free choice reading too if you add special intonation or certain modifiers like "just". So whereas "it is forbidden to sit anywhere here" may most likely be read as 'no sitting at all', the other reading comes out with "it is forbidden to sit just anywhere here; you have to sit in your assigned seat." Or in "you can't say just anything that pops into your head; you have to think first." which definitely doesn't forbid talking, as "you can't say anything" with neutral intonation would.

    Some modifiers intensify the "any" without necessarily choosing between NPI and free choice readings; "at all" is one of those. "You can't say anything at all" is ambiguous in writing, usually unambiguous orally (I learned a lot of this from Nirit Kadmon and Craige Roberts when they were PhD students at UMass.) In Russian I've had to work hard to try to find out the corresponding facts; and in both languages,. speakers don't always agree with each other. For instance, although I'm inclined to think that "You can't say anything whatever" has both possibilities, I'm not sure — maybe that's only free choice.

    Randy and Victor imply that this Chinese expression is unambiguously free choice, though the assumption that the proprietor of the store knows his language and the pragmatics of the context suggest that it can also have an NPI reading. I don't know Chinese. Randy and Victor, are you sure, and do we have native Chinese speakers among our readers who might have an opinion? (Of course the proprietor could made an unintended error, as people often do. – a slip of the brush?)

  3. KYL said,

    July 25, 2008 @ 4:57 pm

    As a native speaker of Mandarin, I don't read the sign as unintentionally ambiguous. Here, SUI2DI4 随地, in context, means something like "without restraint (around here)," not literally "any place." I read the sign as idiomatically correct, though translated literally it could be confusing.

    (I do agree that it's humorous in the sense that it does unintentionally suggest that before the date of this sign, the behavior forbidden was perfectly okay. Lots of signs have that problem though.)

    As for 5000-year old proverbs, who knows? The ones quoted may or may not be that old, but it seems pretty clear that Chinese, like many other families of languages, have probably existed for a lot longer than that. Victor, I hope you weren't implying that somehow just because we have no written record of some linguistic utterance, that it doesn't/didn't/couldn't exist. :)

  4. syz said,

    July 26, 2008 @ 9:22 pm

    I don't understand what Barbara Partee said but I think she's right.

    In this post, Beijing Sounds documents the same phrase (suídì / 随地) used on a subway announcement telling people not to spit "anywhere" on the floor. So it doesn't seem quite fair to offer the "anywhere you please" translation — since suídì appears to be standard in a context where the translation would be unhumorously understood as "anywhere."

    None of this is to say it's not odd to prohibit defic/uri-nation "starting from today," just that it's not the suídì part that makes it funny.

  5. Randy Alexander said,

    July 27, 2008 @ 8:59 am

    Barbara — I think it's possible that 随地 has ambiguous polarity in this case. Generally it has positive polarity (I'm not a native speaker), but the shopkeeper wrote 此处 (cǐchù, in this very place). He didn't really need to say 随地, and perhaps the 此处 can be seen as a limiter to the 随地, so it comes out as "don't urinate or defecate anywhere you please in this very place" (which is just a few square meters anyway).

  6. Barbara Partee said,

    July 27, 2008 @ 10:16 am

    I am going to frame syz's first comment! (Though I apologize for not writing more understandably.) From the comments of syz, KYL, and Randy, it does sound to me like that phrase has ambiguous polarity. syz's note about the subway seems to confirm that. So then it's indeed a translation issue — the modifiers "you please" or "you like" are appropriate only for the free choice reading and not for the negative polarity reading. Thanks, syz, KYL, and Randy!

  7. Jerome Chiu said,

    February 2, 2009 @ 4:58 am

    The most famous notice of this kind is the one, reported several decades ago, found, as the story goes, in a Hong Kong sidewalk: 閒雜人等不得在此小便 .

    The intended message was obviously that "strangers and passers-by are not allowed to urinate here" ("xianza rendeng, bude zaici xiaobian" 閒雜人等,不得在此小便。)

    Since the message as written on the wall was not punctuated, somebody with a good sense of humour did the following, if only for a great laugh: "xianzaren, dengbude, zaici xiaobian" 閒雜人,等不得,在此小便。 lit. "[a] stranger [or] passerby can't wait any longer, [so he has] urinate[d] here".

RSS feed for comments on this post