What is this?

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Daniel Tse spotted this sign in Seoul recently:

The Korean says:

juchageumji 주차금지 = 駐車禁止 = No Parking

This is from Japanese:

chūsha kinshi 駐車禁止

In Mandarin, for "No Parking", it would be more common to write one of the following:

jìnzhǐ tíngchē 禁止停车

bùdé tíngchē 不得停车

bù zhǔn tíngchē 不准停车

In Cantonese, this would be expressed as bat1 zeon2 paak3 ce1 不准泊車, where paak3 泊 is the Cantonese transcription of the English word "park". This usage has worked its way into Mandarin, where 泊 is pronounced bó. Thus, in Mandarin, bó 泊 has completely lost the close sound correspondence to "park" that it has in Cantonese. This is true of countless English words that have entered Mandarin through Cantonese, including, of course, the ubiquitous "taxi". (See "Fried scholar's".) Never mind that, as a noun, 泊 is pronounced pō and means "lake" and also never mind that, pronounced bó, it can also signify a particular surname.

If you ask a Mandarin speaker why bó 泊 means "park", they might tell you that, as a verb, it originally signified "moor; berth; anchor", so that's just a short step away from what you do with your car or truck when you park it. Since several of my favorite old Chinese poems are about mooring boats beneath bridges or along secluded streams, I choose not to disabuse my Mandarin speaking friends of that notion. It's both incongruous and comforting to imagine that, when one parks one's car in a bustling, modern Chinese city, it is akin to mooring one's little boat in a quiet, secluded nook.

[Thanks to Bill Hannas and Bob Ramsey]


  1. Cameron said,

    April 2, 2013 @ 11:00 am

    That's all fine and well, but why does this sign bear the English text "What is this" ?

  2. Daniel said,

    April 2, 2013 @ 11:06 am

    I'm guessing for the same reason Discworld has mountains named "Just a Mountain, I Don't Know, What?" and "Your Finger You Fool". Somebody pointed to it, asked a native speaker, and wrote down the answer.

  3. Randy said,

    April 2, 2013 @ 11:17 am

    …or possibly for the same reason this restaurant bears its English name,


    [(myl) For the original provenance of the picture, see here.]

  4. Minivet said,

    April 2, 2013 @ 11:38 am

    Hm. In Japanese the same character is used in the verb tomaru 泊まる "to stay" – as in to lodge somewhere temporarily, not to remain. It's also used to form counts of nights of stay: 一泊 is a one-night-stay, etc. It's not used for cars, but it wouldn't be strange if it were.

  5. Narmitaj said,

    April 2, 2013 @ 2:06 pm

    "What is this?" may be akin to the famous UK bi-lingual sign translation problem where the Welsh read "I am out of the office at the moment" instead of "No entry for heavy goods vehicles".


  6. KWillets said,

    April 2, 2013 @ 5:05 pm

    I believe the lower part may be the property or business name. If you do an image search on "주차금지" you'll see the same sign with a blank lower half, or bearing different logos.

  7. Minsu said,

    April 2, 2013 @ 6:30 pm

    KWillets could be right. The lower part is likely to be a business name, which asks other people not to park in front of their business entry. They usually put their business name on it to mean that the sign belongs to them. A common scene you can spot on narrow shopping alleys in Korea. Small letters above "No Parking" indeed say "thank you for your cooperation".

  8. Matt said,

    April 2, 2013 @ 7:55 pm

    Is it possible that 泊 was chosen as the character for "park" loaned into Cantonese because it was both phonetically and semantically close, and so your Mandarin-speaking acquaintances are at least half-correct? Or had the "moor, berth" meaning of 泊 (preserved in Japanese as Minivet says) already vanished from Cantonese by that point?

  9. Dan said,

    April 2, 2013 @ 10:16 pm

    Needs another sign next to it that says "I don't even."

  10. phspaelti said,

    April 3, 2013 @ 12:31 am

    @Matt: Is it possible that 泊 was chosen as the character for "park" loaned into Cantonese because it was both phonetically and semantically close, and so your Mandarin-speaking acquaintances are at least half-correct?

    I don't believe characters are "chosen". This would seem to be a (quite plausible) case of semantic drift: moor (i.e. tie up) a boat > tie up one's draft animal car (at a stop) > park one's car

    So my assumption would be that the character stayed with the word as it changed its meaning. Obviously people who actually know about the historical development of Chinese should feel free to shoot this hypothesis down.

  11. Natalia said,

    April 3, 2013 @ 5:13 am

    That actually explains a few things!

    When I first moved to the United States, my Mandarin-speaking parents would talk about "泊车", parking their car, but 泊 is pronounced like "pah" (paak3?) as opposed to bó.

    I've never figured out whether they simply commandeered "park" and pronounced it according to Mandarin rules or whether they had picked it up from one of their colleagues. I suspect that they don't know themselves!

  12. Victor Mair said,

    April 3, 2013 @ 6:56 am


    Usually, Cantonese transcribe words from English and other languages (including spoken Cantonese!) in characters without regard to their semantic content. They choose them mainly for their ability to convey the sounds they want to record. That's why we get things like "scholar's" for "steak" and "bury the bill" for "bring the check".


    Excellent observation! I remember the same phenomenon among my Mandarin speaking friends from the time when I had just begun to learn the language over four decades ago. Naturally, I was very curious about this usage, so I asked them what this "pah che" was all about. Of course, both they and I knew very well that it meant "park car", but nobody could explain how / why it meant that. I suppose that with "pah" they thought they were saying some sort of Mandarinized version of "park", and I'm pretty sure that this was mediated through Cantonese paak3, but very few of them were aware of the Cantonese background of the usage. The same is true of the flood of other Cantoneseisms in Mandarin, some of which are quite ubiquitous, such as those for "taxi" and "t-shirt". Mandarin speakers use these words freely, with their often drastically altered pronunciations, but they have little or no consciousness of their Cantonese background. Ditto for the many words from Shanghainese and other topolects in Mandarin.

  13. Mandy said,

    April 3, 2013 @ 5:00 pm

    @Matt's observation seems to make sense. There are other characters that can convey the same sound in Cantonese, such as 拍、柏, etc, yet they chose 泊. I think it has to do with the fact that this character best conveys both the sound and semantic meaning.

    Don't know if this has any bearing on the discussion: Wang Anshi has a poem titled 泊船瓜洲. I'm not sure about 泊's pronunciation here but the meaning of it is quite clear, and at least the notion of mooring boats conveyed by 泊 (once) existed in some northern topolect(s) as well.

  14. Wentao said,

    April 4, 2013 @ 8:52 pm


    I believe that Wang Anshi (and other ancient Chinese poets) wrote poetry in wenyan, the common literary form of Chinese, instead of his native topolect. (Also, Wang Anshi is from Jiangxi, a southern province.)

    The usage of 泊 for mooring boats is not lost: even today in Putonghua we have 停泊.

  15. leoboiko said,

    April 7, 2013 @ 12:21 pm

    Actual example of a semantic extension similar to the one being proposed: Portuguese embarcar "to embark, to get on board". For us the relationship to barco, barca "ship" is quite evident (imagine something like "to enship"); but, despite the transparent etymology, now it's used for all sorts of public transport vehicles including buses and trains.

  16. A-gu said,

    April 16, 2013 @ 4:46 pm

    In Taiwan one most frequently sees 請勿停車 in these situations, I think.

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