How many characters does it take to say "staff only"?

« previous post | next post »

In sending along the photograph below, Geoff Dawson writes:

I find it hard to believe it takes nine characters. Curious as to what they really say.

From a furniture shop in South Melbourne Australia.

The Sinoglyphs say:

guānxìzhě yǐwài lìrù jìnzhǐ (Modern Standard Mandarin)

kankei-sha igai tachiiri kinshi (Japanese)


"entry prohibited except for related persons"

I give both the Mandarin and the Japanese readings of the characters for several reasons.  One is that the first character is written in its Japanese form, 関, not 關, which would be traditional Chinese, nor 关, which would be simplified Chinese.  Another is that that there are syntactical and lexical features that make me feel this is more to the side of the Japanese mode of expression than to Chinese.

tachiiri kinshi 立入禁止

Compound of 立ち入り (tachiiri, “entry”, stem of verb 立ち入る (tachiiru), “to enter an area or into someone's affairs”) +‎ 禁止 (kinshi, “forbidden, prohibited”).

First cited to a text from 1929.

(Wiktionary, which includes the following photograph and caption)

立入禁止 (tachiiri kinshi): a Blue Road no admittance sign on the Yoshida Trail, Yamanashi Prefecture

Echoing Geoff's question, why does it take so many characters to express such a simple message?  Never mind the multiplicity of strokes (more than three score), just the nine characters are as many as the nine simple letters that make up the English message:  STAFF ONLY (15 strokes the way I write them, or less than one quarter the number of strokes in the nine Sinoglyphs).

It's all a matter of concision and verbosity; choose your own style.  Or is it?  Maybe there's something about English that permits and favors terseness.  We've observed this before in comparison with, say, French (see "Selected readings").  In my impression, English seems to have a genius for succinctness.

So let me turn this into a challenge / contest.  In other languages (Mandarin, Cantonese, Japanese, Russian, German, Greek, Turkic, Spanish, Hindi, Bengali, Tamil…), what is the shortest, yet still idiomatic, way to say "Staff Only"?

Selected readings


  1. John Baker said,

    October 2, 2022 @ 1:30 pm

    Does English really have a genius for succinctness? In comparison to French, sure, but I had not heard that this was considered an attribute of English generally.

  2. Jonathan Smith said,

    October 2, 2022 @ 1:36 pm

    Mandarin signs seem to say 闲人免进 / 只限员工 and the like…

    The main reasons this text isn't Chinese are IMO b/c "guānxìzhě" is not a word, "lìrù" is not a word, and 'entrance forbidden' would use the other order e.g. jìnzhǐ rù​nèi​ 禁止入内.

    However the "not a word" question becomes fraught with character script… with ChineseJapanese as well as across Chinese languages themselves, sth. is "not a word" until someone uses it a couple times… then it's kind of a word :D

  3. Peter B. Golden said,

    October 2, 2022 @ 2:15 pm

    Russian: вход только для персонала (entrance only for staff)
    or: служебный вход (service [staff] entrance)

  4. AntC said,

    October 2, 2022 @ 3:18 pm

    "entry prohibited except for related persons"

    _Is_ the English saying the same as that? Has it only achieved 'terseness' by eliding part of the message? 'related persons' = employees? or = family members? I guess the notice is on a door, so it's understood to be talking about "entry".

    I find the English rather peremptory (but that's not considered rude/disrespectful on a staff entrance). I'd expect the Japanese/Chinese to include a bit more politeness, maybe: we request our valued customers to enter by the door at the front of the building. Is there a regretful or apologetic tone to the Chinese/Japanese for inconveniencing those trying to get into the store?

  5. Chas Belov said,

    October 2, 2022 @ 4:08 pm

    @AntC: I've noticed in my employ we would often not use "please" in the English version and would add it for Chinese and sometimes Spanish.

  6. Adrian Bailey said,

    October 2, 2022 @ 4:47 pm

    It's possible to express this in German in two words, NUR PERSONAL, but you're more likely to see NUR FÜR PERSONAL or ZUTRITT NUR FÜR PERSONAL.

  7. ycx said,

    October 2, 2022 @ 6:26 pm

    関係者 is to the best of my knowledge a Japanese word, it's not used in Chinese to any significant extent. Attempting to translate it using Chinese "关系" as "related people" is not going to result in an idiomatic translation.

    Wiktionary translates it as "authorized person" or "concerned person", which makes far more sense.

  8. Rosemary Kuwahata said,

    October 2, 2022 @ 7:26 pm

    職員専用 would be a shorter way of saying 'staff only' in Japanese. (shokuin senyou)
    職員: staff 専用: for exclusive use = for staff use only
    By the way, I was intrigued by the wording ブル道 on the Japanese sign. It does not mean "blue road" as it would have an elongated 'Ū': ブルー. Looking at the rocky ground behind the sign gave me a clue, as did the onyomi reading of 道 as 'dō'. ブル (buru) is short for ブルドーザー (burudōzaa) = Bulldozer!! So the ブル道 (burudō) is a 'bulldozer road'. (with a sort of pun on 'dō'.
    ブルドーザーの専用道は「ブル道」と呼ばれる = A road for the exclusive use of bulldozers is called a 'burudō'.

  9. Thomas Lee Hutcheson said,

    October 2, 2022 @ 9:05 pm

    When I use Google translate to go from English I draft to Spanish, I usually find the Spanish takes up less space on the page.

  10. Josh R. said,

    October 3, 2022 @ 2:03 am

    AntC asked:

    "_Is_ the English saying the same as that? Has it only achieved 'terseness' by eliding part of the message?"

    Yes. The equivalent English would be "Entry for authorized personnel only."

    "'related persons' = employees? or = family members? I guess the notice is on a door, so it's understood to be talking about "entry"."

    "Related persons" is a pretty clunky literal translations. Familial relation is not expressed with the term 関係. 関係 is often translated as "relationship", but it has the nuance of "involvement." The idiomatic equivalent to "That's none of your business," would be "(Anata ni wa) kankei nai," Lit, "You don't have any 関係."

    The term used here, "kankei-sha" is also used for anonymous sources in news articles, essentially meaning, "sources close to (the subject of the article)."

    "Is there a regretful or apologetic tone to the Chinese/Japanese for inconveniencing those trying to get into the store?"

    No, the tone and register is completely impersonal and neutral. It's essentially imparting information, like a label.

  11. Chris said,

    October 3, 2022 @ 3:06 am

    English roads often have warning signs saying SLOW. On Spanish motorways the signs say MODERE SU VELOCIDAD.

  12. cliff arroyo said,

    October 3, 2022 @ 5:46 am

    I think English signery is primarily intended for people who already know the concept being conveyed and so just a few words are used to remind the user (eliminating many that would be required in speech). STAFF ONLY really doesn't give that much information (unless you already know the meaning… in which case it works fine).

    Users of other languages tend to prefer to retain more grammatical and/or disambiguating features in signage.

  13. Mark Liberman said,

    October 3, 2022 @ 6:09 am

    See also:
    "One world, how many bytes?", 8/5/2005
    "Comparing communication efficiency across languages", 4/4/2008
    "Mailbag: Comparative communication efficiency", 4/5/2008
    "Speech rate and per-syllable information across languages", 4/12/2008
    "Is English more efficient than Chinese after all?", 4/28/2008
    "Information content of text in English and Chinese", 10/9/2017

  14. David said,

    October 3, 2022 @ 8:11 am

    In Swedish: "Endast personal".

  15. Jarek Weckwerth said,

    October 3, 2022 @ 11:08 am

    I would add this to the list of sources:

    Those who are not authorized are not authorized

  16. Apollo Wu said,

    October 3, 2022 @ 9:04 pm

    立入禁止 is a Japanese saying.

  17. Sroyon said,

    October 5, 2022 @ 1:42 am

    In Bengali I would translate it as শুধুমাত্র কমচারীদের জন্য (śudhumātra kamacārīdēra janya), though I can't recall actually seeing such a sign. If we wanted to make it as short as possible, we might say শুধু কর্মী (śudhu karmī); it doesn't sound idiomatic to my ears but I think people would understand it in context.

  18. James Wimberley said,

    October 5, 2022 @ 11:46 am

    What on earth are the signs trying to say? The English text says "Staff only", but the gendered icon seems to say "No males admitted". Or maybe "No entry to anybody".

RSS feed for comments on this post