October 29, 2007

Improving moral standards

From his travels in China, Victor Mair sent a photo of a sign that shamelessly flouts the maxim of quantity.

As Victor says, "It's hard to be a civilized citizen at the Wenshu Temple in Chengdu, Sichuan. There are so many rules that must be remembered."

But did the sign-maker intend any Gricean implicature? In a U.S. tourist attraction, a similarly-detailed sign would suggest some strange local history, or at least an eccentric caretaker.

Put this sign in The Onion -- perhaps with few small tweaks -- and it could be the basis for an amusing feature on the hard life of a temple guard ("The worst? Checking all the elderly worshippers for clean underwear") or the difficulties of a bureaucrat with Asperger's ("Refer to Appendix A for a full list of the 112,367 activities that are specifically prohibited in the temple: disposal of nuclear waste, archery practice, marshmallow roasts, filming pornographic movies, quail hunting, ...").

In China, though, it seems that signs with long lists of diversely forbidden (or recommended) activities are common. So maybe the only semiotic implicature is that "this is a place with rules, for example these".

[John Burke writes:

At Orchard Beach in the Bronx, 50 or so years ago, there was a large sign--I'd guess maybe four feet wide by three feet high--listing the rules. Almost the entire left half of the sign was filled by the word "NO;" the right-hand half, in considerably smaller letters, specified things like "Running, Ballplaying," etc. etc.--quite a lot of fairly inoffensive (as it seemed to my teenage self) beach activities. Then at the bottom, printed across the full width of the sign, the deathless bureaucratic admonition: "This is your beach. Enjoy it!"

A bit of Google Image search turns up plenty of signs like this one:

Perhaps it's just that when the language is more idiomatic, we don't notice the length of the list so much. But still, the Chengdu list does include some things that would seem a bit out of place on a tourist-site sign the U.S., I think, no matter how they were translated: "Don't waste food. ... Do not be out for small advantages. ... Resist superstition. ..."]

[OK, I give up. Matt Bishop send this:

West Wickham has got Chengdu beat by a mile -- or at least by a couple of furlongs -- in the explicit-lists-of-bad-acts derby.]

Posted by Mark Liberman at October 29, 2007 08:08 AM