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Driving across the United States, I noticed that many signs contain words and actions to do or not to do, rather than pictograms. In many (maybe most) countries, in Europe and also in the neighbor Canada, I remember that most traffic signs use pictograms. I suppose that they are easier to memorize and figure than words.

I should say I am also surprised of that given that the US doesn't have an official language (and in some states, there are multiple official languages, not just English), many signs assume that drivers can read English.

Examples of such signs:

  • Do not pass
  • Signal ahead
  • No left/right turn
  • Dead end / Cul-de-sac (some other countries also use a word, though)
  • Click it, or ticket (for the seatbelt, mostly an ad campaign though)
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    In the vast majority of contexts in the US it is assumed that everyone can read English, officialness notwithstanding.
    – ajd
    Nov 7, 2022 at 21:13
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    It took Americans 40 years to get used to a pictogram instead of a "walk/don't walk" crossing signals.... Americans are notoriously conservative, and refuse to adopt new things as a matter of ideology.
    – littleadv
    Nov 7, 2022 at 21:46
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    My favorite American road sign is 'PED XING' which even for a foreigner with decent English skills is highly non-obvious.
    – quarague
    Nov 8, 2022 at 8:35
  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – Willeke
    Nov 8, 2022 at 18:24

7 Answers 7

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The US has never signed the Vienna convention on Road Signals, which is what is used everywhere in Europe. Neither have Canada and Australia, who mostly follow the US standards on the road-signs.

As mentioned in the comments, US road signs are mostly verbiage rather than pictograms, and there's an implicit expectation of English reading proficiency at some minimum level as part of driving requirements. There may be some historical reasons for that (mostly exclusionary/discriminatory, unsurprisingly), but the fact now is that change is nearly impossible.

In the US the population is very conservative (in a sense that it is averse to change), and is very loudly protesting any change even if it is objectively for the better (e.g.: loud protests against about, well, any change happening in the US). In fact, coming up with a unified standard within the US was a long process that was only completed in the 1970s and required explicit threat of withholding money from the States by the Congress (and still some States have slightly different rules than others). See here.

I mentioned the pedestrian crossing lights in the comment - they used to be "Walk"/"Don't Walk" verbiage, but are now a "Walking person"/"Standing person" pictograms. That change started in 1971 with the introduction of the pictograms in the MUTCD, and was only completed in 2009 with the removal of the text signs from the code. That was just one sign changed.

In addition to Canada and Australia that use similar standard to the US, many other countries didn't sign up to the European convention (many in Africa, South America, China) - see the Wikipedia article. Many of them use a mix European-styled and US-styled signals, but almost all use pictograms (comparison table).

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  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – Willeke
    Nov 9, 2022 at 2:17
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The US has English as a de facto, but not official, national language. At a state level, 31 states have enshrined English as an official language (28 have it as the only official language). Over 90% of US residents have a high level of English proficiency, and among those, roughly 90% speak only English. Couple that with a high literacy rate, and there is generally an expectation that US residents have at least some level of English reading comprehension.

The US is also geographically very large, so it stands to reason that there are fewer foreign drivers than in smaller, more densely packed countries. In Europe, driving a few hours could put you in half a dozen different countries, each with their own national language - pictographic signs are more important when there's a greater language diversity. In the US, you can drive for days without leaving the country. Additionally, one of the two countries sharing a major land border with the US is also a majority English-speaking country.

Justified or not, the US's large geographic area and widespread use of a single language have likely contributed to the relative lack of adoption of pictographic signs.

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  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – Willeke
    Nov 9, 2022 at 2:21
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I don't think it has to do with English per se, it has to do with the fact that pictograms can actually be harder to understand than plain text (unless you know what the symbols mean). For instance, without the text "Yield," you have to know that an upside-down triangle means "Yield," or that a horizontal bar means "No Entry." But text ensures there's no confusion about symbols.

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  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – Willeke
    Nov 9, 2022 at 2:13
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An interesting North American counterpoint is Quebec. In Quebec, road signs must be in French, but it would make no sense to have safety-relevant signs that visitors (from the rest of Canada or the US) cannot read. As a result, there are very few words on road signs. Most use pictograms.

My favorite is on Autoroute 35, heading south from Autoroute 10 towards St-Jean-sur-Richelieu:

Strong Cross-Winds Sign

Strong Cross-Winds Sign

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I know this is not an answer, but I could not resist (comments can't have photographs). This is not exclusively an American phenomenon:

image of a traffic sign reading GÉILL SLÍ

GÉILL SLÍ

The country in which I took this photo is left as an exercise to the reader.

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    Good point...although for this particular sign the text is almost superfluous, as this is the only sign in the system that consists of an inverted red triangle containing text. Indeed, in the UK (if not elsewhere), the sign can be omitted, and a white inverted triangle painted on the road instead. Nov 8, 2022 at 9:41
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    @anotherdave It is indeed in the Gaeltacht (Donegal / Dhún na nGall).
    – gerrit
    Nov 8, 2022 at 11:32
  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – Willeke
    Nov 9, 2022 at 21:06
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One more possible factor that has not been mentioned yet: Such captions in English are often considerably shorter than in other languages (languages that use an alphabet, anyway). This is a well-known problem for anyone who has to deal with translations e.g. for software. Consider some of the captions on this used needle container:

Used needle container with captions in various languages

This means that in other languages, the benefit of using pictographs rather than texts is slightly greater, because you can use smaller signs and/or don't have to use small fonts.

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    Problems with long phrases are also seen in English, that is why some stuff is shortened, e.g. "PED XING", which to me was totally intelligible until I googled the solution. A pictogram with a pedestrian crossing a street would have been much more easy to understand, even for someone who speaks english fluently, and doesn't have the problem with space.
    – Polygnome
    Nov 10, 2022 at 11:20
  • Then again, you have simple English signs with words and much more complex English signs with words. Apparently because Americans aren't well taught how to drive.
    – FreeMan
    Nov 10, 2022 at 14:58
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    This is not a very convincing example. “Max. filling” isn't really a full English translation of Max. Füllhöhe. It could also have been written “Höchstfüllung” oder “Max.Füll” in German. It's true that prose text tends to be a bit more compact in English than in Spanish or German, but this has more to do with grammar / filler words that can readily be omitted in such instructions than with inherently more information-dense words. Nov 10, 2022 at 17:07
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    @FreeMan The first image is very typical. Virtually everyone knows you yield left turns on a solid green. In fact, there's numerous intersections that don't have the accompanying sign. However, that second image is totally bizarre. I've never seen anything like that. In fact, the yellow arrow on the bottom left should be solid green, and perhaps the sign from the first image would be present. At least, that would be a typical set up. My point is that my driving in 30 or so US states has me with no memory of any intersection containing something like the second image.
    – user27701
    Nov 10, 2022 at 19:51
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    @27701 does everyone actually know that? To me it's pretty trivial: there's a green to left - turn left. There's no green to left and the traffic light has it - wait for it to appear. It took me a while to actually understand this 5-lights thing in the US (that, and turning right no red, still feel uneasy every time I do that). The whole idea of "Red - stop and wait. Except when it's stop and go. Except where noone actually stops and just goes" and "Green - go. Except when it's stop and go. Except where noone actually stops and just goes and you get TBoned" is very weird to me.
    – littleadv
    Nov 16, 2022 at 5:51
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Growing up here in the States, we do have some pics on our signs and symbols (like railroad crossing, deer crossing, etc) but from what I've read up on this was that they did try to use this convention of symbols for signs and such but back at that time, the US didn't want to have it be like Europe and people reacted accordingly. I assume it's a sovereign country type thing where it's "our own thing" and people got used to the signs as they are now.

But while in Canada (Quebec), the signs have some writing on them... Mexico has (E) with a line through it to say "NO PARKING", and STOP signs in Quebec say "ARRÊT", Mexico says "ALTO", and Dominican Republic says "PARE." But essentially, they're just "comparable" to US signs in design most of the time otherwise.

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