Chinese characters formed from letters of the alphabet

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Tim Cousins sent in this photograph of a sign in a local mall in Dalian, northeast China.


It seems that the sign, which is written with letters of the alphabet, some of which are slightly distorted and positioned in unaccustomed places. reads:

liúxíng qiánxiàn 流行前线
("Popular Front", the name of a well-known mall in Guangzhou, which apparently has branches in different places around the country, or else other stores are trying to capitalize on its reputation, or perhaps somebody is simply trying to get mileage out of the funky political cachet of this expression.)

This is different from ambigrams, where one form simultaneously means the same thing (or roughly the same thing) in two different scripts, such as is illustrated here, here, and here.

Nor is it the sort of virtuoso display where one script is redesigned to look like an entirely different script (the English alphabet made to seem as though it were devanagari or Hebrew script or even Chinese characters), as in this post (see also the comments for other examples).

Nor is this the same as Xu Bing's Square Word Calligraphy, where the letters of English words are rearranged to look like Chinese characters.

In the example under discussion, letters of the alphabet are manipulated to function more or less as strokes and components of Chinese characters. My Chinese friends and students who looked at this sign found it a bit hard to decipher, but after contemplating the writing for awhile, and with an awareness of the Guangzhou mall name in the back of their mind, were able to see how the letters all fit together to constitute four characters, though the letters do not "spell" anything intelligible in English or in Chinese.

[Thanks to Fangyi Cheng and Ziwei He]

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15 Comments »

  1. Victor Mair said,

    August 20, 2014 @ 4:28 pm

    As I was preparing this post, I was so fixated on the black lettering on the yellow sign that I really didn't pay attention to the flamboyant word in orange on white background above it. I'll leave it to others to explicate (though I admit that it's fun to speculate on what it says).

  2. Ben said,

    August 20, 2014 @ 4:36 pm

    Is there any confusion on what the orange word says? Clearly 'Fashion', no?

  3. Victor Mair said,

    August 20, 2014 @ 5:31 pm

    @Ben

    Right! If you search for 流行前线, you will find that its website address is http://www.pop-fashion.com, and it is just generally connected with the word "fashion".

  4. Ethan said,

    August 20, 2014 @ 6:09 pm

    @Victor: "This is different from ambigrams".

    Not so sure. It looks to me that 前 may be constructed from the letters DKNY, which is a well known fashion label. ZM is apparently also a fashion label, although not one I've heard of. So I wonder if all of the chinese characters are made from fragments of brands that the mall sells, or stores inside (TJ from TJMax?)

  5. Victor Mair said,

    August 20, 2014 @ 6:13 pm

    @Ethan

    Great! You know fashun a lot better than I.

  6. Mark Mandel said,

    August 20, 2014 @ 6:35 pm

    This use of the word "ambigram" is new to me. I have known it for years as referring to a text that yields the same reading (or an opposite or otherwise related one) when rotated 180°, or reflected, or otherwise manipulated. Your third "here" link, the Google search for /david moser ambigram/, includes a number of those, such as this TRUE/FALSE and the four alchemical elements.

  7. Michael Watts said,

    August 20, 2014 @ 7:04 pm

    The 前 was easy for me to read, but I couldn't begin to guess what the others were supposed to be. The fake 线 especially threw me off; I would have said the 戋-component was a japanese character of some type, like ぽ or も.

    @Ethan:
    Where's the D in the 前? It looks to me like a k, J, crossbar (I?), N, and y.

  8. Matt said,

    August 20, 2014 @ 7:14 pm

    This is amazing. Gyaru moji in Japan sometimes uses individual Roman, Greek, or Cyrillic characters to represent kana (in full or in part, e.g. "ы" for "い" or "L|" for "を", but I've never seen them used as components in Chinese characters before.

  9. Ethan said,

    August 20, 2014 @ 9:55 pm

    @Michael Watts: Start with a horizontal D with the straight line on top; push the horizontal top line to the right, deform the left side of the remaining "u" downwards.

  10. Tim said,

    August 20, 2014 @ 10:40 pm

    Sorry for the bad quality- The one thing I want to point out is this one translates it as "Fashion Frontline" (frontline being the blurry word in black, my phone's not great with focus.)

    Glad it's interesting to everyone!

  11. Victor Mair said,

    August 20, 2014 @ 10:59 pm

    I remember seeing kuruma 車 semantically annotated as カー.

  12. Victor Mair said,

    August 20, 2014 @ 11:06 pm

    @Tim

    We do indeed find evidence of "Fashion Frontline" and 流行前线 being connected:

    https://www.google.com/?gws_rd=ssl#q=%22Fashion+Frontline%22+%E6%B5%81%E8%A1%8C%E5%89%8D%E7%BA%BF

  13. Wentao said,

    August 21, 2014 @ 12:26 am

    I also found it hard to read at first, when I tried to concentrate on the individual letters. But it became clear when I stepped back a few feet from my computer screen.

  14. Kai Christensen (formerly dainichi) said,

    August 21, 2014 @ 12:32 am

    Hm… the LanguageLog comment filter seems to discriminate by names.

    Tim, exactly. I was surprised to see 流行前线 translated as "Popular Front", since it says "Fashion FrontXXX" right there in the photo, although I couldn't see if it was front, frontier, or frontline.

    Any association with political cachets seems misplaced to me, since 流行 means "popular" in the fashion/pop-culture sense of the word, not the "of the people"/political sense of the word.

  15. Victor Mair said,

    August 21, 2014 @ 7:52 am

    @Kai Christensen (formerly dainichi)

    I remember that you have had problems with "dainichi" before, but you used to use it years ago, if I recall correctly, and you didn't seem to have a problem back then. I rather liked that "dainichi" moniker. Could it be that the new LLog filters have been trained to reject anything that smacks of empire? But that is actually Dai Nippon 大日本, whereas Dainichi is the name of a Buddha, Mahāvairocana.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Empire_of_Japan

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vairocana

    http://ja.wikipedia.org/wiki/%E5%A4%A7%E6%97%A5%E5%A6%82%E6%9D%A5

    Be that as it may, what you say about Fashion Frontline makes sense, since this is clearly all about fashion, yet — for whatever reason — there seems to be a connection between the original / main Guangzhou mall store called 流行前线 and the English name "Popular Front".

    http://baike.baidu.com/view/1393184.htm

    http://www.iciba.com/%E6%B5%81%E8%A1%8C%E5%89%8D%E7%BA%BF

    If you click on the second definition / translation there, viz., "popular front", you'll get additional documentation.

    And if you do this Google search, you'll get lots of hits connecting 流行前线 and Popular Front

    https://www.google.com/?gws_rd=ssl#q=%E6%B5%81%E8%A1%8C%E5%89%8D%E7%BA%BF+%22popular+front%22

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