Hangzhou Wordplay

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Although this sign over a children's clothing shop in Hangzhou is fairly simple, it offers much food for thought.

On the left, which we will naturally read first because of the directionality of the writing, we see "les enphants," a clever blend of "les éléphants" ("elephants") and "les enfants" ("children"). The notion of "elephant," of course, makes for a very cute logo, which is situated in the middle of the sign. To the right, we see Lì yīng fáng 麗嬰房 ("Beautiful Baby Shop").

It is difficult to say for certain whether "les enfants / enphants" inspired "Lì yīng fáng" or vice-versa, but I suspect that the proprietors started with "les enfants" and came up with "Lì yīng fáng" to match it, then playfully embellished "enfants" by substituting -ph- for -f-. My reasoning for making this surmise is that "les enfants" is a common expression in French, whereas "Lì yīng fáng" is not a fixed expression in Chinese. If you run "Lì yīng" through Babel Fish, it offers only "Li infant," not knowing what to do with the first syllable. And if you run it through Google Translate, it comes up with "Korea baby," not "beautiful baby." This is not so dumb as it may seem, since GT is thinking of the Lì as short for Gāolí 高麗 ("Korea"). Furthermore, although fáng (usually meaning "house") can be used to convey the idea of a shop or store, there are at least a dozen other terms that are more likely to be used before it. For all of these reasons, it seems to me that the shopkeepers started out with "les enfants" and thought up "Lì yīng fáng," both to match the sound of the French expression and to convey an appropirate, felicitous meaning in Chinese.

When I first began this post, I thought that I would propose christening the French equivalent of Chinglish as "Chinçais," unless there were already an established term for spoken or written French that is similarly influenced by Chinese. Strictly speaking, however, the relationship between "les enfants" and "Lì yīng fáng" would appear to be one of French influencing Chinese, rather than the other way around. Might we call it "Zhongçais" or "Franwen"?

[Thanks to Ian Mair for another great photo from Hangzhou.]


  1. rpsms said,

    July 28, 2010 @ 12:07 pm

    The 'ph" in "enphant" also visually evokes an elephant, as does the chinese character on the far right.

  2. Jason L. said,

    July 28, 2010 @ 12:08 pm

    Given my spotty command of French, I may be missing something here, but how is "les enfants" a fixed expression?

  3. Constance said,

    July 28, 2010 @ 12:15 pm

    This is so clever! I love it.. it gives me hope for romanized shop names in China–and Asia, too. I always knew they had it in them. :)

  4. Leonardo Boiko said,

    July 28, 2010 @ 12:26 pm

    @Jason: I don’t know anything about French but even I was instantly reminded of novel (and set expression?) “Les Enfants Terribles”.

  5. dhd said,

    July 28, 2010 @ 12:41 pm

    I think this is a Taiwanese chain – I definitely remember seeing one in Taipei, where it turns out that 法式 things are rather 法式-onable (groan) although they might strike the French as rather bizarre (such as the "French style pastry" which is filled with red bean paste).

  6. Outis said,

    July 28, 2010 @ 1:03 pm

    Don't be too hasty about coining any Chinçais or Deutchnese. Les Enphants is a brand name. And like every brand name, the creators try to be clever and inject multiple layers of reading. Almost every brand with a foreign language name undergoes such a "creative" translation.

    Incidentally, Les Enphants is a Taiwanese brand that has been well-established since at least the '80s. This is not the ingenuity of a shopkeeper. For Les Enphants, as for most brands, it is quite impossible to guess which name, Chinese or French, the creators came up with first. It's usually a long back-and-forth process.

    @rpsms: Quite perceptive of you. But I doubt any native sinophone would make this association. For native Chinese readers, a character is a character, doesn't matter if looks like a dog or a flower. The creator needs to write the character in a special way if he wanted to emphasize the elephantness.

  7. Leonardo Boiko said,

    July 28, 2010 @ 1:28 pm

    As an example of a character written in an special way for pictorial purposes, see previous languagelog post at http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=1632 .

  8. malti said,

    July 28, 2010 @ 1:32 pm

    @Outis But I doubt any native sinophone would make this association.

    Is it more or less likely than someone used to the latin alphabet making the association of a 'ph' resembling an elephant?

  9. Tom said,

    July 28, 2010 @ 1:43 pm

    I got pretty used to seeing mangled French in Japan last year; got a slight sense that the extremely well-documented use of Engrish is regarded as passé in certain circles there (fashion, some musical genres etc.) and it's been taken up as a more "exotic" alternative. I call it Flench, and Google shows I'm not the only one.

  10. Outis said,

    July 28, 2010 @ 2:03 pm

    @malti Is it more or less likely than someone used to the latin alphabet making the association of a 'ph' resembling an elephant?

    It's equally unlikely. No one would associate PH with an elephant if it wasn't for the fact that:

    1. it's written in a different font
    2. the word Enphant looks and sounds like Elephant
    3. there's an elephant next to it

    Even with all this, I don't think many people will pick up how PH (or in this case, "Ph" specifically) resembles an elephant. I did not until you mentioned it.

  11. Jason L. said,

    July 28, 2010 @ 2:25 pm

    @Leonardo Boiko,

    Right, because your not being a French speaker means that you associate French words with particular phrases that have made their way into English (or other languages you speak). "L'État" isn't a fixed phrase in French just because non-francophones will quickly think of "L'État, c'est moi". To a native French speaker, "les enfants" simply means "(the) children". "Stairway to" isn't a fixed phrase in English just because French speakers will quickly think of "Stairway to Heaven".

  12. Stephen said,

    July 28, 2010 @ 3:32 pm

    I don't think Mark meant to say that "les enfants" was a necessarily fixed expression, but that it is more common in French than "lì yīng fáng" is in Chinese. It is therefore more likely that the Chinese was styled after the French than that vice versa, and this is supported by the failure of machine translation.

    For an opposite situation, imagine a store called, say, 玩具商店 "wánjù shāngdiàn" (toy store) in Chinese, and "Want a shiny thing?" in English (sorry, it's the best I could come up with on short notice).

  13. slavicpolymath said,

    July 28, 2010 @ 3:58 pm

    Perhaps "les enfants" stands out because of its (somewhat unusual) vocative use in French, alongside the expected nominative use?

  14. Richard M Buck said,

    July 28, 2010 @ 5:19 pm

    I was just wondering if whoever came up with the French (or perhaps Flench) version of the name wasn't au fait with liaison — the lack of which would make the resemblance between the two names even closer…

  15. Hannah said,

    July 28, 2010 @ 8:27 pm

    That store is up the street from me, but I live in Huwei, Taiwan. Just to let you know, there's more than one.

  16. mondain said,

    July 28, 2010 @ 9:06 pm

    I found an explanation on their website (en, zh), which states that the 'logo is derived from the French Les Enfants.'

    Another example I can remember is a boulangerie/patisserie chain called 'Croissants de France' / '可颂坊' (Ke Song Fang, 'laudable mill').

  17. Sophie said,

    July 28, 2010 @ 11:12 pm

    @Tom : In college my study-buddy and I referred to it as Frapanese.

  18. Will Steed said,

    July 28, 2010 @ 11:59 pm

    @Richard M Buck – that's what I thought for a moment. I went to see if Hanghouhua would pronounce 婴 with an initial [Z], but Outis' comment made me think that it probably does in Minnanhua. I haven't been able to confirm it (I've yet to acquire my own copy of the old Amoy dictionary), but if it did, the whole pronunciation would be something like lei-jin-fong, a respectable Minnanhua pronunciation of Les Enfants.

  19. malti said,

    July 29, 2010 @ 12:54 am

    @Outis Well then couldn't the use of 房 be due to it's slight resemblance to an elephant, even though the majority of readers wouldn't notice it, in the same way that the majority of readers wouldn't notice the Ph thing, but it's still there? Especially as "there are at least a dozen other terms that are more likely to be used before it".

  20. Outis said,

    July 29, 2010 @ 3:38 am

    @Will Steed: It's not entirely impossible, but not very likely that the name was Minnanhua-based, simply because I've never heard of it in pronunced in Amoy. In fact, there are almost no brands named explicitly in Amoy. The few exceptions I can think of tend to emphasize the fact and are quite obvious.

    @malti: Again, it's not entirely impossible, but extremely unlikely. I seriously doubt anyone would ever associate 房 with an elephant without explicit prompting. A very imaginative child, maybe, but definitely not any literate Chinese-speaker who are used to seeing thousands of characters without ever pausing to muse on their shapes. And to be honest, 房 isn't anywhere as elephantish as Ph.

    I don't really agree VM's "there are at least a dozen other terms that are more likely to be used before it". True, 房 isn't the absolutely most obvious choice to name a retail chain, but neither is it anything out of the ordinary. You could name your store "ABC House" instead of "store", "shop", "plaza", "center", "dealer", "outlet", "emporium", "stand", or "boutique", but that doesn't make the choice of "house" anything special. It may be true that, statistically speaking, 房 isn't too popular, but it most definitely falls into the one-of-the-characters-that-could-be-used-to-name-a-shop category.

  21. Stan said,

    July 29, 2010 @ 4:48 am

    After I registered the blend, the Ph's clever evocation of an elephant was the second thing I noticed. I don't think it's so subtle as to go unnoticed by most readers or passers-by, unless they afford it the most fleeting of glances (which many would, I suppose).

  22. Victor Mair said,

    July 29, 2010 @ 5:37 am

    @Outis: "It may be true that, statistically speaking, 房 isn't too popular, but it most definitely falls into the one-of-the-characters-that-could-be-used-to-name-a-shop category."

    Then you do agree with me, because that's essentially what I said. Furthermore, my argument was that the main reason for the choice of fáng over about a dozen other statistically more probable terms for "store," "shop," etc. is to match the "-phants / -fants" of "les enphants / enfants." Simple.

  23. ian said,

    July 29, 2010 @ 6:06 am

    yes, "les enphants" is definitely a chain of kiddie stores. there are several in hangzhou. not an expert on any of the disciplines implicated in this sign – graphic design, linguistics, languages,logography,marketing,… but i think that it is a clever, multi-layered concoction. does anyone know the creator? probably he/she could share the thought process with us.
    (i'm only the photographer ;-) )

  24. Outis said,

    July 29, 2010 @ 7:19 am

    @VM: Then I misunderstood your statement then. In anycase, I wanted to point out that, outside of the clever translation from Les Enphants, 麗嬰房 is a common-enough sounding name; not anything you'd write a blog about. But I guess it's memorable enough that 3 out of 3 of my single and nowhere-near-child-bearing friends know the brand. In fact, it's probably one of the few kids' apparel chains that people who never think of buying kids' cloths know about.

    BTW, Les Enphants also have a spin-off called 麗影房 (Lì yǐng fáng, beautiful shadow house), which is a photo production house specializing in documenting children's growth. 3 out of 3 of the aforementioned friends think it's a silly. Their French name is Les Photos, with the same Ph typeface.

    @Stan: I don't think it's so subtle as to go unnoticed by most readers or passers-by, unless they afford it the most fleeting of glances (which many would, I suppose).

    That's just the thing. In Taiwan, as in CJK, foreign words in logos and on packagings might as well be abstract art. People can recognize the logos readily enough, but few monolinguals — even those relatively proficient in English — will waste any effort trying to parse the words.

  25. Victor Mair said,

    July 29, 2010 @ 8:14 am

    @Outis: "…outside of the clever translation from Les Enphants, 麗嬰房 is a common-enough sounding name; not anything you'd write a blog about."

    Indeed, the clever translation from Les Enphants is ONE of the reasons I wrote this blog.

    Incidentally, a relative of the owner-founder of the firm read my blog and sent me some very interesting information about the origin of the name. As soon as he receives permission from the founder for me (or him) to post this information, I / he will do so.

  26. Jongseong Park said,

    July 29, 2010 @ 8:36 am

    The typographic treatment of 'ph' on the sign is clearly meant to evoke the shape of an elephant. While people are unlikely to pick up on the resemblance based on the plain letters, the way they are designed here makes it clear that it is a visual pun.

    However, the character 房 rpsms refers to doesn't get any special typographic treatment, so I think any resemblance to an elephant is entirely coincidental and unintended, and people are not likely to pick up on it.

  27. ?! said,

    July 29, 2010 @ 8:38 am

    I actually that that Lì – 麗 – looks like an elephant (trunk at left). Henshall claims that the bottom element used to mean 'deer' in Japanese but I'm never sure how seriously to take his suggestions regarding etymology/memorising Kanji.

  28. Outis said,

    July 29, 2010 @ 8:55 am

    @Jongseong Park: I agree completely: the Ph shows obvious intent, but the 房 doesn't. But — and this is completely personal — I don't think the Ph elephant isn't all that successful. I've seen the Les Enphants logos hunderds if not thousands of times, but I've never noticed that it looked like an elephant until today. And being a graphiste (and francophone to boot), I (like to think that I) am usually quite sensitive to this kind of visual plays! Again, 3 out of 3 friends say they've never noticed it either.

    From a design stand point, I think that the big elephant head is so dominating that people are distracted from detecting other figures in the composition. The degree of imagination required for identifying the Ph elephant and the big elephant head is too different.

    @?!: yes, the 鹿 radicle is indeed deer. But VM will surely caution you against reading too much into this; it's just the phonetic component.

  29. hanmeng said,

    July 29, 2010 @ 10:25 am

    Yes, it's Taiwanese.

  30. Andie said,

    July 29, 2010 @ 11:19 am

    Some friends know the owner/creator of the name & logo and have offered to ask. Will post back if there's more news.

  31. Sopfia Cordelia said,

    July 30, 2010 @ 8:09 am


    Above is a Yt vid of the store catalog

  32. rpsms said,

    July 30, 2010 @ 9:52 am

    I agree, the chinese character does NOT reveal any special treatment such as the case with the 'ph," and that alone is enough IMO.

    This is not to say that such associations are not possible: most people do not see the arrow in the fedex logo.

  33. lanson said,

    July 30, 2010 @ 11:18 pm

    Hi, I'm on the board of directors for les enphants, and I figured maybe I could shed some light on the origins of the brand. The founder/owner of the company started les enphants in the early 70's in Taiwan– at the time, the first store was originally called les enfants, and the decision to go with the French name came first, with the Chinese translation following. As the store grew over time and the company looked to trademark the brand name, we ran into some difficulties with les enfants as it is a common noun and not a unique name. At that point, the company's vice president suggested using the "ph" to replace the "f" to make les enphants a unique name for trademark purposes, and also to incorporate the image of the firm's logo, the elephant directly into the name itself.

  34. Outis said,

    July 31, 2010 @ 3:59 am

    @Ianson: Thank you very much for the information. But two more questions if I may:

    1. Do you mean that the logo already contained an elephant prior to adopting the PH spelling?

    2. When you said that "les enfants" was a common noun, was it the trademark office who said so? I ask because I don't think there would be many trademarks called "les enfants" in Taiwan, especially in the early 70s. On top of that, I'm surprise to hear that a foreign word would be considered "common noun" this way.

  35. Victor Mair said,

    July 31, 2010 @ 11:07 pm

    Ianson has said essentially what another member of the founding family told me shortly after my original post. But Outis has asked a key question: did they already have the elephant logo BEFORE they changed "les enfants" to "les enphants"?

    BTW, my original source in the founding family tells me that another cousin "mentions that the ph has now been taken by the company to stand for 'peace and hope' as well, but that's definitely secondary to the elephant logo idea. I doubt that's of interest here, but if it is, it came from a mouth near to the horse's, so I assume it's all right to pass along."

  36. lanson said,

    August 2, 2010 @ 9:54 am

    @Outis: Sure, no problem, my pleasure!

    1. The logo already contained an elephant prior to the change from "les enfants" to "les enphants". It wasn't the current stylised elephant's head, but rather a cartoon-style humanoid elephant carrying a school bag and striding forward. The modern elephant icon came about post the name change.

    2. When the company's name was being registered as a trademark, it was registered both domestically in Taiwan, as well as internationally. I believe it was the international side of the registration process which kicked up more issues around the name being a common noun which led to the name being changed for both onshore and offshore markets.

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