Mark Swofford took these photographs of an advertisement for a very well-known brand of instant noodles in the Taipei MRT (subway system). It makes use of three scripts (Chinese characters [including some rare, non-standard forms], bopomofo / zhùyīn fúhào 注音符號 [Mandarin "Phonetic Symbols" of the Republic of China, and Roman letters) and possibly as many languages (Taiwanese, Japanese, English) -- with Mandarin apparently *not* being among them.
Here's the wording on the ad:
Readers of Language Log are familiar with my custom of always putting Romanized transcription before Chinese characters or other non-Roman script. For this post, I am varying my practice somewhat, because -- quite frankly -- by far the hardest part of the preparation for writing it was to determine how to represent Taiwanese accurately in the Roman alphabet.
For Cantonese, we now have a quasi-official Romanization called Jyutping, so we can just follow the rules for that and be reasonably certain that our transcriptions will basically be accurate. For Taiwanese, there are the Taiwanese Romanization System (Tâi-lô) and Pe̍h-ōe-jī (POJ), but neither of them is currently in widespread use. Furthermore, I have found that very few people can use them accurately and precisely, and most people, especially those under the age of about forty, simply have no idea how to transcribe in any form their spoken Taiwanese. Even more alarming is that few young people -- including those whose parents speak Taiwanese -- are able to speak the language with confidence.
The same may be said of Shanghainese, the language of China's greatest, most dynamic city, for which we do not even have a semi-established Romanization, although the system of Richard VanNess Simmons offers a potential standard. Here's a brief IPA conversion chart for it.
With that as a preamble, and with much trepidation, here is the pre-sandhi POJ transcription of the wording on the ad:
Ū chia̍h ū lucky
Lú chia̍h lú chán
(with thanks especially to Michael Cannings)
In case that doesn't display properly, the "chiah" has a vertical line above the a.
Orthographical note: the characters in the slogan are obviously chosen to have Mandarin pronunciations which mimic the intended Taiwanese.
Phonological note: An o with a dot above right in POJ [o͘] signifies the low-mid back rounded vowel 〈ɔ〉. The same vowel is written [oo] in Tâi-lô. In any case this is a tangent, because it-tó has the entirely different vowel [o] 〈o〉. The only meanings of [tó͘] (with the dot) that I am aware of are "belly" and "to gamble".
Our next task is to sort out the various linguistic strata and attempt to figure out what they mean.
The fact that the second character, 度, which is normally read in Modern Standard Mandarin (MSM) as dù ("linear measure; degree; extent") or duó ("surmise; estimate"), here has the special reading ㄉㄨㄛˋ (i.e., duò), I believe, is to signal that we are to understand 一度 as Japanese ittō 一等 ("first class / rank; best"). If we were to read 一度 directly as Japanese it would be ichido ("once; one occasion; one time"), but that would fit neither with the sound nor the meaning of the first line as a whole.
There is a Taiwanese expression "it-tó-hó" (一度好), which means both "first rate" and "continuously". This gives us a hint about how to interpret It-tó chàn 一度(ㄉㄨㄛˋ)贊. The chàn 贊 used in the product name means "praise", and carries the obvious double meaning of the now-ubiquitous chán 讚 (used as "like" on Facebook and found in the third line of this ad). So, the product name is "highly praiseworthy" or "continuously great", or some variant of the two, depending on how you read it. The Mandarin Phonetic Symbols are there to reinforce the notion that this is to be read in Taiwanesey Japanese (or Japanesey Taiwanese), not Mandarin!
All right, now let's try for a translation of the last two lines of the ad:
(You're) lucky to eat (it),
The more (you) eat, the better (it) gets.
I'm sure that readers familiar with Taiwanese will offer other suggested translations that may be more direct and literal, but I believe that the one given here conveys the basic sentiment of the ad jingle.
As an extra, it's worth noting that the company name is romanized using Gwoyeu Romatzyh (GR; "National Language Romanization", tonal spelling) — "Wei Lih" for 維力), though the romanized form isn't visible in the ad. Here's a link to the company's Web page on the product.
There's an awful lot packed into these three short lines consisting of fewer than twenty symbols, and it has taken considerable effort to do the unpacking. Now I need some Wéilì 維力 ramen to maintain my strength!
[Thanks to Mark Swofford, Michael Cannings, Henning Kloeter, Grace Wu, Melvin Lee, Sophie Ling-chia Wei, Chia-hui Lu, and Nathan Hopson]