Monday, August 15, 2011

Offa’s Dyke diversion: Cymrage and other semi(di)otic langu-rants

Welsh vs English language CYMRAEG
After we passed Monmouth yesterday – deeper into Welsh territory - evidence of the Welsh-English language wars started to mount up. Gates and sign-posts marked with any English-language text were often struck out and annotated with the single word CYMRAEG (ie WELSH in Welsh). Even fence-posts that had MON CC (Monmouth County Council) machine carved into them were defaced.

During yesterday’s confused wandering around the countryside outside of Monmouth, I thought there was a Sir Fynwy walking path coinciding with the Offa’s Dyke path. It wasn’t till some time later that I discovered that Sir Fynwy is the Welsh equivalent of Monmouthshire. Of course there may be a path of that name, as there may be one which is officially called Public Footpath which is not just any public footpath. It’s only with the benefit of hindsight that you know if the substitution of a generic sticker or sign will actually work for the path you’re trying to follow. It’s not uncommon for a single field to be crossed by multiple public footpaths, but when you’re trying to avoid livestock or other obstacles it can be all to easy to stray from one path to another and exit from the wrong gate.

For the record, the “official” – or at least unambiguous – Offa’s Dyke markers are bilingual. The acorn stickers include the English and Welsh Llwybr Clawdd Offa, wooden signposts have these etched on opposite sides of the post. With nine local authorities sharing the responsibility for management of the path along its length, the labelling systems subtly change as you cross unmarked authority boundaries – at one point the yellow stickers became blue (but not uniformly so) or the language bias switches, or the acorn markers are replaced by generic arrows. Very confusing, especially if you’ve been on the hoof for a number of hours and are  just very bloody keen to get out of this field and not engage in sweaty cartographic Sudoku.

I often wish that the trail-markers would follow around some first-time trail-walkers and see where they get confused or make wrong turnings. We so frequently demand that software makers and website designers do usability testing of their work, but how many of you who create navigable spaces in the real world put themselves in the place of colleagues, employees, customers and casual visitors? It’s not just the existence and placement of physical sign-posts, but the structure and language of documents and forms, the labelling of products. All of these things need to be useful and comprehensible for someone viewing them the first time.

Llwybr Clawdd Offa - Offa's Dyke Path

So, drawing together the two strands of language and signposting, what do we find in practice?

There are numerous signs with side-by-side bilingual text that have the English scribbled out or completely removed (or above with retaliatory elimination of the Welsh). Since this text sometimes pertained to safety or emergency information for walkers and hill-climbers, this Cymrage could have dangerous consequences. I imagine someone out for an earnest Sunday morning stroll, black marker pen in hand, furiously copyediting the trail markers.  Mind you, I’ve often thought of wielding a red pen to eliminate errant apostrophes from the sandwich boards of cafes selling “panini’s”. I’ve withheld from doing so more because any person with any knowledge of my past would immediately suspect me.

I was reading an information poster on a railway station that had the bilingual text laid out vertically, and the woman standing next to me said “it’s outrageous that the English [text] is above the Welsh” (why didn’t she complain in Welsh?). I asked her if she preferred that children or shorter people had to raise their heads further or that taller people had to look down further. She pursed her lips and kept bilingually mute. One is not entitled to be the only user of a system. Maybe some future magical day we won’t have to accept personally displeasing text in any form, or indeed any product that doesn’t immediately conform to our current express desires. (Like every function in the spreadsheet program that you personally don’t use is called bloat, but you’d actually like it to do a few hundred extra things too.) For now at least, accept there is a wider audience than someone of your necessarily narrower needs.

Offa's Dyke pathThe revival of Welsh – of Cymraeg -  in modern times has been a triumph not only for the Welsh, but for language in general. The overt jingoism of intentionally making life more difficult for visitors is another matter. The cymrager with the black marker pen is presumably defacing public property or someone else’s private property (usually a farmer’s) and could more productively order the Welsh language versions of the animal warning signs (from the National Farmer’s Union) or speak to the original sign-posting farmer. There’s no reason for people or animals to be hurt because of such silliness.

[This post was originally to be a short paragraph on the signs I passed so frequently, but I got sidetracked (guffaw! thigh slap!) and it spilled beyond the bounds of the day’s travelogue. I’m perhaps a little inspired by David Crystal’s By Hook or By Crook, which has helped to fill in some of the linguistic background of my travels in this part of the world.

For those of you who are just very bloody keen  to be diverted (chortle!) by some more delightful pictures of Munson in equally delightful countryside, there’s more coming up. ]

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