Over the last few trips (voluntary and otherwise) up to the West of Scotland I have noticed the onset of a condition that Wales contracted a few years ago. Let’s call it creeping bilingualitis. I am Welsh and lived the first 7 years of my life in Wales. At the time the bit of just-about-in-Wales I lived in didn’t look or feel particularly Welsh. Everyone I knew spoke English and I don’t even remember any reference to Welsh at school. I knew that my mum could speak Welsh and that there was some Welsh spoken in the village that she had lived in as a kid. There were definitely no Welsh road signs.
A while back - not sure exactly when - I noticed that the word ARAF painted on the roads. Coincidentally it was always accompanied by a SLOW sign. How mysterious. What exactly is a SLOW ARAF I wondered? The road signs had also started to double in size and triple in the number of consonants as they sprouted Welsh place names to go with the English ones. I also learned from a very old friend who lived on Anglesey (Ynys Mon) that his kids were taught in Welsh. Not taught Welsh, but taught Maths and Physics in Welsh and every other subject, presumably even English. I make no comment on the efficacy of teaching in a language spoken natively by a couple of hundred thousand people rather than the other available local language which is spoken or understood in most places rather than just an area the size of Wales.
I have no idea if the Scots have gone as far as the Welsh is teaching their kids Physics in Gaelic but they have definitely followed their Celtic Brethren in creating a bonanza for the road sign industry. Each road sign now has place names in English and Gaelic. Fort William is now An Gearasdan which means the Garrison. The place didn’t exist at all until the English built it to pacify the natives in th 17th century. The lovely irony is that the Gaelic word for garrison appears to be a loanword from English. So the Gaelic name for a place that did not exist until the English built it is a word that has to be ripped off from English. You couldn’t make it up, except they did.
Now on to the reason that I started to write this. The other day while Alex was in the local Coop here in the Highland village where we are spending our time, I was stood outside waiting with the dog. I read some of the signage in the window. Things like opening times were all shown in English and Gaelic. I then spotted a bit with the Coop’s corporate information. Headquarters address and other stuff. There were a couple of short paragraphs. In two languages. One was English, the other Welsh. I am no linguist but the difference between Welsh and Gaelic is pretty marked. The Welsh have a predilection for excessive consonants - have you ever seen Welsh Countdown - the Scots less so. I wondered if the Coop was going out of its way to make Welsh tourists feel at home. But here is a more likely explanation. Picture the scene: the Coop HQ in Manchester. “We need to send some more signage to the Kinlochleven branch” says a manager, “You know what they are like up there, with that Gaelic nonsense, make sure you send the bilingual window stickers.” So some unsuspecting Mancunian looks at the stickers, recognises some text that’s obviously not their native tongue and sends it off to the highlands. The demographic of the Gaelic speakers in the village is pretty narrow. A group of half a dozen folks in the 80s probably makes up 90%. Not much of an overlap with installers of window stickers or supermarket managers and checkout assistants. And so inadvertently the Coop have successfully managed to satisfy themselves that they are meeting their linguistic inclusivity targets while at the same time making Welsh travellers feel more at home.