I have been thinking about signs and their language.

Not the portentous, signifying great or foul deeds – ‘So foul and fair a day I have not seen¹’ – or even the supernatural, signifying disaster – ‘She dreamt to-night she saw my statua, Which, like a fountain with an hundred spouts, Did run pure blood’² – but rather those prosaic versions which direct the motorist from one place to another.

Which means that I have been thinking about names, pictograms and language.

The most common sign is of a place name and a distance, or, if you are in mountain country, a height. These signs are those which my father would point to when my sister and I asked ‘Are we there yet?’ when we were children in the back seat of the car, going on holiday or on a trip to sea or river side.  The signs are easily understood in abstract terms, though, to a ten-year old they were meaningless, 10 miles meant less than 20 and more than 5, but didn’t really tell us anything. A more meaningful response would have been ‘We’re twenty minutes away.’ It would have kept us quiet too, studying our watches and, if we didn’t travel as quickly as planned, getting annoyed at time, not at our parents.

Sometimes there are no distances attached, just place names – Welcome to Polzeath – or names with an arrow attached – Marina ⇒. In Wales, where we often holidayed, even the latter were interesting, as they said ‘Marina’ in two languages. Though that’s a bad choice of example, as marina in Welsh, being from the Latin, is – marina. In a foreign language everything takes on a romance so ‘Pont isel’ seems somehow better than ‘Low bridge’ and ‘Droeon am 3 milltir’ an improvement on ‘Bends for 3 miles’.  Droeon could have been a dragon, given where we were and Pont isel a bridge to a magical isle.

Wales has its own language, like any country, though it’s part of a larger one, so the road signs there are in English too, rather as the signs near Perpignan are in French and Catalan, or near Bilbao in Spanish and Basque.  So there were limits on the imagination and we tried not to see the English translations. Of course signs were also accompanied by pictograms, the little bridge or the tilting car above two wavy lines. We had used to watch out for the animal ones – the cow, the stag, the leaping deer. Do African road signs show  pictograms of antelope, zebra and lions, I wonder?

Sometimes the second language of signs is imported. In Puerto de Santa Maria, near Jerez, the road signs are in Spanish as one would expect, until the roads get near to Rota, where there is a large U.S. Naval Base and, suddenly, the signs are in English.  This really threw me the first time we drove there. I read the words on the signs and knew something was awry, but not what – they were in my native language, not the one I had been using for the last few days. Surprised by my own tongue.

For more articles on words try                             Boozing Kens                     Monument            Warp & Weft        Stones


²Julius Caesar

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