Driving around a bilingual country

In case you don’t know it, Ireland has two official languages: English and Irish Gaelic. In the last few months I’d been trying to learn a wee bit of Gaelic in the (as it turns out rather pointless) hope of nattering away with the locals in their home language. Not that I’d achieved ANY level of fluency by the time I had worked my way through “Giota Beag” and “Giota Beag Eile”, the excellent Irish language learning programmes on the BBC’s Radio Ulster!

I had gotten quite excited at the prospect of using some of it when we arrived in the Emerald Isle, despite certain people giving me that ‘why are you bothering to learn a language you’ll never use again after this trip’ look.

As a result, I felt like skipping with joy when I realised that almost all the street signs and county signs were in both languages. And not just in the isolated areas where no one ever goes, but right smack-bang in the city of Dublin! Vindicated at last!

In this way, I learned, for instance, that the Irish name of Dublin is Baile Átha Cliath (pronounced approx ballya-aw-kleea), which means “town of the hurdles” or “town of the hurdled ford”. Though I also noticed that it’s usually abbreviated to just Átha Cliath.

Bilingual airport sign

Bilingual airport sign

I particularly loved the ‘Welcome’ signs at the entrance to each county and each town:

Welcome to Achill Island

Welcome to Achill Island

They were usually followed by ‘Goodbye’ or ‘Sorry to see you’re leaving, please come back’ signs:

Goodbye sign

Goodbye sign

And occasionally we found ourselves in a Gaeltacht, which is an area where the majority of the local population is supposed to speak Irish in their daily interactions. They can be found in Co Donegal, Co Galway, on the Dingle Peninsula, and in Co Cork, among others. Fortunately for us, though, they were fine with speaking English to foreigners!

But my personal favourite of all the Irish language road signs was this one:

Go slow sign

Go slow sign

Unless you speak Afrikaans, you probably won’t get it. In South African English-Afrikaans, “Go mal” [with one ‘l’, I believe] is an invitation to “Go mad / go crazy”, not as in psychotic (necessarily), but more as in “Go have a blast!” Or in this context, more like “Go ahead, drive really fast around these tight corners!”

In contrast to the Republic of Ireland, South Africa has eleven official languages and nine non-official ‘national languages’. That makes 20?! Good grief. But I promise – it’s even in the Wikipedia (here), so it must be true! Going a bit overboard, perhaps, you might think. But it’s all part of the quest for non-discrimination against any racial, tribal, cultural grouping.

In case you’re curious, the eleven official languages of South Africa are as follows (in alphabetical order):

  • Afrikaans, English, Ndebele, Northern Sotho, South Sotho, Swati, Tsonga, Tswana, Venda, Xhosa, and Zulu

The nine non-official ‘national languages’ recognised by the Constitution are:

  • Fanagalo, Khoe, Lobedu, Nama, Northern Ndebele, Phuthi, San, Sign Language and Tamil

I doubt, though, that we will add all of these to our road signs… although it would be a fascinating educational project, actually!

5 thoughts on “Driving around a bilingual country

  1. This is great, Reggie! Twenty languages, though? I would think it would be incredibly challenging to figure out signs in so many different languages. Sounds like you had a great trip to Ireland. Wouldn’t mind visiting there one of these days.

  2. I’d LOVE to see roadsigns etc. in the other languages too – but sadly, almost all of our signs are in English. I’d even be hard pressed to find (m)any in Afrikaans, which may be the second most prevalent language in SA.

    The main ‘indigenous’ language in the Western Cape is Xhosa, but I haven’t come across any traffic signs in that either… though that’s perhaps more because I haven’t dared to cruise around townships or neighbourhoods where it is spoken as the dominant language.

    Actually, I think it’s a great pity. I always think that we could ALL benefit from learning more languages – I believe it makes us more tolerant and open towards other cultures.

    And God, yes, IRELAND. We visited in September last year, for three GLORIOUS jam-packed weeks, (preceded by years and years of dreaming, fantasising, longing, reading and planning), and not a day has gone by since our return that I haven’t THOUGHT about our trip, or LONGED to go back again.

    If I could afford it, I’d be back there in a heartbeat. I’m not sure where this longing (obsession?) comes from, actually, because I don’t think I have any ancestral or blood-line connection to the island, but there’s definitely something calling me back.

  3. I so agree with you, Reggie. We all could benefit from learning more languages! We have two other languages spoken in these parts. The native American’s speak Anishnabe (Ojibway) although not too many know the language any more. And many Finnish people settled over here, so Finn is spoken, as well.

    Your fascination with Ireland is so interesting. Maybe you had a past life there? Do you think? When you were there, did you feel like you were coming home?

    I have about eight nationalities/blood-lines and Irish is one of them. But I feel more drawn to other places. Although a trip to Ireland is NOT out of the question. I hear it’s beautiful. Have you ever been to the States?

    • Kathy, I noticed you mentioned Ojibway (Wikipedia) on your blog – like that fascinating, impassionate post about the pow-wow drums! I wish I could have been there too! If I was living in your ‘neck of the woods’, I’d also want to learn more about the culture of the Native Americans who live(d) there.

      Yes, there were places on the island where I felt absolutely as though I’d come home. It was real hard to leave. We didn’t stay in any one place, as there was soooo much we wanted to see, so we kept moving. I wonder what it’d be like to rent a self-catering cottage on a farm or something for a week, and then to go on day trips around, like bicycle spokes. If you keep moving, you don’t have time to really get to know a place or the people. So I think we’ll do it differently when we go again. (I’m definitely planning another trip there! ;-))

      I’m also pretty sure it must be a past life or soul connection or something. My family has always insisted that there is NO way our ancestors came from Ireland, because our bloodlines go back to various parts of Germany. I don’t know what happened further back than the late 1800s because so many records were destroyed during the wars, though. It’s a real pity, I’d love to know if there was maaaaaaybe a funny old druid or something like that floating about in my ancestral realm! 🙂

      And no, I haven’t been to the States. YET! I’ve got a very, very dear friend of mine called Bobz (a penpal, whom I’ve never met) who lives in Kentucky with his family. We ‘met’ via the Happy Station show on Radio Netherlands’ shortwave service in 1987, and have been corresponding ever since. So Richard and I are saving up for a trip. I’ve always wanted to do a typical American roadtrip with him, avoiding the big cities, but focusing instead on the strange, quirky, whimsical places and people you encounter on the back roads – exactly like your driveabouts! So I hope we’ll be able to visit in a few years’ time. (Saving up when every Dollar costs seven to ten rands, depending on the exchange rate, takes a looooong time. :-)) But that’s the plan anyway! 😀

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