Indigeneity, Language and Authenticity

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Bilingual Street Signs

  1. Bilingual street signs promote endangered languages: By putting up street signs in endangered languages, these languages are given a place in the public sphere which cannot be easily used by the majority. To quote Language Commisioner Eva Aariak; ‘in order for a language to survive and to have an impact on the public, it has to be visible in your environment. One way to address that is through business and public signs’.

    The exposure of an endangered language – take Gaelic as an example – in turn leads to a shift in attitudes towards the language and in Scotland this has led to 2012 being declared a Year of Learning Gaelic.

    What is more, in October last year, the Scottish Highlands and Islands Enterprise published a study in which they concluded that the introduction of Gaelic street signs throughout the Scottish Highlands and Islands which they have helped funding have increased the interest in the language. Whereas previously a large number of Scots opposed Gaelic representation in the public and bilingual signs and uniforms were forbidden until 1973, HIE showed that this has changed over the last decade, with 80% of all Scots being supportive of Gaelic. What is more, to quote HIE; ‘if you look at the number of organisations supported, and then the number of customers they have on an annual basis, it’s possible to say that over 1.3 million customers a year are exposed to Gaelic via [the bilingual] signage scheme’ thereby both promoting and raising the profile of Gaelic.

  2. Bilingual street signs attract tourists: This is a valid point for all bilingual signs, whether in a majority or a minority language – in countries like Kuwait, bilingual signs are seen as a positive effect of globalism, which in turn attracts not just tourists but investors to the country. As far as endangered languages go, signs seem to attract an ever-growing stream of heritage tourists, which can be seen not just in places like the Irish Gaelteachtaí but also in the state of New York, where signs in Irish Gaelic has been put up to commemorate the large number of Irish Americans in the state. And in Scotland, the railway has confessed that the reason as to why they’re putting up bilingual signs has far less to do with living up to governmental suggestions than boosting their own sales through their advertisement of Scotland as exotic and distinct from England through the use of a Celtic language.
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  3. Bilingual street signs instil pride in the speakers of languages that have been treated in a bad way by the establishment: This is a point which might escape speakers of majority languages – if you’ve never had to fight for your right to speak your own language, you will likely not see how a mere sign can make you proud to be a speaker of an endangered language, but to anyone speaking an endangered language, seeing it in print, next to or instead of the language that almost killed it is a thrilling thing. In a way, the sign tells the world that you’re still there.

    Take the UK as an example – In Wales, English ‘road signs were viewed as everyday media of oppression’ (Jones and Merriman, 2009) and the introduction of bilingual signs has contributed quite significantly to the revitalisation of the Welsh language.

  4. Bilingual street signs tell you things about a place that you wouldn’t know if you didn’t know the native name of a place: The linguistic and cultural landscape of an area is intrinsically linked to each other and by seeing the original name of an area, a lot of things can be learnt about a place than e.g. a mere anglified name could do. Take Tyndrum in the Scottish Highlands – the name is a polysyllabic name and nothing more in English, whereas the Gaelic name, Taigh an Droma, the house on the mountain ridge, tells you important things about the appearance of the place itself. Knowing Gaelic will tell you loads of things about Scotland – it can tell you everything from where battles have been fought – Sruighlea, Stirling, place of strife – to where a river has its mouth – Inbhir Nìs, Inverness, the mouth of the river Ness.

    And, on a side note – bilingual signs can save lives if they’re used to explain the meaning of a place name: People are less likely to climb up a hill called Veerehksaaregenbaektie if they know that it means ‘incredibly dangerous escarpment where you’re likely to fall and/or be hit with falling stones’.

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