Rabhadh: fir ag obair
DANGER: MEN AT WORK
Answer honestly: which of the two sentences, above, did you notice first? Now imagine you were driving at 80 kph: from what distance would you notice each of them? Of the two ways in which this information is presented, which is more visible? Why?
Road signs are more than just road signs. In a supposedly bilingual Ireland, they are an ever-present reminder of official tokenism and a visible denial of equal language rights.
In Finland, the two official languages, Finnish and Swedish, are spoken by 90% and 5.4% of the population, respectively. Some parts of Finland are officially bilingual, and in these areas all official signs are in both languages and identical type of equal height, width and colour. In effect, each is equally legible by road users at safe distances.
The contrast with Ireland is striking: we too, have an officially bilingual country, but the design of road signs makes the text in English far more legible than the Irish. In Gaeltacht areas, where signs are only in Irish, all signs are barely legible.
Realistically, it must be admitted, the number of native Irish-speaking road users is very small, and practically all of them speak fluent English. It can be argued that they already have full access to route information and that the minority can use the majority’s language. But if this principle were reversed and English-speakers were forced to use Irish when dealing with the state, English-speakers would, rightly, feel their rights were not being honoured. If we believe people are equal, then we must also think of their languages as equal.
Unfortunately, language equality has never been independent Ireland’s strong point. Article 8 of the Constitution gives Irish official primacy over English, thus making language inequality official, but perversely the precise reverse of this has been implemented, with state bodies arguably being the strongest agents for Anglicisation in the Gaeltacht. Combined with this, the national debate and official policy around our languages has failed to differentiate between keeping Irish alive in the Gaeltacht (a realistic goal) and ‘reviving’ it from scratch in English-speaking areas, some of which have not had native Irish-speaking populations for centuries (an unrealistic one).
‘This should not be allowed to become tokenism’
Fine examples of this contrast is the posting of gardaí with poor Irish to the Donegal Gaeltacht (as revealed by Language Commissioner Seán Ó Cuirreáin in his 2011 report), and the recent attempts to make Clondalkin in Dublin an official Gaeltacht. The former got far less media coverage than the latter. Lamentably, the concept of language rights has never been central to either public discussion or policy, and talk about the place of Irish has always been dominated by those whose native language is English.
This is why road signs are so important. They are, arguably, the element of official information used most often by speakers of both languages, and the one with the biggest impact on safety. Signs should be designed without bias towards either language. New signs would be a visible indication that central government is committed to language equality. They would be a constant reminder that our two official languages are equal, if not in size, than at least in status. This being Ireland, of course, this initial token should not be allowed to become tokenism: the concept of language equality must become the central principle of language policy, meaning anyone can access official information and services in their native language.
Critics will say that changing road signs will divert money away from more pressing needs. The cost, however, is not of replacing all road signs with new ones: only the text on them would be changed. This could be done on a phased basis to minimise costs. New text on road signs would help change the way people and policy makers think about our two languages: not as ‘superior’ and ‘inferior’, but as two equals, the speakers of which are both entitled to information and services. This is worth spending money on.
Since independence, the centralised Dublin government’s language policies have been muddled and had little regard for the rights of speakers of both languages. Equalising the text on road signs, preferably based on local consultation, would be one visible step towards a bilingual country with equal rights for the speakers of both languages, with neither exalted over the other.
Ian Mac Eochagáin is an English teacher and freelance translator living and working in Finland. His blog in English and Russian, is at maceochi.livejournal.com, and his business website, Maceochi Language Services, is at maceochi.com.