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Monday May 23 2011

Incoming from 6000:

Spotted this while out for an autumnal walk with the family in Constantia, Cape Town and instantly, as is the way with these things, thought of you.


The three languages are English (obviously), Afrikaans and isiXhosa - the local “African” language.

To get around any linguistic issues, they have used the ubiquitous blue circles. Except that neither I, nor Google Goggles has any idea what that one on the top left means. I’m sure it’s obvious, but it’s not to me.


Incidentally, the guy in the background is an equally ubiquitous car guard, who will check that no-one breaks into your car while you’re away for some small change.

By happy coincidence, I too have spotted a couple of multilingual signs in London recently, and was going to blog about them anyway

I saw this near Brick Lane in the East End:


The place already felt very different from my own dear Millbank.  That did not make me feel any safer.

And I saw this on the outside of the psychiatric hospital or drop-in centre or whatever it is, on the Vauxhall Bridge Road side of Vincent Square:


I make that sixteen different languages.

Is it the patients or the staff who are responsible for all this linguistic diversity?  Or do they just put that sign up in all such places, regardless of who speaks what in any particular one?

Other incoming multilingual signs would be most welcome, but if they do materialise please make them signs you have personally snapped, not just something plucked from the internet, which is of course already awash with such signs.

Ah Brian. How touchingly naive you are. Like all other government departments, the NHS employs many “diversity officers” and the like, whose job it is to ensure that things like the languages on the signs are right, and that nobody is slighted or offended by the choice or neglect of their languages. This is why you are required to fill in a statistical survey form whenever you use such a service, and why there are so many questions on the sentence. This sort of thing is too important to be done in an ad hoc manner and must be done in such a way that nob, which is why we have government to do it for us.

I find multilingual signs endlessly fascinating, not generally because of what they say, but mainly interesting in what the choice of languages says about the people who put them up. I would have hundreds of pictures of multilingual signs that I have taken on my travels. I may send you some.

Here we have English, French, German, Italian, Spanish, Dutch, Welsh, Polish, Albanian, Chinese, two South Asian languages I am not sure of (possibly Bengali and Punjabi?), Slovak (or is it Czech?), Turkish, and (I think) Urdu. There is a little bit of political correctness in there (Welsh or Dutch speakers who do not also speak English are pretty much non-existent) but mostly it is an attempt to provide a sign in all the languages used by users of the NHS in London. For a sign in your part of London, the most notable omission is Portuguese, given that there is a very large Portuguese and Brazilian community just over the other side of Vauxhall Bridge. (Of course, the Portuguese “Proibido fumar” is nearly but not quite exactly the same as the Spanish, so there is no practical point to putting it there, but there may be some symbolic point).

In Australia, a similar sign might have English, Italian, Greek, Vietnamese, Chinese, Serbo-Croat, Malay/Indonesian and Arabic.

Except of course, the question is which written form of Serbo-Croat. (Use the wrong one and you may start a war). And Malaysian or Indonesian. (Same language but different standards and slightly different spelling). I think the growth of the EU has led to spectacular growth in multilingual signs, as everywhere in Europe feels the need to put up signs in the languages of their EU partners. (I don’t know if there is an EU fund for multilingual signs, but this wouldn’t surprise me). In Asia, things are much more the local language and English. In the US, English and Spanish. In Latin America there aren’t many multilingual signs outside tourist resorts, but when they are they are usually in the local language (either Spanish or Portuguese but not both) and English.

The siliiest bilingual signs tend to be the purely political ones, where you have everything in two almost identical written languages and in no other language. Spanish and Catalan, perhaps. Or Estonian and Finish (with a pointed lack of Russian, even though it is the sole language spoken by a quarter of the population). And it gets really silly when people start defacing signs in Valencia for being written in the wrong kind of Catalan and stuff like that.

Posted by Michael Jennings on 24 May 2011

For some reason I typed “sentence” when I meant “census”. Weird.

Posted by Michael Jennings on 24 May 2011

I just deleted a comment from someone called KMcC, which just said “dust mask”.  It looked so totally like a piece of spammery that I didn’t even hesitate.  But seconds after deleting it, I realised it was KMcC’s good faith, non-irrelevant answer to 6k’s question about the top left symbol in his photo.  And I think he’s got it.

Apologies all round.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait on 24 May 2011

I am delighted to see that Smoking Is Prohibited to everyone but Russians.
Out with anti-smoking jihadis!

[incidentally, I just discovered that PG-13 movie rating now warns against “scenes of smoking"]

Posted by Tatyana on 24 May 2011

I was going to say the very thing KMcC said, but with more words.

It’s obvious that’s what it is if you’re the sort of person who’s used the damned things.

(Which I am, so it was - the dead giveaway is the nose clip on the icon.)

Posted by Sigivald on 24 May 2011

you have wounded my inner Laconian. But I forgive you, as your blog is top notch and my reply was brief to the point of obscurity

Posted by KMcC on 25 May 2011

"Dust mask”

OK, I’m more than willing to believe that, but I’m still struggling to actually envisage a dust mask from that image. This is especially galling, since in my line of work I wear an “N95 particulate respirator”, which is actually just a fancy word for a decent quality dust mask.

South Africa has 11 official languages, and although most signs in Cape Town are generally only written in the three you see above, all official government notices and signage (eg. around the Parliament building) are translated into all 11.
This makes for a lot of writing, but fortunately there’s rarely any need to go beyond those 11.

Posted by 6000 miles... on 25 May 2011

Yeah, Russian was the language I would have wondered about next after Portuguese. I think Russians in London are either using London’s excellent but extremely expensive private hospitals, or illegal immigrants so unable to use the NHS at all. Hence no Russian on the sign.

Or perhaps Russians are believed to be intelligent enough to understand what the graphic means

Posted by Michael Jennings on 25 May 2011

The French one in Brick Lane is a seriously bad job.

Assuming a space in “operentdeus” and the bizarre absence of a “è” it would seem to say:

“Robbers perform surgery on God inside this domain (or stately home).” I think it was meant to be: “Des voleurs sont actifs dans ce quartier.” (if “domaine” had been the right word, it should have been preceded by “en ce” not “dans ce").

My favourite British display of linguistic screw ups was the infamous poster headlined “Rabies Kills!” with a skull in 1976, which must have been translated by Spike Milligan.

At Heathrow Airport puzzled French-speaking travellers wondered what “La Rabie Tue!” meant: was this a reference to Arabia in general, or a misspelling of a female Rabbi? In no way would it be understood as a reference to “La Rage” the disease.

In any case, it’s a job for a Roman centurion:

Posted by Antoine Clarke on 25 May 2011

Speaking of linguistic skills, I can’t ever recall seeing a spelling mistake on an official sign in France.

The nearest I can think of is the little village of Tarentaise or Tarentaize in the Massif Central, where the village town hall and the prefecture disagree on how to spell the place. So the road signs into and out of the village are spelt one way and official documents from the Mayor spell it the other.

In England, I’ve seen “British Railway’s Board” on notices outside Paddington Station and government buildings with “Enquiry’s.”

Posted by Antoine Clarke on 25 May 2011

My favourite anti-thieves warning ever was in 2001 in Paris at Rue de Rome Metro station: which has just two platforms facing each other.

On my side was a tall African-French gentleman dressed like an expensive attorney, there was no one else on our platform and no one on the other side.

Then a little old lady looking like Giscard d’Estaing’s grandmother walked onto the opposite platform.

Almost immediately: a loudspeaker blared out “Attention! Attention! Des pickpockets sont suceptibles d’être actifs dans cette station de Métro!” ("Warning! Warning! Pickpockets may be operating in this Metro station.)

Darned efficient these transport cops!

Posted by Antoine Clarke on 25 May 2011

What is Giscard d’Estaing’s grandmother supposed to look like?

The thing I find interesting about the Brick Lane sign is the choice of languages: English, French, Italian, and Spanish. Three southern European Latin languages (with the Portuguese once again being slighted) and no Northern European Germanic languages besides English. In particular, no German. That’s very unusual indeed in multilingual signs in the UK. So is the assumption that Germans, Dutch, Swedes, Danes, etc can speak English? (Probably true). Is it that the sort of arty hipster types who hang out there are more Latin than Germanic? (In my experience there are usually lots of Scandinavians around, but they do speak English. Invariably). Do the people who put up this sign have a grudge over the war?

Of course, the non-English language most spoken (by far) in that part of London is actually Bengali, as this is the centre of London’s Bangladeshi community. However, they are not the intended audience for the sign. (There is lots of Bengali on street signs nearby, though, those government diversity officers having to have something to do).

Posted by Michael Jennings on 25 May 2011

Oh, that’s a popular but not entirely correct assumption, Dr. Jennings. Just during my 6-day [already in a deep past] trip to London I met with no less than 12 Russian-speaking expats: all perfectly legal, some - already HM subjects, some - on their way to become ones.

Out of your explanations I’d certainly prefer the latter; I suspect, though, that Russian-speaking residents just don’t make any fuss about signs not being in Russian - they assume a knowledge of [at least] written English is a prerequisite for living in UK. Whereas others might be more

Posted by Tatyana on 25 May 2011

French, Spanish and Portuguese also make sense for the other countries one covers: practically the whole of Africa, the Americas, and a few places in Asia and the Far East. The obvious missing language is Arabic. There might be a problem printing non-Roman letters.

But the most likely reason is tourists: if someone compiled a list of who much cash tourists from various countries spend in London, I’m guessing that it would look a lot like the list of languages on that sign.

At Transport for London, I recall one officer whose job it was to tick all the boxes on diversity, and who I thought had an unfortunate resemblance to Heinrich Himmler. This meant we had to include every language spoken by anyone in the area we were covering. In case you were wondering how much Eritrean translators can charge when the government is paying, lets just say I’d be in London still if I could charge half those rates. He did come up with the compromise of only doing the five most commonly-spoken (taking into account the likelihood that some communities were more likely to speak English too) and making the offer to provide additional languages on demand.

Posted by Antoine Clarke on 26 May 2011

Yup, dust mask, the main clue is that all the blue circles are site required safety equipment.

Quibble time, there are no ‘local’ tribes in Constantia, cept perhaps Hottentots, although the Xhosa are probably the closest at 5 or 600 miles away, and the 3rd language is more likely Zulu or Fanagalo.

/quibble mode off :)

Posted by Chuckles on 26 May 2011

The Vauxhall anti-smoking sign is actually inadequate to comply with the law, unless it is supposed to refer to the outside space. The regulations require all substantially enclosed premises that are open to the public or are workplaces, to display a sign that *must* say “it is against the law to smoke in these premises”.

Posted by Guy on 26 May 2011

Well, I am mainly just speculating, and it could be that the stereotypes are believed by the people putting up the sign rather than me. (Third guess: Russians have had enough of communist healthcare systems already and thus go out of their way to avoid them. This might apply to Poles and Czechs/Slovaks as well, but they are in England in larger numbers than Russians). I certainly know a few people of Russian ancestry who live and work in the UK perfectly legally and uncontroversially, although not as many as I know people who speak a few of the other languages in question. And if someone is living in the UK and not asking anyone else to support them, I don’t give a rat’s arse whether their immigration status is legal or not.

I am slightly surprised by the presence of Albanian on the sign. There are certainly many Albanian speakers in the EU, but I did not realise that there were many of them in the UK, and I would have thought the number legally in the UK was a good deal smaller than that. There might be some refugees from the Balkan wars, I suppose.

Posted by Michael Jennings on 27 May 2011

Kossovo is where people living in the UK who speak Albanian will come from.

Posted by Antoine Clarke on 27 May 2011

I notice the absence of Scots, Erse, and Welsh. Yes, all those people can read English, but…

When visiting S Africa some 55 years ago, Robert Heinlein noted the insistence that all public notices had to be in English and Afrikaans - even though all Afrikaners were fluent in English. But the Afrikaners controlled the government, and insisted on pride of place for their language.

Posted by Rich Rostrom on 29 May 2011

@Chuckles: While the main traditional base of the Xhosa tribes may be towards the Eastern Cape, you’re right in saying that isiXhosa is not the third language in Cape Town - it’s actually the second language. That is, there are actually more individuals who speak isiXhosa (28.8%) as their first language than there are first language English speakers (28.0%) (cf. Afrikaans, 41.4%)

Those figures are from the 2001 census and due to the continuing huge influx of migrant workers from the Eastern Cape into Cape Town, it’s likely that the 2011 census will show that gap has opened up considerably in favour of the Xhosa speakers.

First language Zulu, while much spoken in Gauteng and KZN is only used by 0.2% of the Cape Town population.
Fanagalo isn’t used by anyone in SA anymore.

/correction mode off. :)

Posted by 6000 on 30 May 2011

The top left image is indeed a particle mask, not a full-blown respirator.  A respirator would be easier to draw in a stylized manner, with its cannisters.  The particle mask is just a stiff Kleenex with some soft metal strips glued to it.

Posted by The Sanity Inspector on 02 June 2011
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