The Welsh language is an offshoot of the Celtic languages. The Celts were originally spread all over Europe, but due to their bad tempers, red hair, freckles and skin that burned if the sun even THOUGHT of shining, they eventually found themselves pushed back to Scotland, Ireland and Wales.
By the twentieth century, English now having become the dominant tongue in those countries, the Celtic languages had all but died out in Scotland and Ireland – the only remaining traces being reserved for place names – but in Wales, their version somehow remained.
However, it too would have expired, had it not been for one thing – the Welsh Nationalists. Like the Scottish Nationalists and Irish Republicans, they despised the English – whom they saw as oppressors.
Of course, devolution has now come to those countries. But around the turn of the Sixties, this would have been unthinkable – in particular, because OIL had been discovered off the Scottish coast.
And whilst Wales might not have been similarly blessed, no-one at Whitehall wanted to create a precedent. So the protests of the Welsh Nationalists were ignored. At which point, they decided to become MILITANT.
This militancy took the form of torching the country cottages of rich British industrialists and politicians. It came to a head when Walter Wall-Carpeting, the then-Minister of Welsh Affairs lost HIS home-from-home.
Furious, he ranted at the then-Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan, “Now those bloody sheep-shaggers have set fire to MY cottage! I’d been using it to get away, with Sally.” “Your wife?” Harold murmured. “Don’t be ridiculous,” answered Walter.
Something had to be done. Most Welsh people had no desire to be separated from Britain, but Whitehall knew it had to throw SOME sort of bone to the rabid Welsh Nationalists. Finally, they came up with an idea.
Remembering that the Welsh had a nearly extinct and totally unintelligible language, it was decided to convert all of Wales’ road signs to dual language – English of course coming first. This would fool the Welsh into thinking they had their own National Identity.
It worked. The Ministry Of Transport had no problems with the idea, as they were busy putting the finishing touches to a new set of European road-signs that used PICTURES to warn of hazards, etc.
An outline of a sheep meant “Sheep Crossing”, a car falling off a jetty meant “Dock Ahead” – and a man apparently having trouble opening a golf umbrella meant “Road Works Ahead”. Headrooms and inclines only had NUMBERS – which were the same in Welsh as everywhere else.
However while Whitehall was happy, at local level the new dual-language signs were producing major headaches. Local signs – most of which had WRITING on them – were the responsibility of local councils. Many of which had no-one working there who knew any Welsh.
Thus they had to fall back on getting translations from local experts on the language – University professors and the like. And so it was with a recent case.
Producing official-looking signs is easier than it appears. All it takes is a sheet of aluminium coated with a white reflective covering, a set of black self-adhesive letters and numbers – and a jig which enables one to place the characters in an evenly spaced straight line.
The final touch is to laminate the sign with a sheet of plastic (in order to stop naughty boys peeling off the letters and rearranging them to spell rude words) and it is ready for putting up.
But it can go horribly wrong. A recent case in point was when Swansea council wanted to erect a sign near an ASDA supermarket which read: “No entry for heavy goods vehicles. Residential site only.” Simple enough – except no-one at the council’s office had enough Welsh to be able to handle the translation.
And so they duly e-mailed the local expert: “Please translate the following into Welsh – No entry for heavy goods vehicles. Residential site only.” And in due course, they got a reply. It read: “Nid wyf yn y swyddfa ar hyn o bryd. Anfonwch unrhyw waith i’w gyfieithu.”
Now what followed was not really Swansea council’s fault – it was down to their translator. He KNEW no-one at the council was fluent in Welsh – if they had been, they would not have required his services. Thus it was HIS fault for not replying in English.
Because after the department of signs had erected the sign, it began to get huge LAUGHS from those members of the public who WERE fluent in Welsh. This was due to the fact that while the upper, English half DID have “No entry to… [etc.]” and the lower, Welsh half had “Nid wyf yn… [etc.]” – only Welsh speakers knew what that lower half actually MEANT.
In English, it translated back as:”I am not in the office at the moment. Send any work to me to be translated.”