One of the more entertaining aspects of our Connemara trip was the drive home. Leaving Inis Ní after breakfast, we enjoyed a cross-section of Irish roads, from pock-marked little lanes with grass down the middle, through regional things with a white line, to the glories of the M6 and M4. Breakfast in Connemara, late lunch in Dublin, with a brief stop at the M4 service station just west of Dublin. The service station is as bland as any such institution anywhere in western Europe. So much so, in fact, that it is located at the most bland place-name in the whole of the Irish Midlands – Enfield. Don’t tell me it is a coincidence that this functional but unlovely edifice shares its name with the ditto suburb of northern London.
And that, of course, brings up the subject of bilingual place names. On our journey home on Saturday last, how did we know we had reached England? Two things gave it away. The road-signs were in one language, having been Irish/English and Welsh/English up to then, and there was a massive thrombosis of congestion, delay and misery because part of the M56 was closed. Really, if you’re going to close a motorway and push traffic onto inadequate roads, at least choose somewhere a little more lovely than darkest Deeside. Anyway, bilingual road-signs. Ireland is full of them, other than in the Gaeltacht areas where they give up on the English version. By then, you’re so far out into the wilds as to be hopelessly lost anyway, so it hardly matters. If you can’t pronounce this road sign, sure you’re lost. In most cases, the English version is just a phonetic rendering of the Irish, so Inis Ní becomes Inishnee, Gaillimhe becomes Galway, and so on. Only the occasional case causes head-scratching, as when Baile Átha Cliath becomes Dublin, rather than ‘Ballyorkleea’, or something like that. Likewise in Wales, Caernarvon has become Caernarfon and nobody really minds, though Caergybi/Holyhead could be confusing to a newcomer to Anglesey (or Môn – pronounced ‘moan’, giving plenty of opportunity for bad jokes).
So … why not England? There are plenty of English place-names that would benefit from ‘bilingual’ road-signs. Just a few miles from here is Keighley, pronounced ‘Keethley’. Visitors to London for the 2012 Olympic Merchandising Event may scratch their heads over Greenwich/Grennidge, and they can head downstream to the baffling Trottiscliffe/Trossley and Meopham/Meppum. But do we accommodate local pronunciation on these bilingual signs? Should Newcastle become ‘Newkassel’? That could be tricky: the English alphabet is simply inadequate to represent the sound that locals achieve on the last syllable of ‘Otley’. Think of a short, open ‘eh’ sound that gives up all hope and expires. Oh, and the ‘t’ becomes a glottal stop: O’leh?
Perhaps not, then, though it would add to the gaiety of nations to see at least a few road-signs in England giving a clearer indication of how the place-name is pronounced. Maybe that could become part of the Government’s localism agenda? At least it would give a lot of people with too much time on their hands something useful to do.
Terry O’Connor October 2011