A discursive look at Napoleonic & ECW wargaming, plus a load of old Hooptedoodle on this & that

Saturday, 17 November 2012

Hooptedoodle #71 - Rhyngrwyd

I have a feeling this post is bound to offend someone, so I hasten to put in an early disclaimer – it is not intended to be disrespectful, nor to step on anyone’s sacred cows or national pride or pet prejudices. It is merely an expression of my customary wide-eyed ignorance.

North Berwick station

Yesterday I took the train into Edinburgh. When I got to my local station, which is North Berwick, in the county of East Lothian, I was greeted by a very smart and friendly sign, welcoming me (well – welcoming visitors, really) to the little town in two languages. For information, it’s Gaelic name is Bearaig-a-Tuath. 

That’s all fine, then – Scotland has it’s own Parliament (sort of), and is officially bilingual.


Well - just a minute. According to the 2001 Census, a little over 93,000 people in Scotland have any understanding of Gaelic. That doesn’t mean that all of those use it to converse – some of these people just have some knowledge of it. Even so, this represents, I understand, 1.8% of the population of Scotland. Coverage is not even, of course – in the Western Isles and the Highlands a great many people have the Gaelic, and I am especially enthusiastic about traditions like that being preserved, but I doubt if more than one or two residents of North Berwick have any knowledge of it – insignificant in comparison to the number who speak Polish, for example.

North Berwick, like most of East Lothian, is much closer both in culture and surroundings to the rural parts of Northumberland, for example, than it is to “proper” Highland Scotland (as featured in Walt Disney or on shortbread tins). It’s name comes from the Old English word bere, barley, and means a barley farm, or a settlement where they grew barley. The word North was added to distinguish it from the much larger, sporadically English town of Berwick upon Tweed, which is 38 miles from here (and is, now that I’ve mentioned it, where a surprising proportion of my post and mail-order deliveries are sent). The Gaelic name is fundamentally a phonetic derivative of an English word. Again, this is all fine – there are a great many place names in Scotland which are Anglicised forms of Gaelic names – but it does leave me wondering who it is that is supposed to call it by this authentic new Scots name. Not the locals – that’s for sure – and I doubt if very many Highlanders coming here would be interested either.

So it’s a political correctness thing, then? That’s OK too, but I do wonder what sort of person decided this particular sign was necessary. I also wonder who came up with the Scotified name, and who asked them to do it, and what their job title is. And how much do they get paid?

I used to have a friend named George, who lived near Bala, in North Wales. George had terrible blood pressure, lived on gallons of instant coffee, stayed up all night reading, and used to rant on at huge length about almost exactly this subject. George is – maybe not surprisingly – now dead, but he lived and died a fiercely patriotic and proud Welshman – a North Welshman, no less, and a fluent Welsh speaker. Wales, like Scotland, has a measure of devolution, and is bilingual. The big difference in Wales is that the proportion of Welsh people who use their language is high – especially in the North – and the country really does need to be bilingual. It has been for centuries. What made George furious was that they had made this official policy in a moronically completist way. The Welsh parliament had appointed a committee of scholars (presumably expensive scholars) to ensure that all English words had a Welsh equivalent. It would be a poor show indeed, you will agree, if there was not a proud Welsh word to display on the official signs – and it should be recognisably distinct from the English word in a proud, Welsh sort of way.

Just as well they translated that...

I emphasise here that I am not opposed to bilingualism – I’m all for it. I am just nervous about the way in which it works, and about the thought-processes that get us there. George was furious that the committee had come up with its own word – rhyngrwyd – for the Internet. Was it needed? Did it help? Are there any other nations which insist on their own word for Internet? – almost certainly the Scots, though I haven’t checked. George felt that this kind of over-fussy fetishism actually made the Welsh language – or more particularly the bodies who proscribed it – look rather foolish. Since it was his language, I will pay him the respect of refraining from having an opinion on the matter, but he might have had a point. Maybe he was right – maybe it was a waste of money, of effort, of emphasis. Maybe the people who were distracted about the future and the integrity of the Welsh language would have been better employed to direct some of their attention to some other specific need which Wales has? The Welsh language is not going to be threatened by people referring to the Internet by its American-English name. What is the point? George would have suggested that if people’s pride in being Welsh manifested itself in minutiae of this nature, they would be better starting again from basic principles.

Doesn't always work - the Welsh version says
"look left" - this wasn't an attempt to kill
non-Welsh pedestrians, surely?

I wouldn’t know. If you disagree with this, or feel strongly about it, then you are probably right. There must be a chance for all the Manx and Cornish speakers out there to stand up and be counted, and God bless you all. I am aware that if the North Berwick station sign appeared in English and German, for example, then a great many of us would get very heated about it, and probably rightly so, but on a given day – even in Winter – there will be many more German speakers in the town than Gaelic speakers.

Very odd, really.


  1. Don't worry Tony, after 2014 you'll be back to one language - Gaelic!

    1. If so, most of the head offices of Scottish-based firms will have moved to Britain(?) - there were contingency plans ready to do exactly that last time this was mooted.

      It would probably be incorrect to assume there is any kind of unified view of a Scottish nation - they'll all support the national rugby team, but (e.g.) Orcadians, Highlanders & Lowlanders have little in common, and might not choose to have to depend on each other.

    2. Yes, being a Scottish/English 50:50 mix myself I feel quite sad at the prospect of Scotland leaving the Union.

      It's not all bad though as at least we'll get a new look Union flag without the blue background!

  2. They've started adding gaelic to a few road/town signs in Cape Breton but I suspect its more about tourism than Celtic nationalism. Mind you when I took some Gaelic courses a few years ago some of my class mates were still upset about Culloden.

    More to the point, having grown up in a bilingual Province, I saw the signed go from being English in predominently English areas, French in French areas and bilingual where it was too close to call to being unilingual French. The best ones were the big highways signs heading south with their large letters E. U. so that all the American tourists could find their way home.

    I noticed a few years ago when passing through that USA has been quietly added. All those GPS probably took the fun out of it.

    1. I think the North Berwick Gaelic bit is actually just a pathetic attempt to make the American golfers on holiday here think that it is cute - that they are really somewhere old and genuine. It is, of course, all baloney.

      I remember a friend of mine buying haemorrhoid cream when we were in Victoria, British Columbia, and the English/French dual-language instructions were so large they were provided on a separate sheet, being much too big for the sort of stick-on label which I would have expected. We didn't meet anyone who spoke French while we were there - though I remember visiting both Irish and Polish community centres in Victoria - but any Francophone haemorrhoid-sufferers would have been on safe ground there, anyway.

      I fear this comment lost something in the transmission...

  3. As a 100% Englishman (I feel I should start off with an apology about that) I see all this as a quaint, harmless practice. To others (especially some of my Welsh mates) it is a strong sense of national identity. But like everything in this modern age it seems to go way too far. Mind you, can you imagine a Welsh Scrabble game without loads of extra L's and Y's?

    1. Matt - I also am English. It's great, isn't it? In fact I always suspected that there is only one real, pure Englishman left - he has red hair and one double-width eyebrow, and he probably lives in Pembrokeshire.

      The trouble with all these sad Celtic zealots with their silly language issues is that they get excited about the wrong stuff, offended (too easily) when it doesn't matter.

      In my Old Days of Salary I sometimes used to visit the mighty Xerox Corporation. Once, at a jovial lunch, in Uxbridge, my customer account manager (whose name was Derek, and who was very fond of the old Chablis) said to me just once too often something patronising about us Jocks doing this or the other (since I was almost certainly too provincial to pick up on his humour), and I gently pointed out that I was in fact a native Liverpudlian, as English as he was - though I did represent a large Scottish customer of his - and thus I was not truly qualified to speak of Jocks.

      "Jocks, Scousers, it's all the ****ing same to me, mate!" was his considered reply. How true that is, I have always felt - we are all Jock Tamson's bairns. That's where we are really.

      I checked up on Welch Scrabble (bo-or-ing...) - it does exist - it would probably be illegal for it not to in the current climate - I was actually very pleased to read about it - it's described at


      I think Finnish Scrabble would be a bit special, too, but I wasn't sad enough to check it out. I might tomorrow...

      Cheers - Tony

  4. It has been suggested since Poland's accession to the EU that they get together with the Finns to have a letter exchange balancing out those vowels in Finnish with all the consonants in Polish.

    1. Excellent - I like this kind of collaboration. Maybe they could play combined Finno-Polish Scrabble, where each side uses their own language and they use the original tile set.

      That's done it - I have to look up Finnish Scrabble now...

      OK - found it - here's how the Finns play Scrabble...


      I don't want anyone saying you don't learn stuff on this blog. It mostly isn't useful, mind you.

      Cheers - Tony

    2. I wonder if they get more than the usual 7 letters to start with - they have some veeerry long words in Finnish.

      Finland is another of those bi-lingual countries where the signage is almost silly. The town where my missus grew up is called Loviisa (Finnish or Lovisa (Swedish). Pronounced the same (to my ears). Most people of either language group would be able to read that particular word in either language. Now why would they need to have it on road signs in both languages, but they do.

    3. That's interesting. As someone who doesn't know either language (and someone, moreover, who was surprised by the bilingual signs) I was quite grateful for the Swedish versions on occasions when I used to go to Helsinki - all those long Finnish street names with a K and a J and loads of AAAs were astonishingly unmemorable - I had a real blind spot trying to find my way around. In comparison, the Swedish words often seemed more Germanic and a lot friendlier!

      I used to do musical trips to Finland - went to Helsinki a few times, also Kajaani(?) and Kuopio. Loved the country - expensive for Brits to visit, but I'd like to go back sometime.

      Good to hear from you - thanks.

  5. Ha! Yes a familiar feeling. There's times when I'm struggling with mulitple case endings when I wish I'd met a Swedish speaking Finn!
    Was up in Kajaani this August - visited the 17th century fort there (taken by the Russkies in the GNW) and found out about this incredible guy: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Heikki_Savolainen_(gymnast)

  6. I hear you...I'm stunned - however - to learn that there is a connection between the insurgent's of 1779 and the word 'Internet', I suggest all right-thinking Englishmen start to refer to it as the Wibbly Wobbly Way - forthwith!