Swansea or Abertawe?: Bilingual Road-signs in Wales

Since 1965, bilingual road signs and warnings have been permitted in Wales. ‘Araf’ being on the top of the list of every visitor’s Welsh vocabulary.

However, the order in which place-names, attractions and messages appear on road signs varies among the Local Authorities. They decide whether the English or the Welsh appears first. This can sometimes cause confusion, especially for visitors to the country! For example, in my home county of Rhondda Cynon Taff and in Cardiff, the English place-name or attraction will always appear first.

However, once one leaves the M4 for Carmarthenshire and Pembrokeshire, the situation changes. These counties wanted the Welsh version on top.

Which way is best?

I am certain that those of us who speak both Welsh and English will always read the first sign that they see. In RCT, it’ll be the English version that I’ll read, and in Carmarthenshire, the Welsh. In counties where the English place names come first, are there drivers who will deliberately lower their eyes to read the Welsh version? By the time I will have read the sign for ‘Bridgend’, I won’t need to read ‘Pen-y-bont’. I don’t need to reassure myself that I’m taking the right exit off the M4. So is the Welsh version even necessary in these instances? I ask myself whether in these cases the Welsh version has a practical use? Or whether it is used as decoration to entertain tourists and to satisfy nationalists?

On the other hand, a non-Welsh speaker in Conwy might have to think twice on first seeing ‘Llandrillo-yn-Rhos’, and will then opt for ‘Rhos-on-Sea’ instead. Whereby the English version has fulfilled the purpose of a translation of the Welsh place-name. It isn’t only in the case of road signs where this applies. I’ve lost count of the number of times that I’ve filled out a form in English, only to see that there was a Welsh version underneath or on the other side of the page, by which stage it’s already too late. With the Welsh Language Measure in place, more and more companies and establishments will produce bilingual publications; but which language will appear first, and for what reasons?

To end on a brighter note, here’s the most famous example of when bilingual road signs can go horribly wrong! The English is clear enough to lorry drivers – but the Welsh reads “I am not in the office at the moment. Send any work to be translated.