Tuesday, 30 September 2008

Forgotten National Treasures: Welsh Roadsigns (a guest article by Sam Ray)

Currently only second to the Severn Bridge, road signs have always enjoyed an illustrious standing in Wales’ tourist attraction rankings. But what is the history behind these timeless national treasures, long shrouded in mystery of Stonehenge proportions?

It all dates back to many billions of years ago, when a cluster of folk residing in what is now Wales spoke an ancient language. Natural selection was not kind to its speakers and the language died out.

More recently, it became apparent to the Welsh that they were in danger of only having the Severn Bridge Services to distinguish them from neighbouring England. A cunning plan was needed – and fast – to preserve an excuse for national pride.

It was then that the idea of reviving the old dynasty’s language was born. But it had to be done in a way that would alienate the outsider and not the Welsh folk this time. Dual language road signs were cunningly devised. Down came the small signs and up went double-sized ones to accommodate both English and New Welsh. Several tractors were ‘clothes-lined’ before the signs to Aberystwyth were moved back far enough from the roads.

This much is common knowledge to most historians. What is often overlooked, however, is the formidable process leading up to the language’s reincarnation. Indeed a certain Professor Jones has compared the monumentality of the whole operation to that of the time Emperor Qin Shi Huang built himself a wall to keep the neighbours out.

The greatest challenge that had to be overcome by the Welsh was writing the language down. For in times of old it was only transmitted orally. If a script had to be developed, how could it be made sufficiently different from English? The English signs, after all, did spell out the names that the Welsh had always given their towns.

One possibility was to invent a new alphabet. But this would not do. How could the foreigner then KNOW that the Welsh language was so very different and be prevented from dismissing the new alphabet as redundant? No: the tourist had to be shown how very different New Welsh was from English. The reverse approach was adopted: keep the latin script, but change all the sounds attached to each letter.

So it was that Aberystwyth (pronounced ‘A-ber-yst-wyth’) became Fiddlb Widdlb (pronounced ‘A-ber-yst-wyth’ or any other way you fancy). Now the Welsh could squeal up-and-downishly with smug delight ‘Oh, you pronounce ‘th’ like we pronounce a ‘b’! We Welsh really are very, very different.’

In the end everyone got what they wanted – the visiting English tourists motored from one road sign to the next with the childish glee of one who has just stepped into the nonsense world of Dr. Zeuss.

And the Welsh got a touch of the exoticism they craved. None of them except the powers that masterminded the language exploit ever fully understood the new nonsense poems that decorated their signposts (ARAF! SLOW! – was it a warning bark?), but the English bits still helped them navigate. And whatever the Fiddlb Widdlb joke meant, they could rest happy in the knowledge that the English didn’t get it either.

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As I have quite a few new readers since I became a "Jelly Biter" I've put this up here again. To understand the context you must read this post!