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Let's replace road signs with Pictish stones

By SPP Reporter

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SPELLING and humour are the most difficult things for an expat to understand. Often the best I can do is to understand the content of a joke but not its significance.


For example, I know that saying “pants to you” is a mild chiding with humorous overtones based on the fact that pants, or underpants, are vaguely naughty mentioned in public conversations. I also know that “and Bob’s your uncle” is code for “and then everything is done up nicely”.

Whenever I get to thinking that I actually understand a more complex ironic humour, however, I run the risk of being caught off guard.

When the two SNP members got themselves on the front page of the newspaper for having suggested that we put Old Norse or Norn on our road signs, I thought it was what I believe is called a “wind up” or a “send up”. Apparently, either my cultural filter needs more refining or my sense of humour needs dialling down because other people’s reactions to their presumed tongue-in-cheek suggestion were most earnest.

I remembered from my old linguistics text that Norn or Old Norse, as it is sometimes called, is akin to Faroese and was probably last spoken on one of the Shetland Islands. I remember in Indiana thinking wistfully that it was sad to lose an entire language.

In the States, fierce battles have been waged about making English the standard language and much mea culpa-ing about having nearly wiped out the Native American languages. Perhaps the most fiercely debated language issue centres on Black English.

I understand the heat and the politics of those debates, but for me Norn or Gaelic is more an intellectual issue – in this case, being an outsider gives me a bit more objectivity.

TO understand the heat the topic generates, I tried to imagine what it would feel like to go back to Indiana and discover that the name had been changed to whatever the Native American tribes called it.

I wondered if it would still feel like home if it had not just a different name but a name given to it by someone outside my cultural, ethnic identity. In that context I could appreciate a bit better the heat of the argument.

At the heart of the language-place name change is the sense of dislocation. If Indiana were named, not in English about the Indians who had been there but by the Indians in their own language, then it would be less home to me. Both the act of naming and the choice of language are an integral part of being/feeling at home.

The problem with place names is that they exist both in space and time. W.F.H. Nicolaisen in his scholarly book, Scottish Place Names, takes a lot more words to say essentially that. As some of the letters to the editor have pointed out, place names are already misspelled or Anglicized Gaelic or Norse names. Neither people nor languages are static.

Given this conundrum, I am going to make my own modest proposal about road signs based on a lesson from a popular singer. Prince decided for some reason to change his name to a symbol. It could not be pronounced nor easily reproduced in text, so he became known as “the artist formerly known as Prince”.

We could adapt this idea and erect large picture stones such as the ones the Picts left.

We would need a large stone – because beneath the Pictish symbol, we would have to list all the names for that place through time, as best we could discern them. I am sure that tourists would find these stones attractive. They could be an instance of public art as well as road signs, thus saving money.

Of course, there might be some logistical problems and it would be slow to carve the stones, but it would also be an opportunity to create long-term employment.

In the meantime, I would like to suggest that all those who think that Norn is gone have only to realise, like Moliere’s would-be gentleman, that they have been speaking Norn all their lives and didn’t know it.

According to my linguistics text, “The pronouns they, their and them are loan words from the Scandinavian language Old Norse”.

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