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Scots Language Centre Centre for the Scots Leid

Place names

GlesgaThe Scots Language Centre encourages debate and discussion about Scotland’s place names. In the first of a series of papers from experts and commentators, SLC Director, Michael Hance, asks a number of questions about signage and the linguistic landscape.

Aberdeen, Longridge, Braehead, Glasgow….what is it these places have in common? Well, those that stay in them and many others that don’t, know that they are like lots of Scotland’s cities, towns and villages in that they have other names. In the case of those mentioned above they are, Aiberdeen, Langrigg, Braeheid and Glesga.  

Now, why is it that the names of these places only ever appear in official signage in their ‘English’ forms? The usual practice is to act as if the local names don’t exist or that no-one had ever heard of them. In the case of many of these places it is the local name which is used most frequently – why then do they never appear in official signage? Let’s consider Aberdeen / Aiberdeen as an example. Most people in Aberdeen / Aiberdeen use both versions of the name but only one of them can be seen on signs in the city? Is this acceptable and if it is why? Who makes decisions about place name usage and how can we ensure that these reflect the language people actually use rather than just the officially approved version of the name?

If you never see the version of the place name that you use yourself on signs or in other public and official places what does that say about the value that’s placed on the language and the people who use it? What is it that makes one of these names ‘right’ and another ‘wrong’? Isn’t it merely the case that we have become familiar with one version being acceptable in the public arena and that this has given us the impression that the other ways in which the name is rendered - often the more popular one – is some how wrong?     

Travellers in Scotland will notice that in many areas existing road signs are being replaced with ones that include Gaelic versions of the place names. If you’re in Tarbert in Kintyre – a district with a long history of Scots language usage – you’ll see signs for Glasgow and Glaschu but you won’t see any information about how to get to Glesga. Why not?

In some cases officials at the Gaelic agency, Bòrd na Gàidhlig, have had to construct new names for places that haven’t had Gaelic names in the past. Peterhead / Peterheid is called Ceann Phadruig in Gaelic and it’s possible in the future that signs will direct people to the town in Gaelic and English but not in the Doric dialect that many people in Peterhead speak themselves. Would that be acceptable?    

Bilingual signs are not unusual in Europe and places don’t need to have names that are wildly different from one another for both to be recognised and given equal status. Here are a couple of examples – Biel (German) / Bienne (French) in Switzerland and Vaasa (Finnish) / Vasa (Swedish) in Finland.

 It’s worth remembering too that places like Longridge didn’t necessarily have their names rendered in English by chance –sometimes map makers would change existing names to make them seem more English. In Alison Grant’s article you can read more about the impact the OS had on the way place names were recorded.

 The Scots Language Centre would like to start a debate about Scots place names. What do you think? Should signs recognise the names people actually use? Should all signs be trilingual – Scots, Gaelic and English? If there are to be signs in Gaelic and English in areas with high proportions of Gaelic speakers why shouldn’t there be Scots / English signs in areas where people speak Scots? We’d like to have your views – join the discussion on facebook and let us know what you think.