Thursday, June 23, 2005

thoughts on language, or lack thereof

Viewing even the incredibly diverse San Francisco area, I'm somewhat surprised to observe a lack of multilingual signs here. I admit there's plenty of Spanish and, in San Francisco, Chinese, but even major European languages such as German, French or Italian are not represented except at bureax de change. Next time I visit a museum I'll check for multilingual translations of brochures.

Language-less international signs are nearly as rare. In all three countries we visited, exits were marked with a running figure and an arrow, and bathrooms with the male and female pictograms, quite consistently. Our bathrooms are usually all right (excepting the type of wannabe-quaint restaurant that uses "Bulls" and "Heifers," or "Hens" and "Drakes"), but exits solely use the word "Exit" far more often than not.

One of the finest language-free signage was the Budapest subway. In the stations we used there were two tracks going in opposite directions, so it might be confusing which side to take. However, above the waiting area for each track, a sign names all that line's stops. The station you're at is indicated with a circle. The direction the train goes is marked with a pointing triangle beside the circle. In older stations the signage is on the wall beyond the track, and again names every stop, notes where you are, and to what stops the train will go. Not even Vienna could make this so clear, but then again, they have more complicated system with multiple lines using the same tracks.

The only difficulty I found with Budapest was above ground, where a yellow sign displayed the name of the next major stop on the line. Since I didn't stop and actually read it, I went to the wrong side as often as not.

A mysteriously positive contribution to my navigation of Budapest was my incomprehension of the language. Hungarian is like no other language in the region – it has a distant relation to Finnish, I've been told. It's not Slavic, Germanic, or Romantic, all language types that I (and probably most Americans who like to think about words) have passing familiarity with, so I could eke no meaning out of anything Hungarian. And yet we hit the ground running, so to speak, navigating the subway with complete ease within a half-hour of buying our transportation pass.

I'm sure a large part of this ease came from a map that named all the stations and the excellent signage. And yet the names of the stations and streets landed in my head and stuck there: Vorosmarty, Ferenciek, the crossing-point Deak, Andrassy, etc. I theorize that the senselessness of the language forced me to swallow these names whole, without the distraction of chewing on bits of familiarity found in Sudbanhof, Wien Nord and Mitte, or Lange Gasse (which are, incidentally, the only names I can remember out of Vienna.)

I suppose in many ways English is truly international in that it's stolen so many words from so many different languages.

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