Free erections in Wales

How mistakes on bilingual signs took a turn for the worst

10 minutes to read
Jessica Lambregts

This paper deals with language mistakes made on public signs in Wales, one on a cash withdrawal machine and one at a supermarket parking lot. Both signs show mistakes. The main focus will be on figuring out why these mistakes were made and who is responsible for them. It turns out that while the Welsh governement is trying to keep Welsh from dying, it is not really dedicated to this task.

Minority languages on public signs

Linguistic landscaping is a concept used in the study of sociolinguistics. It can be referred to as the use of different languages on public signss in different places or communities (van Herk, 2012). An example is the use of both a Dutch and an English sentence in a public park in the Netherlands, to indicate that it is not allowed to walk on the grass. The purpose of using multiple languages could be to make sure everyone understands - tourists often do not speak the official language of a country.

Linguistic landscaping looks at the actual use of language in different settings. The usage of multiple language in public signs isn't always to make sure tourists understand what's on there. The second language can also serve another purpose, such as using it to keep it from dying out, or to pay respect to the few people who still use a minority language.

Even though Welsh is part of their culture, the language is slowly being forgotten.

In this paper, we will be looking at two pictures, both taken in different cities in Wales. The pictures are both found on the news websites of the BBC. They were featured on the BBC websites, because the mistakes that were made on the signs turned out to be funny, and someone noticed them.

Answering the question why these mistakes on the signs were made needs an analysis of the situation in which they occurred. Therefore, the research question of this paper is: who were responsible for the mistakes that were made, and why were they allowed to happen?

Welsh in Aberystwyth and Scottish in Morrison

Figure 1: Codiad am ddim

Figure 1 shows a sign from Aberystwyth, a town on the west coast of Wales (BBC Newsbeat, 2014). Two languages are used above the cash machine, which makes the sign bilingual. The bottom language is Standard English, and the one on top is Welsh. The meaning of the English text (free cash withdrawals) is clear: you can withdraw cash from the machine without paying any fee. We often expect things to make sense and therefore, we immediately assume that the Welsh sentence conveys the same message, only in a different language.

In December of 2015 only 27.3% of the Welsh citizens stated that they are able to speak Welsh; the numbers are going down every year.

However, If you translate the Welsh text ‘codiad am ddim’, you will find that it translates roughly to ‘free erections’, instead of ‘free cash withdrawals’. This is of course extremely different from the meaning that can be expected. After doing some research, the correct translation was found. The mistake in ‘codiad am ddim’, is that ‘codiad’ means ‘erection’. The word that should have been used here is ‘codi’, which means ‘lift’. But even when this word is replaced, the sentence does not make sense. It should have been: ‘codi arian heb dâl’ which means: ‘lift money without fee’. This is an almost completely different sentence than the one that was used.

Figure 2: Parcadh

Figure 2 shows a public sign in a parking lot in Morriston, which is also a town in Wales (BBC NEWS South West Wales, 2014). The sign is property of a supermarket and was most likely meant to be in English and Welsh. The second word is clearly written in Standard English, but the second word causes some trouble. Since the sign is placed in a town in Wales, one would expect that the language used is also Welsh. However, the top word ‘Parcadh’ is not a Welsh word, but a Scottish Gaelic word, also meaning ‘parking’. Scottish Gaelic is a language native to Scotland, descended from Irish (Gaelic Matters, n.d.). In this case, the meaning of the words on the signs are correct, but a completely different language is used, one that is not spoken in Wales.

A dying language

The first question we need to ask ourselves, is why Welsh is even used on these signs. Wales, as a country, has 3,063 million inhabitants. The main language spoken in Wales is English. The question is how many people speak Welsh. According to the Welsh government, in December of 2015 only 27.3% of the Welsh citizens stated that they are able to speak Welsh. This is not an awful lot, and these numbers are decreasing every year. In 2001, only 29.9% of the citizens could speak Welsh (Stats Wales, 2016).

The decrease of the number of people that speak Welsh is a problem for the Welsh government. The language is seen as a part of their culture, but it is slowly being forgotten. The problem the government is facing here, is that they want to keep the language alive, but they also want to attract as many tourists as they can. Using Welsh as their standard language may lead to a decrease in tourism rates. Tourists don't understand Welsh and may be put off by the usage of Welsh as the standard language in Wales. (Wayfinding specialists, n.d.).

To deal with this problem, the Welsh Assembly created rules for the use of Welsh (Welsh Assembly Government, 2011). One of these rules includes language use on signs. According to the Welsh Language Scheme Documentation from the Welsh government, which tries to promote the use of Welsh in the country, newly made signs should always be bilingual. Existing signs do not have to be changed, but if they are replaced, a Welsh translation should be added. This is only the case for signs placed by the government, shop owners, for example, are free in their choice of a bilingual sign. In short, the use of Welsh is promoted by using it in everyday life. This way, the government tries to treat the languages equally and keep the language alive.

Making mistakes

In Figure 1, a mistake was made with the translation of the sign. The question is why this mistake was made. It's a curious mistake, since the translation that is used is partly right, and partly wrong. It does say that something is free, but it is not talking about cash withdrawals. The cause of this may be that a real translator wasn't used for the job. We can assume that someone who translates Welsh for a living would do it right. The question is then, whether no translator was used at all, or if an incapable one was used. When the sentence ‘free cash withdrawals’ is entered into a translation machine, such as Google translate, the sentence you get is fairly different from the one that is used. Therefore, it makes the most sense to assume that an incapable Welsh speaker was used, who did know a few Welsh words, but was not proficient enough to make a correct translation. 

When trying to keep a language alive, it is not only important to use it publicly; people also have to be willing to learn the language.

In Figure 2, the translation that was used was correct, but the language was not. Scottish Gaelic was used, instead of Welsh, on the sign. The question is why nobody noticed that the wrong language was used, before the sign was put up. The word that was used was ‘Parcadh’, while the word that should be used is ‘Parcio’.

The question is whether Welsh and Scottish Gaelic are so much alike that the mistake could easily be made. Both languages are Celtic languages, which are mostly spoken on the north-western edge of Europe. While Scottish Gaelic descends from Old Irish, Welsh descends from old Brittonic (Gaelic Matters, n.d.). So while all Celtic languages have some things in common, there are also plenty of differences to be found. They both originate from the same form, but have developed in different ways through the ages. They both have adifferent spelling system for example.

While the Welsh governement is trying to keep Welsh from dying, it is not really dedicated to this task.

The most reasonable explanation is that the person who translated the sign spoke neither Welsh nor Scottish Gaelic, which made him incapable to see the difference between the two languages, even though they are very different from one another. Apparently, nobody working at the supermarket that put up the sign spoke Welsh either, otherwise they would have noticed the mistake.

Both of the mistakes can be seen as the result of incompetent translators, who were unable to notice the mistakes that were made. Moreover, it is clear that neither of these signs were checked after the translation was added, which shows a lack of interest from the people who were responsible for them. The reason for this could be that the people who are responsible for the sign didn't speak Welsh. However, if the goal of the bilingual signs is to keep the language alive, a bit more effort might be necessary. Clearly none of the people involved in the making of the signs were proficient Welsh speakers, otherwise they would have noticed the mistakes.

The need for clear rules

The mistake on the sign in Figure 1 was made due to an incapable translator, who was not proficient enough in Welsh to see the mistake he or she had made. In Figure 2, the mistake is most likely the result of a translator who did not speak Welsh at all.Otherwise, the mistake would have been easily noticed.

These mistakes are both similar in the sense that the fault was not noticed until a passer-by pointed them out. This means that both signs were not checked before they were used, and no proficient Welsh speaker had seen them before they were put out in the world. This causes one to question why the Welsh government doesn't involve speakers of Welsh in the construction of these signs, since they are invested in keeping the language alive.

Allowing these mistakes to happen shows that the goverment isn't very dedicated to keeping the language from dying. They obviously tried to make signs that used both Welsh and English, but they were not dedicated enough to seek out a translator who actually speaks Welsh.

In 2001, only 29.9% of the citizens could speak Welsh 

Looking at these signs, it is clear that too little effort went into creating them. It would be wise of the Welsh goverment if they made a decision regarding this matter. Either every sign has to be bilingual and they have to be correct, or no sign should be. Mistakes like this seem funny, especially the one in Figure 1, but they are an insult to a language and its speakers.

When trying to keep a language alive, it is not only important to use it publicly; people also have to be willing to learn the language. If both Welsh and English are used on a sign, there is no real encouragement to learn Welsh if you already speak English. This could mean that these bilingual signs are more about honouring the people who still speak Welsh, instead of keeping the language alive. If that's the case, that makes these mistakes even more unacceptable.

The main goal of this paper was to figure out who was responsible for the mistakes in the linguistic landscape in Wales, and why these mistakes were allowed to happen. It can be argued that in these two cases, the Welsh government is indirectly responsible. The mistakes on the signs were of course made by sloppy translators and lazy people who were supposed to check them. However, in the end, it was the Welsh government that wanted these bilingual signs, but did not give any direction on how to make these correctly. If they had set rules, for example about using an ample translator, these mistakes could have easily been prevented

The mistakes were allowed to happen because the government is probably not really dedicated to the task of keeping Welsh alive. Until clear rules are set for making public bilingual signs, these mistakes will still be made.


BBC Newsbeat (2014, October 28). Tesco cash machine mistakenly promises free erections. 
BBC NEWS South West Wales (2014, November 1). Asda uses Scottish Gaelic on English-Welsh store sign.
Gaelic Matters (n.d.). The Celtic Language – the basics and what it sounds like. Consulted on 7 June 2016.
Van Herk, G. (2012). What is Sociolinguistics? Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Blackwell
Stats Wales (2016). Annual Population Survey estimates of persons aged 3 and over who say they can speak Welsh by local authority and measure.
Wayfinding specialists (n.d.). Do Road Signs in Wales Have to Be in Welsh and English? Consulted on 7 June 2016. 
Welsh Assembly Government (2011). Welsh Language Scheme 2011-2016.