Napoleon once said: “There are no roads in Russia, only directions”. I would add: “And occasional road signs giving these directions”. Overall, the Russian territory is poorly covered with direction signs and even the existing ones are sometimes confusing for the locals, let alone those not speaking Russian.
Moscow authorities decided to improve the situation by introducing bilingual road signs in the Russian capital. In the following years, all street names and display boards in the subway should be translated into English. This news should come as a relief for those planning to visit the Russian capital as they will not have to struggle with Cyrillic alphabet and the Russian grammar to find their way to the next McDonald’s.
In today’s Moscow the only signs that can give you an idea of the direction you are moving in are subway maps, names of the streets and some street kiosks where you can buy a city map in English. Authorities agree that for the city like Moscow it is not enough. The translation activities are underway but the fans of the European song contest Eurovision have better brush up their Russian before coming to Moscow in May 2009.
While Moscow is looking forward to the English road signs, some of the remaining 85 Russian regions are fighting for the right to have their national languages on the roads. According to the Federal legislation, all Russian regions are free to have road signs both in Russian and the national languages and many already do. However, there are some regions where road signs in the national languages have been a controversial issue for years.
On the one hand, there are sociolinguists who believe that apart from pointing and indexing function, street signs contain valuable cultural and historical information. Therefore, having bilingual signs will support local minority languages, increasing their status and prestige among local population.
This view has been criticized by those who have nothing against preserving national heritage but think that introducing bilingual signs is far but the most effective way to do this. After all, extremely high manufacturing and placement costs will outweigh the positive impact of bilingual sings. In the end, it is the manufacturing company and not the language that will benefit from it. Moreover, 100% of the local population can read Russian signs. Why spending money on translating them? Isn’t it better to invest the money in building a national school or designing teaching materials in the local languages? This and many other questions have to be answered before we can find a way out of the labyrinth of the non-existing Russian roads.