COLUMN

Language problems on Moose Alley

Moose keep getting killed on Maine roads because maybe they can’t read the signs, but who knows for sure, eh?

CHARLES GORDON October 10 1988
COLUMN

Language problems on Moose Alley

Moose keep getting killed on Maine roads because maybe they can’t read the signs, but who knows for sure, eh?

CHARLES GORDON October 10 1988

Language problems on Moose Alley

COLUMN

CHARLES GORDON

There is an area in Maine known as “Moose Alley.” It runs 80 km south from the Canadian border and it includes many moose. At last count, there were as many as seven moose per square mile, but the last count may have been optimistic, at least from the point of view of the moose. Cars keep running into them.

When it was brought to the attention of the state authorities that cars were running into moose, the state authorities did what authorities always do. They put up signs to warn the motorists about the moose. But the carnage did not abate. There are two possible explanations for that. One is that the moose cannot read the signs. But who knows that for sure, eh?

The other explanation, one put forward by game wardens in Maine, is the fact that the signs are English and the motorists are not. The game wardens say that as many as 98 per cent of the car-moose encounters involve French-speaking drivers from Quebec.

Will Maine do anything about it? It appears not. Unlike Canada, Maine lacks a history rich in disputes over language. Putting aside moose for the moment—which is not always easy—people get hurt in Canada all the time over language. Because Maine’s history is not rich in disputes over language, Maine refuses to admit that the words are causing a problem. “We think the warning sign itself is more noticeable than perhaps the message that you see,” a state official said.

“The first thing you see,” he said, “is the color of the sign, and the second thing is the shape of the sign, and the third thing is the actual message on the sign.” It was his belief that the warning message is proclaimed by the color and the shape of the sign, and that if French-speaking motorists see enough of them, “they will know there is some kind of wild animal crossing or something.”

Charles Gordon is a columnist with The Ottawa Citizen

Moose keep getting killed on Maine roads because maybe they can’t read the signs, but who knows for sure, eh?

The Moose Alley situation is the type that delights enemies of language—not enemies of French or enemies of English, but enemies of language. Call them EOLs. Their solution for any problem of communication is to eliminate words altogether and substitute pictures—stick figures, circles, triangles, arrows pointing in different directions, all of them apparently meaning something.

EOLs have been remarkably successful in the past few years. It is possible now on a commercial airplane to find in the pocket of the seat in front of you a card that totally confuses you, without using a single word in any known language, on every single one of the plane’s safety procedures. And it is due to one of the more notable successes of the EOLs that you can no longer run an elevator intelligently. We all want to be able to run elevators intelligently, yet we can’t because words have been banned from elevators, and no one can figure out which picture means “Open door” and which picture means “Close door.” Many a briefcase has been squashed because of that. Many a busy businessman has missed his floor.

More recently, EOLs have gone into the tourist landmark business, putting up pic-

tures that are supposed to indicate points of interest. The picture on the sign in Ottawa, a kind of stylized steeple, could be the Parliament Buildings, could be any number of churches, but is, in fact, a representation of the new National Gallery. There are words to that effect on the sign, if you stop your car and walk up to the back of the sign, where the words are printed in small letters. But you can’t do that because there are signs saying “No stopping.” Actually, they don’t say “No stopping,” they show the outline of a stop sign with a line through it.

Many other examples exist of the art of the wordless sign-maker, and every person has his favorites—the buckle-your-seat-belt sign that looks like something exploding, the train that looks like an electric razor. But at least no one is confused because they don’t understand the language. They are just confused because they don’t understand the signs.

Assuming the powers that be in Maine cannot see their way clear to warn drivers in French about the proximity of moose, would the enemy-of-language approach work any better? The experience of Newfoundland is instructive here.

That province also has a problem with moose on the highway. The extent of the problem is demonstrated in Terra Nova National Park, through which the Trans-Canada Highway runs. Signs about moose were put up. But the signs did not say “Moose.” Instead, the signs were life-size silhouettes of moose, placed just off the highway, the reasoning being that drivers, alerted to the presence of moose by the signs, would also be educated by the signs into knowing what to look for.

It was a good idea, but it caused another problem. The moose silhouettes frightened drivers in a way that words would not have. Drivers, taught by their mothers about sticks and stones, know that words will never hurt them, but there are no children’s rhymes about giant moose cutouts in the bushes beside the road.

Something had to be done about the moose silhouettes frightening drivers. The solution adopted was to outline the silhouettes in white or bright orange. Drivers, upon catching their first glimpse of a moose outlined in white or bright orange, would know that it was not real, since no self-respecting moose would stand still long enough for someone to paint a dotted line around it.

But then, you can never be too certain. Enemies of language have made mistakes before, which is why so many men are found in women’s washrooms and vice versa. It was possible that tourists would still be frightened by moose silhouettes and go racing off the Rock, bringing to the mainland tales of orange-colored moose and ruining the tourist trade. There was only one solution. Signs are now up at entrances to the park. The signs have words on them. The words are “Moose silhouettes ahead.”

Enemies of language have met their match.