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A bilingual sign (or, by extension, a multilingual sign) is the representation on a panel (sign, usually a traffic sign, a safety sign, an informational sign) of texts in more than one language. The use of bilingual signs is usually reserved for situations where there is legally administered bilingualism (in bilingual regions or at national borders) or where there is a relevant tourist or commercial interest (airports, train stations, ports, border checkpoints, tourist attractions, international itineraries, international institutions, etc.). However, more informal uses of bilingual signs are often found on businesses in areas where there is a high degree of bilingualism, such as in areas where large concentrations of immigrants settle.
Bilingual signs are widely used in regions whose native languages do not use the Latin alphabet; such signs generally include transliteration of toponyms and optional translation of complementary texts (often into English). Beyond bilingualism, there is a general tendency toward the substitution of internationally standardized symbols and pictograms for text.
The use of bilingual signs has experienced a remarkable expansion in recent times, especially in the western world. The increase in bilingualism there has been paralleled by increases in international travel and a greater sensitivity to the needs of ethnic and linguistic minorities.
Bilingual signs first arose in places like Belgium where, because of the cohabitation of Dutch-speaking and French-speaking communities (especially in the central part of the country near Brussels), bilingualism signaled a simple willingness to accommodate all citizens equally. As a result, all street signs in the Brussels Capital Region are bilingual in Dutch and French. Another example is the German-speaking South Tyrol, which was annexed to Italy during World War I and eventually became the focus of assimilation policies (the conversion of toponyms into Italian by Ettore Tolomei, for example). In observance of international treaties, Italy was eventually compelled to acknowledge and accommodate its German-speaking citizens through the use of bilingual signs and countless other measures. The situation of the Slovene minority living in the Trieste, Gorizia and Udine provinces is very different as only in recent years are the bilingual signs visible and only in the smaller comune, although those rights are granted by international treaties.
Quadrilingual Sign at Brussels-South railway station in French, Dutch, German, and English.
A bilingual sign for tourist cars in Karaköy before Galata Bridge, Turkey
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