And as long as I'm venting a bit here, what is it with Europeans and compass points? Their road signs tend to be gloriously well designed and easy to decipher, but they never include the words north, south, east, or west. So when you get to a crossroad, all the sign tells you is that one direction takes you to, say, Chard, and the other direction takes you to Axminster. Unless you've memorized the map, or happen to be a local who doesn't really need the sign in the first place, you don't know which direction to go. (If you're lucky, one of the cities on the sign is the one you want to go to, which makes things easy. Usually it's not.) But although I might not know every town and village in the area, I always know from a quick look at a map which general direction I want to go. So why not add the words north and south here? Some sort of EU-wide directive to banish directional notation, or what?JHM writes to ask:
Does the linked article ring true to you? If it is true that road signs tend not to indicate compass direction, I find this very odd indeed (even though (in New England at least) six or seven times out of ten the posted compass direction has a very low correlation to an actual compass point).JHM often writes to ask if things that he's read about Britain ring true for me, and I think I always say "yes, it's ringing". I suppose that illustrates the extent to which we get so accustomed to things being one way that we never imagine them being another way. In this case, I have to say "yes, it rings true, but..."
When I lived in South Africa (and had a car), I don't remember ever seeing a sign on a (BrE) motorway/(AmE) highway* with a direction on it. This got me lost in the (AmE) boondocks when I needed to get from a rural hotel in the Northern Province to Swaziland. None of the signs said which way was north or east, and none indicated how to get to the major towns in the province (or to the border). Instead, at each (chiefly AmE) intersection there were signs pointing toward(s) the next town on the road. One thus needed to know every single town along one's route in order to make sense of the signs. I imagine GPS is very useful there these days.
While I don't drive in the UK, on occasions I'm a passenger for a longish car journey (Americans would usually say trip, but that tends to be reserved for shorter journeys in BrE). Initially, I was only travel(l)ing for southeastern Scrabble league matches, and thus only experienced the A-roads (trunk roads), which are so-called because they are designated by A + a number, e.g. the A27. (There are also B-roads, which are more local.) A-roads are roughly comparable to state routes, like New York State Route 31, which goes through my hometown.** But unlike the US roads, the British roads are not called by different names depending on the direction you're driving in. So, if I give you directions out of my town, I'll talk about 31 East or 31 West . A friend of our family lives on a different route, just outside the village, and her address is "[house number] Route 88 South, Newark, NY", meaning she lives on the stretch of Route 88 that lies south of Newark. (Before you think "hey, I've been to Lynneguist's hometown, note that it's not the Newark that has the big airport you've been to. That one, despite its pretensions, is not in the state of New York. My hometown doesn't have a travel agency, let alone an airport. It has apple orchards. And cows.)
In Britain, people don't talk about "the A27 West" (though Google the phrase, and you'll think me a liar; but really, no one says it! At least not with the same name-like intonation that one says "Route 31 West"). When you join the A27, the sign will tell you about upcoming towns, not whether you're going east or west. If you're on that road driving east from Portsmouth, you have to get past Chichester before you start seeing signs for Brighton, if I remember correctly. So, if you want to get from Portsmouth to Brighton, you'd better know that Chichester is on the way. You need to constantly make decisions about which town to head toward on roads like the A27, since for the most part, they are not limited-access roads with on-ramps and off-ramps. They have roundabouts (often called traffic circles in the US, but rarely seen there--though I believe New Hampshire has quite a few). Lots of them. The signs on the roundabout exits will indicate the number of the routes and some number of upcoming towns/landmarks, as in the picture below.
So far, so much like my South African experience. But then I graduated from southeastern Scrabble events to national ones, and got to be a passenger on the M-roads, the national motorways--which are more comparable to American Interstate highways. M-roads are dual-carriageways with limited access--ramps rather than roundabouts--and they tend to be used for longer journeys. When one approaches an M-road, one may see compass point names on it--except that they're not really describing the direction of the route, they're describing the destination. That is, instead of saying, for instance "M3 North", they say "The NORTH", along with whatever cities you might get to along the way. (So, in the sign here, it's not saying that Nottingham is in 'The North' so much as it's saying that this road goes to The North, and it goes to Nottingham too.) What's interesting in this picture are the (N) and (S) in parentheses/brackets after M42. You see this in places where you need to take different routes to different entrances to a motorway. Once you're on the M42 going south, there will be no signs along the way that say M42(S), whereas in the US, signs telling you what route you're on and what direction you're going in are planted regularly along the right side of the road. The reason why (M6) in this photo is in parentheses/brackets after M42(S) is to indicate that this roundabout is not taking you to the M6 but to the M42 which takes you to the M6 , which will get you to 'The S. WEST'.
Incidentally, in England people talk about the East (meaning the east of England, not 'the Orient') a lot less than the other directions. There are two reasons for this, I think. (1) There's a lot more West than East here--in that the island juts out, particularly in the Southwest. (2) London is treated (rightly or wrongly, depending on where you live) as the hub of the universe (sorry, Boston), and it's fairly eastward. So, striking out from London, there's very little to the East. Well, there's Essex (Americans: that's where Jamie Oliver is from. English folk: make it a new joke if you're going to make it). So, while you hear/see the North, the South and the West, and the Northeast/west and Southeast/west, you rarely hear about the East.
Back to the American side... as JHM notes, the directions on particular routes may bear little resemblance to the compass direction when you're on the road. Routes are not perfectly straight lines, and non-Interstate routes can involve a number of different roads that add up to a route in the right direction. For instance, if you look at the map for US Route 20, you'll see that, in spite of its status as an east-west coast-to-coast route, there's a bit in Idaho that runs north-south. Still, we'd instruct people in Idaho to take Route 20 West if they want to get to Oregon, because 20 West is, in essence, its name.
Rather than designating the different types of route by letter, American route types are distinguished by the shapes of the shields on their signs (images/links courtesy of Wikipedia):
* Highway is probably the most dialect-neutral term in the US, and can apply to various types of routes--the key is that there's no stopping and starting on a highway. On the west coast, one tends to hear freeway. For limited-access roads in/around cities, I'd say expressway. Major toll roads, run by individual states, have their own names. In New York, it's the Thruway. Several other states have turnpikes, which is sometimes shortened to pike, as in the Mass Pike--that is, the Massachusetts Turnpike.
** Two things to know about AmE regionalisms when it comes to routes:
- Some Americans say route like root, others say it like rout. I grew up with the former, but the latter sometimes creeps into my speech because of other places I've lived. These dialect survey maps indicate that the 'rout' pronunciation is more common in the South and Midwest. In a forum on Canadian English, someone named Kirk says:
About "route," I use both pronunciations of the word depending on context. For instance, I've never heard anyone say "rowt 66"...it's always "root 66" for "route 66." So, if I see an official route as in a state route I definitely pronounce it "root." When I was younger I had a paper route and I almost always pronounced it "rowt" in that context. In other, general usages of the word, I use "root" and "rowt" pretty interchangeably.My pattern and Kirk's pattern are the same. I grew up saying 'paper root', but now tend to say 'paper rout'.
- Southern Californians (and perhaps others) prefix route numbers with the, but Northeasterners like me don't. So, I'd say Take (Route) 5 but an Angeleno would say Take the 5.