What languages do the stamps in your collection speak?

Apr 29, 2021, 7 PM

By Janet Klug

Here in the United States we are used to the inscriptions on our stamps being in English.

Our neighbors in Canada recognize English and French as their official national languages. Canadian postage stamps have had bilingual inscriptions since 1927's Anniversary of Confederation stamps were issued using both the English word "Post" and the French word "Postes" (Figure 1, Scott 145, 12¢ Anniversary of Confederation).

Tunisia's first stamps were issued in 1888 when Tunisia was a French protectorate. Since most of Tunisia's population spoke Arabic, the stamps bore both French and Arabic inscriptions beginning in 1906 (Figure 2 top, Scott 34, 10-centime Plowing).

Tunisia became independent in 1956, but even today French and Arabic inscriptions both remain on the stamps (Figure 2 bottom, Scott 1410, 250-millime Traditional Clothing and Textiles).

We might think that all British stamps are inscribed in English, the language of England. That gets complicated because England is part the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, which includes Scotland, Wales, Cornwall and some islands off the coasts of England that have their own Celtic or Gaelic languages that are still used proudly.

Some of these Celtic languages can be found on British stamps.

An example is shown in Figure 3, which illustrates the 9-penny Celtic Cross at Margam Abbey in Wales stamp issued in 1969 for the investiture of Prince Charles as Prince of Wales (Scott 598). The Welsh inscription along the right ("Tywysog Cymru") translates to "Prince of Wales," which is also printed on the stamp in English.

South Africa has issued stamps with both English and Afrikaans inscriptions that can be collected as se-tenant pairs, as shown in Figure 4 (Scott 23, ½d pair of the 1926 Springbok stamp). The Afrikaans inscription gives the country name as "Suid Afrika," which clearly resembles the Dutch from which it derives. Later stamps had inscriptions in both languages, but current stamps bear only the name "South Africa" in English.

Switzerland, which is about the size of West Virginia, is a complicated country when it comes to language. There are four official languages: German, French, Italian and Romansh. Romansh is spoken by less than 1 percent of the population.

Imagine what a little postage stamp would look like if it had "Switzerland" written in all four different languages: Schweiz (German), Suisse (French), Svizzera (Italian), and Svizra (Romansh). Instead, the stamps are inscribed "Helvetia," a Latin derivation of the name of an ancient Swiss tribe called Helvetii.

But you can find some Swiss postage stamps with inscriptions in three languages, as shown in Figure 5, which pictures a stamp issued in 1979 for the International Year of the Child.

Three of Switzerland's official languages explain the stamp’s celebration: German "Jahr des Kindes," French "Annee de l'enfant," and Italian "Anno del Bambino."

Switzerland has also issued identical stamps in three different languages.

Switzerland is not unique in having stamps inscribed in three languages. Ceylon began issuing stamps in three languages in 1949.

Figure 6 shows a 75¢ stamp from Ceylon depicting an airplane flying over Ratmalana. The bottom right corner of the stamp has the country name, Ceylon, printed in English, Sinhala and Tamil. Sinhala is an especially beautiful written language in a graphic sense, with magnificent scrolling swirls.

Denmark issued two semipostal stamps in 1966 to raise money for the Red Cross. Each stamp had "Red Cross" spelled out in 32 different languages. The 80 ore+10 ore Red Cross stamp is shown in Figure 7 (Denmark Scott B36).

What about the all-English all-the-time United States? You might be surprised. A 20¢ Consumer Education coil (Scott 2005) issued in 1982 originally was designed to be in two versions, one in English and one in Spanish, because of the increasing number of Spanish-speaking people in the United States. That idea was scratched and only the English version was issued, but other foreign languages have appeared on U.S. stamps.

The forever stamp issued in 2011 for the Islamic festivals known as Eid al-Fatr and Eid al-Adha (shown at top in Figure 8, Scott 4552) has an Arabic calligraphic design of the phrase "Eid Mubarak" that translates into English as "blessed festival."

Go back to 1961 and you will find a 4¢ stamp honoring Sun Yat-Sen (Figure 8 bottom, Scott 1188). On either side of the sun symbol at the top, the stamp design bears Chinese characters that represent, in English, the Republic of China.

Are there any other examples of stamps featuring multiple languages? Examine your albums and see what you can find.