Tuesday, June 03, 2008

2010: A Vernacular Odyssey

I've been noticing a disturbing trend lately. As we start to anticipate events a couple years into the future, we are discussing years like "2010" and "2012." But when these years are bandied about in the media, I am hearing them referred to as "Two-thousand-ten" and "Two-thousand-twelve."

I've been waiting patiently for over eight years for a return to the days when we would be able to signify a year by simply stating two two-digit numbers, i.e. "Twenty-ten" and "Twenty-twelve.". And now it looks like my patience may have been in vain. I couldn't tell you why this issue holds such fascination for me, but it does. It first entered my radar screen sometime in the mid-90s when someone wrote to "Dear Abby" and asked the advice columnist to settle a bet. The reader said that when we got to the year 2000, we would pronounce the year twenty-hundred. Her friend demurred. Abby's answer was that we would pronounce the "two thousand" part of the year up through 2010, after which it would be our choice.

I thought at the time that it wouldn't really be a choice, that we would all happily go back to pronouncing years the same way we have been our entire lives (and our parents and grandparents and great-grandparents lives for that matter). What I didn't account for is how quickly new habits could become ingrained. After several years, it now feels natural to start the year with "two thousand."

So what are the drawbacks of fully embracing the paradigm shift? I suppose I could trot out Santayana. Allowing a few years of practice to elide a status quo fortified over centuries signifies a rather chilling potential for forgetfulness in the human race. On the other hand, I suppose it could be viewed as a positive that our race is able to throw off the encumbrances of tradition, no matter how engraved by habit. As I write this on a night when Barack Obama has seized the Democratic presidential nomination, I'm sure his supporters would claim the latter, while his opponent's supporters might very well argue the former. But whatever the case, we may have to wait until 2010 or 2012 to ascertain how everything will shake out.


Blogger PatrickA said...


I also find myself obsessed with this issue, and I don't know why. Heh, I guess we're just weird that way.

Anyway, from my perspective it seems very likely that most English speakers will switch (back) to reading the year as two separate numbers (19-74) by 2010. In almost every news report I've heard, they use "twenty" for years after 2009.

Heck, even Barack Obama used it in one of his speeches (he said "twenty sixteen" several times in reference to the 2016 Chicago olympic bid). And every time I use "twenty" around other people, they tend to pick it up themselves.

I think it's just a matter of time. We'll know for sure once we see commercials for 2010 model cars in mid-2009.

1:04 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home