Episode 203: January 8, 2010
I have been deluged with questions about how to pronounce the name of the year. The two main contenders are "twenty-ten" and "two thousand ten."
Before the turn of the century, most people pronounced the years by chunking the first two numbers together and the last two numbers together. So we had "nineteen fifty," "nineteen eighty-five," and so on. After the turn of the century, we started commonly pronouncing the years the long way: "two thousand one," "two thousand two," and so on.
Now it seems that some people feel more comfortable continuing the trend--going from "two thousand nine" to "two thousand ten"--while the majority of people according to polls I've seen are eager to return to the old convention, happily moving on from "two thousand nine" to the snappier sounding "twenty-ten."
Examples from Popular Usage
I was able to come up with more examples of popular usage that follow the "twenty-ten" model. We have
Prince telling us to party like it's "nineteen ninety-nine"
Bad Religion imagining a world with 10 billion people in their song "10 in 'Twenty-Ten'"
The Norman Invasion, an important historic and linguistic event, taking place in "ten sixty-six"
Columbus sailing the ocean blue in "fourteen ninety-two"
The Vancouver Olympics is being officially called "the twenty-ten Olympics"
London Olympics in two years is being officially called “the twenty-twelve Olympics”
Tchaikovsky famous composition is "the eighteen-twelve overture"
Orwell's famous book is pronounced "nineteen eighty-four"
Pearl Jam sings about "twenty-ten" in their song "Do the Evolution"
In the 1960s, Zager and Evans sang about the year "twenty-five twenty-five" in their song by the same name.
The children's TV show "Sealab 2020" is pronounced "Sealab twenty-twenty."
But we aren't without examples of popular usage following the "two thousand ten" form:
Trailers for the recent apocalyptic movie pronounce the title "two thousand twelve."
Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke's famous film follows the convention we have for the last few years, being called "Two Thousand One: A Space Odyssey," but Clark's sequel continues the pattern being called "Two Thousand Ten: The Year We Make Contact."
The song "Paddy Works on the Railroad" sings about the years "eighteen hundred and forty-one" through "eighteen hundred and forty-nine."
But I found fewer examples of this format, and the song is a much more obscure reference. In fact, hat-tip to David Crosbie for mentioning the railroad song in a comment on David Crystal's blog.
Is the Year an Amount?
One question that ran through my mind is whether the year is a number that represents an actual amount or merely a symbol more like a telephone number.
The numbering system we use for years--our calendar--was introduced by Pope Gregory XIII in 1582, which is why it's called the Gregorian calendar. Year 1 was supposed to correspond to the birth of Jesus, using a convention called the Anno Domini system. "Anno Domini" is Latin for "in the year of our Lord." The "A.D." in dates is an abbreviation for "Anno Domini", so 1582 A.D. means "1582 in the year of our Lord." Over time, the calendar system decreed by the pope was adopted as the civil calendar around the world.
So one could argue that the year really is an amount: two thousand ten years since the date people in the early church pinned as the year Jesus was born. Yet despite the religious origins, the calendar really has become such a secular thing that you could question whether it actually represents an amount any longer. The calendar is used throughout the world by Christians and non-Christians alike.
Also, we don't treat years the way we treat other big numbers. For example, if you were writing the number 2010 as an amount, it would be proper to put a comma after the 2; but nobody would ever put a comma in 2010 when it's a year.
The reason this matters is that we tend to be more flexible with the pronunciation of numbers that don't represent amounts. For example, it seems more acceptable to call zero "oh" when it isn't in a "real" number. When I was growing up in Seattle, our area code was routinely called "two-oh-six," a freeway in Los Angeles is called "the four-oh-five," and most of us would call an apartment with a one, zero, and two on the door "one-oh-two." When people were debating what to call 2008, I did research and found a number of credible sources that said it was fine to call it "twenty-oh-eight (1, 2, 3)." (It's less common, but not unheard of, for people to use "oh" for zero in words that represent amounts. You may hear "point-oh-five" for 0.05, for example.)
So it seems that years are more like symbols than amounts.
How Are Years Handled in Other Languages?
Another way to approach the question is to consider how it's done in other languages. I'm not an expert in foreign languages, but my husband took Spanish and informed me that years are always pronounced the long way according to his instructor: "one thousand nine hundred eighty-five," instead of "nineteen eighty-five," for example. I went searching for confirmation and found an online comment on the Language Log that said the same thing.
The Advantage of 'What Sounds Better'
Finally, it seems we should take human behavior and preferences into account. Let's face it: we like to make things shorter. Remember "Y2K" for the year 2000? "Twenty-ten" has three syllables whereas "two thousand ten" has four, so that gives "twenty-ten" an advantage.
David Crystal, the blogger I mentioned before who is also the author of Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language, believes more people will make the pronunciation switch in 2011. On his blog, he says, "The rhythm is an important factor . . . The more that expressions conform to an iambic pattern, the more people like it. The unstressed syllable sequence of 'sand and el' [in two thousand and eleven] won't be liked, and this will get worse when the teen-words arrive."
We'll also have all that advertising for the "twenty-ten Olympics" that is going to beat us over the head with the "twenty-ten" pronunciation.
Either Way Is Correct
After quite a bit of reading and reflection, my conclusion is that either pronunciation is correct. I'm going to call it "twenty-ten" and the Associated Press has made the same decision, but as with so many decisions we make when writing, this pronunciation question is a style choice.
Finally, I ran across a few other options people are promoting that are just plain wrong such as "twenty-oh-ten" and "two-ten," which made me think of a joke Pat and I have that goes something like this: You say "tuh-may-to," I say "tuh-mah-to." The people who say "tuh-may-ter"--they're the weird ones.
What do you think? Please leave a comment on this article if you have something to add or know how people say years in other languages. Is it true that people who speak Spanish never pronounce years with the equivalent of "nineteen eighty-five"? How about in German, French, Korean and other languages?
What Should We Call This Decade?
Finally, another question remains, one that I can't answer for you. Just as it wasn't clear what to call the last decade (The Oh-Ohs? The Aughts?, The Noughts?), it's not clear what to call this decade. Is it The Teens? The Tens? something else? Weigh in on that question too.
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