January 2010 Archives

Pronouncing "2010"


A current language issue in the media that is somewhat surprising to me is "How do we pronounce 2010?" In one sense it's not too surprising because we are at a point where I suspect people's internal grammars are either confused or saying it's time to switch to a new pattern.

The Grammar Tipping Point

In general, the structure for reciting years in English has been to split the century and the year into 2 parts. For example:

  • 1776 = seventeen+seventy-six
  • 1865 = eighteen+sixty-five
  • 1984 = nineteen+eight-four

This pattern even holds for older centuries including 1066 (ten+sixty-six), 1215 (twelve+fifteen) and trivially 695 (six+ninety-five). The only time that it doesn't hold is when we refer to a part of the century from year 00-09. Even in the 20th century, 1900 was "nineteen-hundred" and 1909 was usually "nineteen oh nine" and usually NOT "nineteen+nine".

The same is true for this century. Everyone agreed that 2000 was "two thousand". Skipping ahead to the 22nd century for a moment, I suspect most speakers would agree that if 1909 is "nineteen oh nine", then 2109 is "twenty-one oh nine". However, because we are also at the beginning of a millennium as well as a century, the "thousand" use was maintained for 2001-2009 in this century - hence "two thousand and two" for 2002 and NOT "twenty oh two".

But now that we are in 2010, speakers are deciding whether to continue the use of thousand or switch to the more usual "twenty+ten" pattern. I suspect that the "20+" use will eventually win out because "twenty+76" for 2076 is more regular and much shorter than "two thousand and 76".

Still Surprised

Despite the fact that 2010 is a big year in year-naming grammar, I am surprised at the amount of confusion. Even though we haven't BEEN in 2010 or after, we have been TALKING about it. Future years come up frequently in science fiction (e.g. the 90s TV show Cleopatra 2525 which had a theme "In the year twenty-five twenty-five"), so many of us had an idea of how we should refer to the 21st century and beyond.

But even if someone (e.g. a confused journalist) is not a sci-fi buff, he or she should have been hearing references to future Olympic games (e.g. 2010 in Vancouver, 2012 in London), future elections or even future car models. I am surprised that the actual arrival of 2010 was such a shock to the grammar.

I can't tell if it's a processing issue (like the shock of dating checks with "21..." instead of "20...") or it's just that people needed the comfort of an "official" media standard. In this case though, we've had a standard all along.

The next interesting question is if we've been living in the "Aughties" in the past ten years. It actually sounds very exciting.

Late Christmas 2009 Observation from Binghamton


So...this Christmas break I decided to visit a college friend currently living in Binghamton NY. But before I got there, I had to stop of at the local stitching supply store in nearby Endicott NY. As I was standing around looking at blackwork embroidery patterns, I heard something resembling the following sentence:

Has anyone did that pattern yet?

As you can see that irregular past participle done of Standard English was replaced by the past tense did (also an irregular). I was glad I was behind the speaker because I did a linguistic double take I hadn't done in years. My friend later confirmed that this was somewhat common, noting that it "drove her crazy."

A Google search of "have did" turned up a quote from hockey player Marc Savard who claimed "Sweet Caroline might have did it." Savard was born in Ottawa, which may make this feature a Great Lakes or U.S. Canadian border feature.

I will say that there is a tradition in English dialects of conflating the past tense and past participle. First, for most verbs, the past tense and past participle are formed with the same -ed ending. It's only a subset of irregular verbs like do (did/done), see (saw/seen), eat (ate/eaten), break (broke/broken) that maintain all 3 forms distinctly. Even some irregulars like buy (bought/bought) have merged the past and past participle.

There has also been a tendency to change a formerly irregular past participle to a regular one (e.g. molten > melted). In modern Standard English, speakers generally say "The ice has melted" (not *The ice has molten). The old past participle is now reserved only for hot melted substances that can burn you (e.g. molten lava, molten sugar)...However, most dialects have maintained the did/done distinction.

Interestingly, there are U.S. dialects which have lost the done/did distinction but kept done and lost did (see "books i done read") Americans will know that this is associated with non-Standard Southern and African-American forms and thus generally satirized. However, looking at this example I am realizing that done has not only replaced did but also have as the auxiliary of a perfective construction. In this case, all bets are off.

In any case the "have did" vs "done" changes show that dialects find multiple solutions to the same question - do we really have to both a past tense and a past participle form if they are only found in a few irregular verbs?

Another Year...Another Word of the Year (and Decade)


Once a year, the Linguistic Society of America convenes in its annual conference, and at that meeting, the American Dialect Society votes on the "Word of the Year". And once the year, major news outlets in the U.S. announce this "word". For the record, this year the "Word of the Year" is tweet (i.e. sending a message on Twitter), and the "Word of the Decade" is Google (i.e. searching for something on Google).

I think both choices are entirely appropriate, and accurately reflect the rapid spread of different Internet technologies. Personally, I had never heard of Google until early January 2000 (before that it was all Alta Vista and Yahoo). And now...it's a verb. Wow.

But I also had a more interesting revelation. The main criteria (or "criterion" for the prescriptivist crowd) for selecting a word is utter cultural saturation. The OUP Blog from the Oxford University Press states it thus when announcing their own choice for Word of the Year (unfriend):

"[Unfriend] has both currency and potential longevity," notes Christine Lindberg, Senior Lexicographer for Oxford's US dictionary program. "In the online social networking context, its meaning is understood ... Unfriend has real lex-appeal."

That's the obvious part, but for me the interesting part is that a really good "Word of the Year" has to be so ubiquitous it has already become a cliche (or cliché). The reason "tweet" is such a perfect choice to me is that its slightly ridiculous (and ever so slightly nauseating) to hear on a repeated bases...just like previous winners such as "soccer mom", "sub prime", "metrosexual" and "red state/blue state/purple state". The Word of the Year is almost like a yearbook photo, one that will be humorous to revisit a few decades from now.

Ironically, the promotion of a word as "Word of the Year" may almost be a sign that it's cresting the hype curve. When you hear a tech word like "tweet" hit the nightly news, you know that Twitter has both hit the mainstream and is about its lose its hip status with the cool tech crowd. If you're not a fan of tweeting, don't worry. I predict it will fade into the background of other communication tech like phones, voice mail and answering machines. At that time, I feel we will be using it much more sensibly than we do now - no more messages about eating fries being posted in public.

That's not to say that the "Word of the Year" isn't important. This type of popular culture phenomenon is something that is notoriously track the development of. Who was the first to say "unfriend" or "Google"? Was it a programmer or a teenager online? We will probably never know, but at least we will have a record of when it hit the airwaves.

Twenty years from now, we may indeed be still using words like "Google" and "unfriend", but they will have become truly embedded into the language, like Kleenexes, faxing and Fridgidaires. Well I better sign off and tweet this blog post now.

P.S. My favorite candidate this year wasn't one I heard much - Kanye (the act of interrupting someone's speech while he or she is in the spotlight...after Kanye West's moment at the MTV Awards). Alas it was not nearly used enough to merit "Word of the Year".