Jul 302009

A curious issue emerged as I was writing some grammar notes today.

We generally pronounce years before 2000 in two parts. So 1999 = ‘nineteen ninety-nine’

But when the century turned, we began talking of thousands. So 2008 = ‘two thousand (and) eight.’

We don’t do that when we’re talking about previous centuries. So 1908 is usually ‘nineteen oh eight’ rather than ‘nineteen hundred (and) eight’.  

So how are we going to pronounce the next decade?

I thought I’d ask a few folks and emailed around. I discovered that Brits include the ‘and’ in the ‘thousand’ expressions and Americans usually don’t – no surprises there. But in my teeny survey, there was a mix when it came choosing between:
a. Two thousand (and) ten
b. Twenty ten



So currently two systems are in operation. Should we tell students to take their pick? I’m not sure that’s helpful because one’s bound to win. Think of 2001. It’s ‘two thousand and one’. ‘Twenty oh one’ is not an acceptable alternative.

A situation of ‘no change’ would be speakers  maintaining the one-number current system. But we have Brits talking about the twenty twelve Olympics and Obama’s 10 year health reforms are discussed in relation to twenty twelve/thirteen/etc. There’s language change in operation here and the movement’s back towards the two-number system.

So happy twenty ten folks, and if you’d like to add your voice…Click Here to take survey and I’ll update the stats later.

 Posted by at 10:13 pm

  4 Responses to “Changing years”

  1. I think you are right that there is a language shift at work but I was wondering if there was an extra shift likely.

    Accepted usage seems to be twenty ten etc etc but will that mean that at some future date we will talk back and say twenty oh one etc – ie that the first 10 years (twenty hundred to twenty nine) will fall in line with the rest of time once we get used to the new ways?

  2. Oh that would be interesting. I kinda doubt it it though, because if that was our human inclination, why didn’t we do it at the time? But we can’t be sure.

    Wikipedia says David Crystal:
    ‘has predicted that the change of pronunciation to “twenty X” will occur in 2011, as “twenty eleven”, explaining that the way people pronounce years depends on rhythm, rather than logic. Crystal claims that the rhythm or “flow” of “two thousand (and) ten”, beats that of “twenty ten”, but the flow of “twenty eleven” beats “two thousand (and) eleven”. Alternatively, Ian Brookes, editor-in-chief of Chambers Dictionary, suggests the change will occur in 2013 (as 2012 is often referred to as “two thousand and twelve”)’

    I wonder when they made those predictions, and whether they’d want to update them now.

  3. You may be right – why didn’t we do it at the time?
    But, i find myself wondering what happened before.
    When it was 1899 did folk see “see you next year in nineteen hundred?
    And what happened in the year 999? Did they say , see you in two years in ten o one?
    Or did they change it after ten sixty-six?
    Seems we might be able to change retrospectively, we did with our ideas about the flatness of the world!
    Incidentally i had a student the other day who said next year, 2K ten.
    It sounds quite good too.

  4. Ah yes. I seem to remember ‘Two k’ being suggested as an alternative for 2000 back the late ninties too.

    ‘Twenty thousand (and) ten’ looks a likely candidate for retrospective change – I can imagine us looking back and thinking ‘That was a funny way to say it’.

    Incidentally, if David Crystal’s right about the rhythm and ‘flow’ in 2010, I wonder if there might a BrE and AmE difference. A ‘Twenty’ is likely to be a ‘twenny’ over here.

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