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.

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