As Time Goes By

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Starting in the early 1990s, I was increasingly asked at the BBC how we should be pronouncing the names of the years following 1999. Until then, there was only one way of naming the years: by grouping the numbers in twos, i.e. 1899 was eighteen ninetynine, or, in the case of the last year of a century, by saying, for example, nineteen hundred. The choice for the future appeared to be between two thousand and twenty hundred, and then two thousand and one and twenty oh one, etc.
For 2001, I always thought that two thousand and one was inevitable, as that was the title of the Stanley Kubrick film from the 1960s, and for over thirty years it had been pronounced like that, but the rest of the decade would have to wait until we got there. The oddity was 2000, which was (and is) rarely called two thousand, and never twenty hundred. The usual pronunciation is the year two thousand, and very often the words “the year” precede “2000″ in writing as well.
Charlotte Green was, I think, unique among BBC newsreaders and radio announcers in calling the subsequent years twenty oh …, and this habit was questioned on Radio 4′s Feedback (BBC domestic radio’s ‘listeners’ letters’ programme). But early in 2006, she succumbed to the adverse criticism, and started to say two thousand and … like all her colleagues.
Interestingly, for years following 2009, we hear much more the twenty oh … style, and I suspect that at New Year 2010, we shall start to hear this regularly.
It is very disappointing that Charlotte received hate mail for this pronunciation. There was nothing wrong in English terms with the style she had adopted, and the British public should be more tolerant. However, I know from bitter experience that there is nothing that makes British people more angry and abusive than a perceived mispronunciation.
In the case of year pronunciations, the French have always had two styles, and as a student of French at secondary school, I was made aware of this very early on: 1968 is either mille neuf cent soixante-huit, or dix-neuf cent soixante-huit. Why should English be restricted to a single way? There’s more than one way of skinning a cat!

2 Comments

  1. On a pedantic note, “mille neuf cent soixante-huit” should be spelt “mil neuf cent soixante-huit”. Don’t ask me why!

  2. Nigel is quite right – I should have checked against a French dictionary before posting.

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