my word of the year--for your information

Dennis Baron debaron at NTX1.CSO.UIUC.EDU
Fri Dec 17 19:22:48 UTC 1999


Is English Ready for Y2K?
by Dennis Baron

In the Spring of 1999, with the end of the millennium fast approaching,
digital clocks designed to count down to the zero hour suddenly appeared in
all the stores. These clocks guarantee that whatever is scheduled to happen
at midnight at the end of December, no one will miss it. They also remind us
that one of the great lessons of the twentieth century is relativity, for
they are not synchronized, either with Greenwich Mean Time or with one
another. Each millennium countdown clock reads a different time. Some are
seconds apart, others differ by minutes, and I even saw one that was a
couple of months behind. Depending on which clock you buy, your millennium
will start sooner, or later, than the official zero hour on 01-01-00. Of
course, it will start later still if you believe the new millennium doesn't
begin until New Year's Day in 2001, but in that case I wouldn't advise
buying one of these clocks.
At the end of 1998 I predicted that the word of the year for 1999 would be
millennium. For the last few years it has seemed obvious that we were
turning our attention to the grand and awesome events one associates with
the coming of a new millennium: whether we were looking for a fresh start,
the end of the world, or just a rollicking good time, the millennium
promised to fulfill our hopes, our fears, our dreams.
But I was wrong. Looking forward to next year has been replaced in our
consciousness by the fear that our computers will turn on us when the
countdown reaches zero. The Y2K bug which prompts this fear results from the
practice of writing the year in computer code using only its last two
digits. Thus programs where 1999 is written 99 may go awry on January 1 when
the year becomes 00, which computers may read as 1900, not 2000. One
nightmare scenario has us waking on New Year's Day cold and in the dark. The
power company's computers will think it's 1900 and try to light our homes
with gas and heat them with coal. Even once essential services are restored,
we could find ourselves owing a century's worth of overdue library fines.
And we shouldn't expect to get money to pay those fines from our ATM,
because that too will fail.
My Word of the Year for 1999 is Y2K. My bank insists that it is Y2K ready,
and some people are convinced that January 1 will be a big technological
yawn, that the only things that will go wrong are the things that always go
wrong. The power will go out if there's a New Year's Day snow storm, like
the one last New Year's in Chicago. Ten percent of all ATM's fail on a
regular basis no matter what year it is. And if you do owe the library big
time, they'll settle for ten cents on the dollar rather than turn your
account over to a collection agency.
Nonetheless, preparing for Y2K has been on everyone's mind. Even Italy,
which doesn't depend on computers as much as other countries do, is getting
worried. The Italians will halt all trains at 11:30 on New Year's Eve. Train
travel will resume one hour later, at 12:30 a.m. on Jan. 1. During the hour
when the trains are still, attendants will serve champagne to the passengers
to make up for the inconvenience, and to numb them in case the trains don't
reboot as planned thirty minutes into the year 2000.
Concerns over the potential for massive systems failure cause me to bring up
the more serious question: My bank may be ready for what comes, but is the
English language Y2K ready? What if people wake up on January first with
nothing to say? Will that be the result of the dreaded Y2K glitch, or just a
sign that they are incredibly hung over?
Whatever its state of readiness today, English may not have been Y1K ready a
thousand years ago. The nineteenth-century writer Thomas DeQuincey
characterized Old English*the form of English which greeted the year 1000*as
a language of some six to eight hundred words, "most of which express some
idea in close relation to the state of war."
In order to make English suitable for the modern world of the 1000's, it had
to have an upgrade, which the French provided by defeating the English at
the Battle of Hastings in 1066, filling all the gaps in our language with
imported French words. Of course the Angles and the Saxons didn't
necessarily consider French an improvement, but in the end the English
vocabulary grew from its original modest size*considerably larger than
DeQuincey's 800 word estimate*to the nearly half a million words recorded in
today's unabridged dictionaries.
What sort of upgrade will English need to meet the challenges of the new
millennium? Having soaked up French, will it turn to Chinese? Spanish?
Finnish? Computerspeak to fill in the blanks? Or will English shrink,
falling back on itself like a supernova on its way to becoming a black hole?
Considering the effect of Y2K on our current discourse, it's conceivable
that people a thousand years from now will characterize the English of 1999
as having an unusually small number of words, "most of which express some
idea in close relation to the state of computer collapse."
The turn of the millennium is affecting English, not just with the
prominence of Y2K, but with a new set of millennial product names as well:
There's "The Millennium Countdown Screen Saver," $19.95, so you can watch
the count down to your computer's melt down (for best results, order before
midnight). Cheerio's has introduced the first limited-edition cereal,
Millenios, which will be available only until January. Millenios, dropping
one of the n's no doubt because their spell checker had fallen victim to the
Y2K bug, is "The official cereal of the millennium" (note the correct
spelling here)-and consists of sweetened 0's and 2's. The Millenios box
suggests that you use it as a time capsule when you finish the cereal*or you
could recycle it along with the mixed paper. But my favorite millennial
product is Y2K Firewood, "guaranteed to burn on January 1, 2000."
Is English ready for Y2K? Are you? The real pessimists whose web pages
scream out reminders that our computers are doomed think it's already too
late. But if you're worried about the fate of English, then I suggest this
simple way to prepare for the worst: stop talking at 11:30 on New Year's Eve
and start drinking champagne. Try talking again an hour later, on New Year's
Day. If the phones are still working, maybe you could email to let me know
whether you're still speaking English or you've suddenly upgraded to

Dennis Baron is professor of English and linguistics and head of the
Department of English at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Dennis Baron, Head                       debaron at
Department of English                            217-333-2390
University of Illinois                          fax: 217-333-4321
608 S. Wright St.        http:www/
Urbana, IL 61801

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