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.”

millennios boxThe 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 Italian?

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