Right Time to Count out the Sceptics

When does the millennium really start? Keith Rankin dips into history to try to put the matter to rest.

Dialogue, NZ Herald, 28 December 1999

Now that the year 2000 is nearly upon us, I fear that the millennium experience will be soured by the party-poopers who insist that the present millennium doesn't end until the end of next year.

The claim that the next millennium begins in 2001 is often expressed in the name of authoritative people such as mathematicians and historians. As a graduate in both economic history and maths, I find the 2001 argument to be unconvincing.

The party-poopers' argument can be wholly stated in one short sentence: "There was no year zero." My responses are "who says?" and "so what?"

Why turn to ancient scripture to resolve this question? We can define the millennium changeover in accordance with our own conventions.

The modern calendar is simply an odometer. We have public holidays on January 1 and January 2 every year for no reason other than to celebrate the odometer ticking over. New Year is more significant at the end of a decade, when at least two digits of the odometer tick over. A four-digit tickover would seem to be worth a week's holiday.

The party-poopers appear to be claiming that the century ends one year after the end of the decade. That makes no sense to a mathematician. Alternatively, they are claiming that the year 2000 is in the 1990s and that the Treaty of Waitangi was signed in the 1830s. I don't recall many voices in 1990 claiming that that year belonged to the 1980s.

From a 1999 perspective, the present millennium began on January 1,1000 and the millennium before that began at the beginning of the year before AD1, whatever we wish to call that year.

Nobody with any authority in history ever said there was no year zero. The AD (anno domini) calendar system that we use was created in the year we now know as 531, in the correspondence of a Christian monk, Dionysius Exiguus. In the Roman calendar of Exiguus' time, the year was AD247 (anno diocletiani).

Soon after the Roman millennium (Rome was founded in 753BC), the emperor Diocletian wound the Roman odometer back so that the first year of his own reign would be called year 1.

Two hundred and forty-seven years later, Exiguus wound the odometer forward in a simple but effective act of protest. Diocletian had killed many Christians. Exiguus resented commemorating him through the dating system. The Coptic Christians of Egypt, however, still use Diocletian's calendar. For them the year 2000 is 1716 "in the Era of the Martyrs."

Exiguus' dating protest was discovered by the English monk Bede and adopted in his History, and taken in the ninth century to the court of Charlemagne - emperor, in effect, of Western Europe - by scholars trained by Bede.

Exiguus never said there was no year zero. Nor did he invent the BC dating system. BC (before Christ) is an English language expression adopted by French astronomer Denis Petau in 1627. If anyone is to blame for the confusion it is Petau. He called the year before AD1 1BC. He could have called it zero. Yet despite his BC nomenclature, Petau did not assert that there was no year zero. There is no reason why the year that we commonly call 1BC cannot also be called ADO.

The common sense thing to do is what we have already done. At Apec, President Clinton said that the new millennium begins at the beginning of next year. Tony Blair says the same thing. So did Sir William Birch in his 1999 budget speech. These people all have more authority than Denis Petau ever had.

The dating conundrum can only be resolved through common sense and popular usage, and not by ancient scriptures. We have taken the four-digit shift of the yearly odometer as the moment that the year, decade, century and millennium change. By dint of these realities of our digital age, the new millennium is just a few days away, and all previous millennia must take our millennium as their reference point.

Who knows what will be the case in 1000 years' time? People then may have new dating norms. The odometer may be rewound once more. (Indeed, Pol Pot tried to make 1975 year zero. And some people in New Zealand like to think of 1984 as year zero.) So what? It will be the prerogative of our descendants to celebrate their millennium in accordance with their conventions, not ours.

For Christians, the year 2000 is closer to the bimillennial anniversary of Christ's birth than is 2001. That's just another reason why we should have no qualms about accepting next year as belonging to the new millennium.

The millennium is an event which has little more than novelty value for most people. I think we should pay more attention to decades. They structure our individual lives and our social histories. Happy new decade.

Keith Rankin is an Auckland economist.

Letters in Response

A matter of ages

I put to Keith Rankin the following situation:

suppose I was born on January 1 of the year 1. So I turned 1 year of age on January 1 of the year 2. How old am I on January 1 of the year 2000? It seems to me that I will be 1999.

Rosa Gaete
Mt Eden

In his dissertation on the millennium conundrum, Keith Rankin has omitted the crux of the matter. The Romans, who devised both the Julian and Gregorian calendars, named the years with ordinal numbers which eventually came to be written in abbreviated form.

We use the same slick practice when applying ordinal numbers to days of the month, letter- boxes and All Black jerseys. Zero is not included as a number in this system.

Numbers used for labelling purposes can only be ordinals and "year 2000" is simply an alternative way of representing the 2000th year, which will be the final one in the second millennium.

Hugh Wilson


Rejoinder (not submitted for publication)

Rosa Gaete and Hugh Wilson both present the same old "there was no year zero" argument.

My answer to Ms Gaete is "so what"? Persons who had their first birthdays on 1 Jan 1AD would have their 2000th birthdays on 1 Jan 2000 if they were still alive. From our perspective, the millennium began 1 year before 1 Jan 1AD.

Hugh Wilson touches on the important differences between cardinal and ordinal numbers. It is true that the Roman conceived the calendar in what we today call ordinal numbers (eg first, second ...). However, we use the years in our daily lives as cardinal numbers (eg 0,1,2 ...). Odometers display cardinal numbers. Our ages are cardinal numbers. Understood as cardinal numbers, the millennium is 1 Jan 2000. Understood as ordinal numbers, it is 1 Jan 2001. My central argument is that contemporary usage should prevail.

It would be a mistake however to think that, at the turn of the first millennium AD (or at the Roman millennium in 248AD), common usage was much different from what it is now. Using Roman numerals, the big event was the switch in the odometer from CMXCIX to M. That was a much more millennial event to most people than the switch from M to MI.

Re Mr Wilson's point about the months, and the All Blacks' jerseys, I can give a counterexample; the 24 hour clock. The clock is interesting because we can actually see in our lifetimes the transition from an ordinal clock (in which the first hour of the day was given the number 12 rather than 0) to the cardinal clock with which the modern automated world could not do without. Another interesting example is the days of the week. The seventh day is actually Saturday, which we label in airline timetables as number 6. The first day is Sunday - the day of the sun - which we may well come to label 0 but which we still label 7 for the same reason that the 12-hour clock labels the first hour 12.


Rankin File