Trick question: How to spell 1999? Numerals: Maybe the Roman Empire fell because their computers couldn't handle calculations in Latin.

Sun Journal

December 27, 1998|By Michael Stroh | Michael Stroh,Sun staff

If you thought solving the year 2000 computer glitch was going to be tricky, wait till you hear about the year 1999 problem.

Never heard of it? Neither had Marietta Nelson -- who now wishes she hadn't.

A reference librarian at the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Gaithersburg -- one of two official U.S. timekeepers -- Nelson routinely fields queries from people wondering how to correctly express times and dates.

Last month, the Miss Manners of chronology opened her e-mail and found a doozy: How do you write the year 1999 in Roman numerals?

Should it be the windy MDCCCCLXXXXVIIII?

The economical MCMXCIX?

Or the snappy MIM?

Finding the answer to this question would lead her on a strange journey to the roots of a mysterious historical holdout. After all, Latin may be dead, but the seven Roman numerals -- I, V, X, L, C, D, and M -- live on in odd corners of the planet.

For millions of school children, Roman numerals are an academic rite of passage. "It's one of those things that children need to know -- kind of like we study dinosaurs," says Edward Holmes, chair of the elementary-education department at Towson University.

They lend dignity to clock faces and the cover of the New York Times, and a quotient of cool to computer chips such as Intel's Pentium II processor. They enumerate popes and kings, Olympic games and Super Bowls. Hollywood has long inscribed film copyright dates in Latin. Builders chisel Roman numerals into cornerstones and monuments.

Thus, while the year 1999 Roman numeral problem (or "Y2K-1" as some are calling it) won't result in railroad wrecks or bank failures, it could result in messy, nonstandard usage. For the researchers at NIST, who thrive on precision, this is clearly a disaster waiting to happen.

When officials called the Motion Picture Association of America and the American Institute of Architects, they found that neither organization had an action plan for dealing with the year 1999 crisis.

"The people who use these Roman numbers don't have long to make up their minds, and they haven't even thought about it," Nelson snaps.

Yet those who seek information on Roman numerals will find a frustrating lack of it. In fact, the closest thing to a scholarly work on the subject over the past half-century was a 1996 children's book about using Roman numerals to count pigs.

Nelson consulted the venerable Chicago Manual of Style (whose editors also received a call or two about the year 1999 conundrum). Nothing there. Then she turned to the Random House Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, which displayed the year written in Roman numerals, but nothing more contemporary. In desperation, she dug out a 1911 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica.

"It tells you everything you'd want to know about Roman numbers," she says.

Except how to write the year 1999.

"There is no authority on Roman numerals," Nelson was eventually forced to conclude. "There are a lot of theories and opinions and history about how to write them. But to find the date actually written down this is the problem."

Roman-numeral experts, such as there are, disagree on the best way to resolve the issue. In fact, scholars say the rules children learn in class today are actually 20th-century conventions, and not necessarily the rules Romans used. For example, children today learn to write the number 9 as IX, which translates as one subtracted from 10. It's a lot more compact than VIIII, which represents 5 plus 4.

"In the earlier period [the Romans] would have spelled out literally everything," says Brian Rose, associate professor of classical architecture at the University of Cincinnati. So Julius Caesar, were he alive today, would date his 1999 checks MDCCCCLXXXXVIIII.

Rose also notes that some of the symbols we use today, such as "M" for 1,000 and "C" for 100, were not widely accepted in antiquity.

Even the Romans weren't good at Roman numerals. They frequently broke the few rules they had. London journalist and Roman number expert Paul Lewis notes that visitors to the Colosseum in Rome will find Gate 29 labeled XXVIIII, whereas today's schoolchildren would likely use XXIX. Just around the corner, however, Gate 44 is not XXXXIIII but XLIIII, a hybrid of old Roman spelling and modern usage.

Later builders were even more eccentric. When renovators added a gilded wooden ceiling to Rome's Sant' Agnese fuori le Mura church in 1606, they carved the unorthodox date MCCCCCCVI (as opposed to the neat MDCVI).

Rare-book collectors are all too familiar with such eccentricities. Early printers "did strange things, things the Roman never did," says Christopher Handy, an authority on rare books who works in Indianapolis. Some of the Roman numerology they used was the result of creativity. More often, he says, it was ignorance.

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