US vs. European Date Notation

Paul Hill pHill at
Tue Feb 9 18:29:49 UTC 1999

Markus Kuhn wrote:

> May be someone on this list has some insight about this topic:
> A journalist of the Wall Street Journal has contacted me as part of his
> research for a feature article about date notations. He noted that more
> and more Americans now start to use the European day, month, year
> notation instead of the traditional month, day, year, and he now
> realizes that thanks to ISO 8601 all this is moving into the wrong
> direction anyway.

Assuming you meant that the reporter thought that ISO 8601 is the wrong
direction, I would say this is consistent. The reporter is probably a word
person.  In European languages word order is left to right, so it makes sense
that he would think that smallest to largest should be left to right and should
be 'correct'.  If he likes 8601, he is viewing a date as a numeric value.

ISO 8601 is number oriented.  While the standard doesn't mention 'numeric' in
title, the first sentence does.
"The scope and field of application" makes it more explicit that what they are
talking about is something which can be used in 'difference calculations' and
'combinations' and 'time intervals'.  Thus 8601 is smallest to largest _right_
to _left_ because it is numeric oriented.

This is really because of the difference between Arabic and Latin.  We write
numbers smallest to largest, right to left because Arabic is written right to
left.  Big-endian (Largest on the left) is mathematical, i.e. borrowed from
Arabic, while little-endian (Smallest on the left), is word oriented, is like
Latin, like English.

The differences of little-endian vs. big-endian have been with us since we
started using Arabic numbers.  In European languages we never worked out whether
we should read all the digits left to right or right to left.
The "teens" (i.e. the tens digit ) and the units in English are read in the
Arabic order when the tens digit is a one, but in the Latin order when it is
anything else.
Try: 113 = One hundred and Thirteen.  That is: 100 + 3 + 10.
Try: 325 = Three hundred and Twenty Five.  That is: 300 +20 + 5

Note that in Spanish only the 1st 5 'teens' are read in Arabic (numeric, right
to left) order (i.e. 11, 12, 13, 14 & 15), while the rest are read in Latin

That is probably enough on numeric vs. word order.

> He would be very interested into any pointers of the history of these
> three date notations, and actually I am quite interested as well. Why do
> Americans write dates as "December 31, 1999" while Europeans write "31
> December 1999", etc.? Why are in East Asia Bigendian dates more common?

American write dates Month day, year because that is how they (Often) say it.
Turn on the Television Evening News and they say in accepted contemporary usage:

"This is the NBC World News Tonight for February the Ninth, Nineteen hundred and
Ninety-nine." and on the screen is "February 9, 1999".

Now, as is typical with natural languages, consistency is not always in the
cards.  For example, the name of the American Independence Day is "The Fourth of
July Weekend" or "The 4th of July Holiday" or simply "The Fourth".  But if
someone spoke the date that the Declaration of Independence was signed you'd
more commonly hear: "July the 4th, Seventeen Seventy Six."   We see from these
examples, that when the words are a title, i.e. the name of the day or holiday,
it ends up in Latin/word order, when it is a date it is written as an American
date is spoken, as _two_ parts separated by a comma, _each_ in its own
Arabic/numeric order to the limits of number reading conventions already
existing in the language.

[For another example, think of FDR's speech 'the Day that will live in infamy',
which date style did he use? ]

So what is the common notation in East Asia?  You say big-endian.  Is that

Is a notation like 1999-Jan-3 possibly a normalization of the form Jan 3, 1999
as learned from the American influenced multi-nationals over the last 50 years.
Ooops, they decided to clean it up and chose a numeric orientation, just when
Europeans were all using a word orientation.  Someone should have stopped them
because that is wrong! :-)


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