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And Now For Something Relatively Frivolous

Kevin Drum has been speculating about the origins of highway names -- specifically, why numbered highways in the southwest U.S. get a "the" stuck on them, e.g. "take the 10 to Phoenix." I have no idea what the origin of this practice is, but I do have a comment on a subtle issue of framing. Most people are raising this as a matter of dialect differences between southwesterners and non-southwesterners. Under this way of thinking, "take the 10" is the southwestern translation of the northeastern phrase "take 10," and vice-versa.

I would propose that the mysterious "the"s are actually features of the highway names, properly common to all U.S. dialects. That is, the name of the road in Phoenix actually is "the 10," and it changes its name to just "10" somewhere east of here. I base this on my own experience: I grew up in the "the"-less northeast, but a couple years ago I moved to Arizona, where highways have "the"s. Initially, I referred to highways without "the." But after hearing locals talk, I took up the "the" -- but crucially, only for highways in Arizona. I am equally comfortable saying "take the 10 to the 202" when giving driving directions for Phoenix and saying "take 495 to 290" for driving directions in Worcester, and equally uncomfortable with "take 10 to 202" and "take the 495 to the 290" (and this applies regardless of whether I'm talking to Arizonans or Pennsylvanians). Contrast this with other dialect shifts I've experienced in moving from western Pennsylvania to eastern Pennsylvania earlier in my life -- I stubbornly continue to use the pronunciation "crick" for creeks in any part of the state, and I made the change to calling all carbonated beverages "soda" no matter where they were sold. So the fact that I've taken up "the" strictly for highways in the southwest suggests that (at least for me) it's a feature of the highways themselves, not of the dialect we use to talk about them. So when I initially called it "10," I was speaking incorrectly rather than just correctly using an out-of-state dialect.


Blogger fancycwabs said...

The SAME ROAD, thousands of miles to the east, in a more civilized society, is called "I-10."

7:05 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ever since acquiring the "the" while living in SoCal, I've been trying to figure out what highway article rules I apply to new roads. I never used it in San Francisco, but I seem to be converging on "the 5" and "I-90" for Seattle (at least until I osmose other people's usage). Presumably it's because I-5 runs through LA, but San Francisco is all 80-based, and I grew up on "80" in IA.

5:20 PM  
Blogger Alon Levy said...

In New York, usually you'd refer to highways by name: "take the Henry Hudson to the GWB." In addition, subway lines do get articles: "take the 1 to 116th." Despite that, highways don't have articles, and, as Randall says, interstates are referred to as such: "I-95 is going to be clogged."

11:11 AM  

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