The Data Debate (OR ♫ You say po-data and I say po-data ♬)

Dah-ta, day-ta or datta? As a word-loving Antipodean who doesn’t mind a stoush with many similarly-natured British friends I have gotten myself into this argument more times than any other. (A close second is the Great Scone Debate which has, on occasion turned into a bun fight. Sorry.)

The Data Debate came up most recently at a barbecue. We had previously been politely discussing ways of saying ‘oral’ versus ‘aural’. (For what it’s worth, oral as in ‘coral’ and aural as in ‘choral’ is where I stand – and interestingly, this one divided the Brits too).

Then I was reminded of it again yesterday while listening to the BBC World Service. More on that in a moment though. According to the Wiktionary entry (which is by no means the ultimate reference, only a good place to start) the UK/US pronunciation is /ˈdeɪtə/ (which is DAY-tuh to you and… well, not me). It lists /ˈdætə/ as the secondary US pronunciation DATT-uh (or ‘dadder’ to my ear). Finally /ˈdɑːtə/  familar to me as DAH-tuh and Wiki says this is not only the Australian pronunciation, it is also UK Formal. Just a moment, “UK Formal”? What might this strange dialect be? Is this what the proper people speak? Are these the tones that roll off the tongue of Her Majesty, perchance? Formal as opposed to common?

Before you start hyperventilating, the OED lists DAY-tuh (ˈdeɪtə) with both British and American audio; then DAH-tuh (ˈdɑːtə) with just the British audio; followed by DATT-uh (ˈdætə) spoken like a Yank. So how did Australians end up with the same pronunciation as formal British, while popular British shares that of most Americans?

I took to the word-nerdery forums to investigate (yes, that is technically fora, but I can’t bring myself to go there – some terms need to be allowed to die gracefully). It gets very personal on  with some implying it’s a function of one’s intelligence or level of education, but I was more interested in the historical references. One poster says he first heard it discussed in an IBM class in May 1965:

Pronunciation of the word, “data,” has morphed since data processing technology emerged in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s. I still remember the expression used by our instructor: “You put “DAY TA” in “DAT” computer.

Ain’t dat da truth? Over on the forum, moderator James M gives another clue:

Back in 1935, in the song “Why Shouldn’t I?”, Cole Porter rhymed “data” with “persona grata”. In other words, he used the “ah” sound for the first syllable.

So there was once a time when classically-trained American musicians also used what has now been left to the Formal British and Australians to defend! Could it be that the popular British shift in usage from DAH-tuh to DAY-tuh only happened when Silicon Valley started to call the shots?
But back to yesterday’s radio broadcast. It was about computer-based market trading and one of the contributors was the UK’s Chief Scientific Adviser, Sir John Beddington, who (you’ve guessed this already) referred to DAH-tuh. I have to admit I was surprised, but it does support the assertion that DAH-tuh remains the ‘formal British’ pronunciation (do you get a more formal British example than that?)
The reason so many of my English friends get so self-righteous about this is they believe there are only two pronunciations: British and American. They’re wrong. As we’ve seen there are three recognised pronunciations, one of which is original (DAH-tuh) and mostly forgotten except by formal British speakers, Australians and Cole Porter fans.
Another, which most Brits mistake for the first, is a modern colloquial North American bastardisation (DATT-uh) and the third, a not-so-lazy bastardisation that was pimped out by Silicon Valley in the Swinging Sixties (DAY-tuh). No wonder my friends take such offence when I draw the origins of their choice to their attention <evil chuckle>.While there are so many examples of Australians taking the low-road of pronunciation and abandoning the mother-tongue for an American equivalent (PROH-ject, SKED-yool and the very worrying Bushism NU-cu-lar) it seems the opposite is true in this case. Australians dutifully copied our British forebears and learned DAH-tuh by rote, but by the time the information society had kicked into overdrive, average Brits had been so indoctrinated by their cousins across the pond, they had abandoned their own very proper pronunciation for one which probably sounded a bit cooler, at the time.Thankfully though, DAH-tuh remains correct and well-utilised in Ol’ Blighty, at least by those who know.

Let’s just accept no one wants to go around saying ‘datums’ which is the other accepted plural form of datum, so admit defeat for once and for all.

How do you say it? Where did you learn it? Bring it on!

For the Trekkies, I’ll leave you with Commander Data’s take on it:

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