Highway Linguistics….Part 3

HIGHWAY LINGUISTICS….PART 3….I know you’ve all been transfixed by this weekend’s discussion of Southern California’s habit of prepending “the” to freeway numbers, haven’t you? So here it is: one final post with the long-awaited semi-official explanation for this phenomenon. It’s official because it appears in an academic journal, but only semi because I remain a little skeptical anyway. It’s below the fold on the off chance that you couldn’t care less about all this.

The article is called “The” Freeway in Southern California, by Grant Geyer, and it appeared as a note in the summer 2001 issue of American Speech. His story starts at about the time that LA’s original five freeways were being built in the 30s and 40s:

In about 1941, just before the completion of the first of the famous freeways, intercity traffic came into Los Angeles on the north-south axis on U.S. 99, U.S. 101, or California Route 1….Before the freeways were built, locals generally preferred the old, time-honored street or road names instead of numbers in conversation. So for ‘U.S. 99’ they said San Fernando Road because the highway followed that particular named street, as far as the distant end of “town.” Likewise, ‘U.S. 101’ was Ventura Boulevard and ‘Route 1’ was Pacific Coast Highway….Route 1 or Route 101 was not used in town.

My mother, who grew up in LA, confirms this. Within “town” (basically LA County) names were used for these routes. Outside of town, they were referred to by number. Onward:

When the federal interstate system grew up, the southern California area got its share of funding and road numbers….However, for the first 20 years of the interstate system, no one used the numerical designations….The interstate routes around Los Angeles were called the Ventura Freeway, the Hollywood Freeway, the Santa Ana Freeway, the Golden State Freeway, the San Bernardino Freeway, the Pasadena Freeway, the Glendale Freeway, the San Diego Freeway, the Santa Monica Freeway, the Harbor Freeway, the Riverside Freeway, and the Long Beach Freeway.

….The strange-sounding usage of the plus number, as in the 118, was the natural result of an amazing proliferation of new, minor interstate cutovers, extensions, and bypasses that began about 1975….[It] was even more pronounced when new major Los Angeles interstates sprang up without having any precursors and without being extensions of earlier, nonnumerical freeways. The first one I remember in this category was the 605 Freeway.

This gibes with my memory too. I-605 is officially called the San Gabriel River Freeway, but nobody ever calls it that. It’s always been the 605. Geyer goes on to say that other areas, including Northern California, also have names for their highways, “but they evidently weren’t emblazoned Bay-wide in the minds and argot of northern drivers and direction-givers.”

But southern Californians represent the archetype of the car society; they have needed that article since the dawn of the freeway. Many regions have freeways with the names: the Henry Fords and Dan Ryans come to mind. But Chicagoans don’t say the 290. Surely no other part of the country — certainly not San Francisco/Oakland — had such a long history and large quantity of nonnumerical the freeways. When the numbers arrived, the 134 Freeway and the 605 and their many newer siblings just joined people’s long, 50-year, tried-and-true list of the designations for highways.

Maybe this is the right explanation, but I’m still a little skeptical. Partly this is because Geyer’s “archetype of the car society” conclusion is the kind of pop sociology that I’m automatically suspicious of. Beyond that, though, I’ve got one serious objection along with a suggestion for further research.

My objection is that this is all pretty ad hoc. Basically, Geyer is saying that other big cities had named highways too, but they just didn’t have quite as many as LA, so the never caught on. But if all your highways have names, and that’s the original source of the, then why would it matter how many you had? You either get accustomed to referring to them by name or you don’t, and if you do, you’d be just as likely as LA to evolve to using the with a numerical designator too. But nobody else did.

More specifically, what about New York City? Like LA, it had plenty of highways before and during the construction of the interstate system, and they all had names: the Long Island Expressway, the Van Wyck, the Belt Parkway, etc. As in LA, those names are still commonly used. But unlike LA, when numerical designators are used, New Yorkers don’t prepend a the. Why?

So I’m not entirely convinced by this. However, for anyone with a ProQuest subscription and too much time on their hands, I have a research project that might move the conversation forward a bit. I spoke to my mother this evening, and she initially remembered always referring to, say, U.S. 101 as the 101. (For the section outside of LA, of course.) Upon further reflection, though, she became less sure of this. Now, outside of LA, U.S. 101 has no name, so there’s no way to refer to it except as U.S. 101 or highway 101 or the 101. This means that newspaper articles in the 30s and 40s must have referred to it by one of these designations. So which was it? Have Angelenos always referred to it as the 101, or did that practice start only at a specific point in time? If the latter, that might be a clue that Geyer is right about the becoming entrenched only in the 70s.

In any case, that’s it. Further suggestions on this vital topic are welcome, but for now that’s all we’ve got. Make of it what you will.

UPDATE: A potentially important new bit of evidence: according to Stentor Danielson, the is common in Arizona too, which suggests this habit might be a southwestern thing, not just an LA thing. As far as I know, Arizona never had a huge migration of Southern Californians, nor do they receive our radio and TV stations. But if this usage popped up anyway, maybe there’s more to this than just a purely LA habit?

UPDATE 2: Why didn’t New York pick up the “prepended the” habit too? Martin Schneider suggests that it would have been confusing: “in New York, if you say the 1 or the 3, you’re probably referring to a subway.”