February 27, 2007

Tell-tale date format?

In a letter published in the New York Times on 2/26/07 (p. A24), M. A. Mohammadi, the Press Secretary in the Mission of Iran to the United Nations, attacks U.S. allegations about his country:

The United States media should not become the conduit for the systematic disinformation campaign against Iran reflected in a new wave of baseless accusations about Iranian weapons inside Iraq.

Iran flatly denies the United States' allegations aimed at deflecting attention from the failures of American policy in Iraq.

... The evidence that has been produced is preposterous (the dates on the evidence are in American date format -- month first, day second -- whereas the rest of the world does not use this format).

I don't know what the facts are for this particular evidence, but an American date format on putatively Iranian material would indeed be suspicious.

As the Wikipedia entry on "calendar date" explains, there are three systems for ordering the three components of dates:

Little endian, from smallest to largest unit: 27 February 2007; 27/2/07 or 27/2/2007.  Used in "the vast majority of the world's countries", including Iran.

Big endian, from largest to smallest unit: 2007 February 27; 2007-02-07.  The ISO 8601 standard, used in computer dates.  Also used in a dozen or so countries, notably China and Japan, sometimes coexisting with other systems.

Middle endian, starting with the month: February 27, 2007; 2/27/07 or 2/27/07.  "Used in the United States and countries with U.S. influence".

(There are also variations in the separating characters -- slash, hyphen, period, or space -- and in details of the date components.)

[Note, 2/28: In the face of an avalanche of e-mail, let me stress that this posting is NOT a survey of the world's date notations; it's entirely about just one aspect of these notations, the ordering of the three components of a date (all the other details, however fascinating, are beside the point), and the association of one of these orderings with the United States.]

So a middle-endian date would strongly suggest that the date was written by an American, not an Iranian.

[Added 2/28: Mike McMahon notes that this story broke about two weeks ago and supplies links to the evidence in question, including the marking "5-31-2006", and to the Wikipedia page on the controversy.  (Mike Brown now observes that this marking is not obviously a date: "it could as easily indicate it's the 31st batch produced in plant 5 during 2006, or the 5th batch of the 31st design. Or, "5-31" could merely be an arbitrary lot code meaning nothing whatsoever to an outsider.")  Meanwhile, I'm waiting for a U.S. response claiming that American-notation dates were deliberately used by the Iranians so that Iran could dismiss the evidence as faked.

While the facts of the matter -- whether the markings are dates, and how they got on the weapons -- are obviously very important, I'm not competent to judge.  I'm merely making a small point as a linguist: that if the markings are dates, they're much more likely to be of American than Iranian provenance.]

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Posted by Arnold Zwicky at February 27, 2007 10:18 AM