Monday, August 08, 2011

Why Does the Bay Area Hate 'The' So Much?

One of the pleasures of living in Berkeley is taking our children to Little Farm, nestled in the hills of Tilden Regional Park. The farm features cows, pigs, chickens and other livestock, and kids are allowed to feed the animals (celery and lettuce only).

Everyone refers to the place as "Little Farm" (and if you're an East Bay parent, you refer to it a lot). But as I was looking at the windpump, I discovered that it's actually called "The Little Farm."

A visit to the Tilden website confirms it: "The Little Farm was built in 1955 and features a variety of farm animals including cows, sheep, goats, rabbits, chickens and pigs...."

This all brings me back to an ongoing question for Bay Area linguists (one I've addressed on this blog before): Why do we insist on scrubbing the definite article from everything?

We don't say "the Muni" or "the BART," as Bank of America learned after its billboard flub. In Boston, meanwhile, they happily call their subway "the T." The Bay Area also never uses "the" with freeways — a contrast from Southern California and some other parts of the country.

And Mark Zuckerberg had to be told by a Bay Area resident (Sean Parker) how to fix the name of TheFacebook: "Drop the 'The.' Just 'Facebook.' It's cleaner."

If the British alternative band The The had tried to make it in San Francisco, it would have been called "___ ___."

I think there are two trends at work here. First, there's the rise of texting and tweeting — communication needs to be more succinct, especially in the tech-obsessed Bay Area. Who needs an extra "the"?

Second, definite articles are used in phrases with superlatives and specifics: "He's the fastest," "Mark is the big man on campus." Bay Area residents are less likely to believe in bright-line demarcations. We're more into gray area.

That means we're not willing to say we're riding "the" BART — it might just be one of many BARTs. (Maybe locals also are more likely to subscribe to multiple-universe theories.)

It's worth noting that BART never carried a "the" — even when it was still in development. Check out this video from the 1967, subtitled "a progress report from BART."

In fairness, we aren't anarthrous about everything. It's still "the Campanile," "the Transamerica Pyramid," etc. But the general trend is to shed the definite article from most Bay Area institutions, and that seems to have been the case with Little Farm.

Like Facebook, I guess it's "cleaner" now. But maybe "Littlefarm" would be ever better?