Thursday, 28 October 2010

This Is About Nothing

Zero means nothing, and nothing is no thing. You can't count nothing because there's no thing to count. Cavemen didn't need to count much so they got by by scratching a few short vertical lines on cave walls to do their additions and subtractions.  Later on men realised the enormity of having to count lines and so they devised numerals to denote quantities. I would guess that most ancient civilisations used groups of 10 as their counting base, as per the number of fingers on a man's hand.

The Mayans however used 20 as their grouping factor - perhaps they were nimble with their toes as well. Imagine if we had 20 different numerals in our numbering system, we would have learnt to sing "One little, two little...... TWENTY little Mayan boys" in our toddlerhood. And that might not be a bad thing, perhaps we would have started using a lot more of our brains early in life. Also, if grouped in twenties, number symbols won't be repeated as often as groups of ten, so if you are 50 plus of age as I am, in a base of twenty, 50 would be only 25.

It is said that the Mayans were the first to see the need for a symbol to denote zero. It is shaped like an eye. In fact it is interesting how the Mayans represented numbers, with dots and bars.


The Arabs however took the bars and placed them vertically, diagonally, horizontally and with a couple of round shapes, designed their numerals. I think their representation of zero is the most efficient. You see, if you need to symbolize nothingness, a void, you'd use something that takes up no space, wouldn't you? Why not a little dot? And that is exactly what the Arabs have used, and I think that's brilliant.


Unfortunately, although modern civilisation adopted the Arabic numbering system, the numerals themselves did not catch on. Westerners probably did not like the squiggly look of Arabic script including it's right-to-left orientation (but numbers are written from left to right). But they liked how the Indians symbolised zero. If you look at Hindi and Tamil scripts, you can see how curly-wurly the writing is. Yes, it seems that they have taken the Arabic dot and extended it into a little circurl which was subsequently adopted by the West.

The Chinese however have nothing round in their characters from my observations, they are mainly lines fashioned into mini pictures that fit into square boxes.


Although it sounds pretty cute - "ling", the character for zero looks complicated.

I would reckon doing maths with pictures can get tedious and I suspect that's why the Chinese too are now using the Arabic numbering system. Combined with their skills on the abacus it was hard to beat the Chinese at arithmetics in my day.

Sometimes I just wonder at how different races developed their scripts those long years ago. To a certain extent the styles seem to reflect the way they sound too - most obvious is the Indian roly-poly pronunciation that kind of corresponds with the curly-wurly letters. You'd probably be able to imagine Arabic guttural staccato emanating from their squigglies. And It's not too difficult to associate Chinese sing-song style with the swishy lines of their boxed-in characters - which perhaps also account for the difficulty with rolling their R's.

We Malays have no script to call our own, being accommodating by nature, we use what is plonked upon us by whoever had conquered us. It shows when we speak Malay to a non-native speaker, we tend to pick up the way they sound and speak in the same manner. For example using "lu" and "gua" with a Chinese, or saying "kaloo" instead of "kalau" with a Tamil, even with Indonesians we would go "bagimanaa ini Pak" instead of "macam maner ni" as is usual.

Interestingly though when I was shopping in Singapore one day in the ninety's, a Malay promoter named Yati told me about a "jeeloh" percent interest on something or other in thick Chinese accent. "Jeeloh"? I asked. "Yes, worr.." said she.

I must have looked very much like an Ah Soh.

Oh yes, about zeroes. We have taken them for granted after centuries of use but think how awkward it would be had the Roman empire not implode and we would have to calculate with  letters - and no zero. 10 is X. 50 is L. 100 is C. 1000 is M.

How would we ever write a cheque for Rm1.7 trillion?

How would we even show Zero percent?

Though Zero is nothing it's still a big deal.


Cat-in-Sydney said...

Aunty Zen,
I like this. Been trying to sharpen my numerical skills, so to speak. Did I tell you Mama majored in Maths in uni? Anyway, you didn't touch on the Roman system...which to me is baffling. Imagine writing a check fro $5 billion in that system. Also the never ending battle between the purist' IV against the modernists' IIII. sigh....too much for a cat. purrr.....meow!

a.j. said...

0 - who knew it was that complicated huh.

0 is the architect of complexity of modern human civilization.

Praise be to the creator who taught human what they know.


1. The Most Beneficent (Allah)!

2. Has taught (you mankind) the Qur'an (by His Mercy).

3. He created man.

4. He taught him eloquent speech.

5. The sun and the moon run on their fixed courses (exactly) calculated with measured out stages for each (for reckoning, etc.).

6. And the herbs (or stars) and the trees both prostrate.

7. And the heaven He has raised high, and He has set up the Balance.

8. In order that you may not transgress (due) balance.

9. And observe the weight with equity and do not make the balance deficient.

[Holy Quran Ar-Rahman 55:1-9]

Wan Sharif said...

I thought Jawi is the Malay script which we have thrown out of the window.. non?
What an injustice!

Pak Idrus said...

Zen, Sure the ZERO is important. without the Zero it does not mean anything. Remember without that extra zero, it does not make a million.

Thanks to the Hindus of India who created that numeral and over times been improved by the others.

Take care.

Zendra-Maria said...

Cats, Mama majored in Maths....meewow!! What does she do with it now? Writing blogarithmns? kikiki...

I often wonder maybe cats must be able to count up to 9 to keep tabs of your lives. A clever one - up to 21 ie 5 digits on each paw plus one tail...

Zendra-Maria said...

Ayyub dear,

This says it all in Surah Ar-rahman

"Then which of the favours of your Lord will ye deny?"

Zendra-Maria said...

Ayoh Wang,

Those who are schooled in Jawi/Arabic script find writing bahasa melayu faster with it than Rumi.

Yes, a shame not to use it in bahasa melayu lessons in school. We can learn mandarin using Chinese characters - no problem, so why not Jawi?

Zendra-Maria said...

Pak Idrus, indeed zero is too significant to be brushed aside as nothing.

You take care too :)

bangkai said...

Thank you for this tribute to all us heroes who turned to zeros. We salute you, ma'am

Zendra-Maria said...

MB, this one's especially for you :)

mekyam said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
mekyam said...

zee, i thought i've nothing more to say about nothing. but as usual, it often takes nothing to coax a limmerick out of me. :D

so here's my footnought:

i've never found maths to be fun,
could never figure how it was done.
though i do know
i have to pin that zero,
that nothing, that comes before one! ;D

Zendra-Maria said...

Bravo mekyam... you've passed the audition. Do report to the set of "Who's line is it anyway?" asap :)

Tommy Yewfigure said...

Don't under estimate the power of zero. A bank clerk in NZ not so long ago, accidentally added 3 zeros to a man account and 'poof' he disappeared a few days later never to be seen again...kekeke

zafi said...

It has been ages... I stop from blogging for quite some time! back now! anyway nice informative entry!!
how r u?