18

For the number zero, [零]{れい} is a Chinese origin word that is pretty much familiarized in Japanese. Nevertheless, it seems more popular to use the Western origin word ゼロ, which probably appeared later. Why is that? They are both two morae, and I don't see any phonological reason.

  • The answers given seem completely reasonable but I wonder also if prestige has anything to do with it. It seems like there's a fairly high level of prestige associated with using recently borrowed loan words as long as they have been sufficiently disseminated. – Mr. Wizard Nov 9 '12 at 6:37
15

ゼロ has almost 0% ambiguity (when spoken) and, only requiring katakana, is much easier to write.

  • 1
    Also, it sounds cooler ;D – silvermaple Dec 22 '11 at 5:04
  • 14
    Claytonian, that's fair; we stole it from the French, who stole it from the Italians, who stole it from the Arabs, and we probably think it's an English word :). If young people think it's Japanese, and everyone eventually believes them, then it will become true. – AHelps Dec 22 '11 at 19:40
  • 2
    @Pacerier So a little more digging indicates that both the concept and the word (sifr in Arabic) were taken by the Arabs from Sanskrit (sunya), and I remember someone indicating that the Indians may have lifted the concept from the Chinese. But at some point, you're digging around in the dawn of history for a curious cultural game of one-upmanship. Suffice it to say that humans have been able to conceptualize "nothing" for a very long time, and we should give our ancestors some credit ;). – AHelps Apr 12 '12 at 23:31
  • 1
    The concept of "nothing" is surely very old, but the concept of "zero" as a number is fairly recent (less than two millennia, at least). – BlueRaja - Danny Pflughoeft Sep 11 '14 at 0:29
  • 1
    @Claytonian It's famous the origin of zero is India in Japan, I think. – Takahiro Waki May 19 '17 at 14:19
5

I've heard れい still being used when pronouncing phone numbers. But other than phone numbers (and maybe sports scores,) ゼロ is generally easier for listeners to pick up because it has more of a 濁音{だくおん} (voiced sound.)

More analysis for this can be found on this page, as well.

  • 1
    Interesting hypothesis. – user458 Feb 25 '12 at 23:45
  • there's also 零時 (midnight) though it seems somewhat literary, not sure if it's used in everyday speech. – Igor Skochinsky May 20 '17 at 14:10
4

Like Takahiro Waki hinted at in another answer, 零 originally didn't mean the numeral "zero", nor the idea of "none, empty"; it meant "a little, paltry, small, fraction" (as in 零細{れいさい} = "insignificant", or in Chinese 六十有零 = "a little over sixty"). Up until well into the Edo period, the word doesn't appear as a numeral in Japanese-language texts (it did appear in mathematical treatises of the 和算{わさん} tradition, but these were written in Chinese and of limited influence). In things like merchant's ledgers, nothingness was represented by a blank. In other words, Japan was a culture without a numeral zero, just like the West before it was introduced from the Hindo-Arabic tradition (compare with the Roman numerals).

零 as a numeral zero only spread into general usage quite late, possibly as late as Meiji. So it didn't have that much of a time advantage over the introduction of the word zero, which might have facilitated their coexistence (especially since Japanese was already used to multiple numerals for each number).

Source: Yōsuke Hashimoto, Nihongo no Nazo wo toku.

3

れい is also used when saying numbers with a decimal point that begin with a zero.

0.5

reads phonetically as

れい てん ご

2

Zero means nothing, but 零 means a quite bit. So 0.5,零細企業 so on. It is said Japanese didn't have a word which means nothing. Well also most Japanese don't know this fact, though.

1

Not sure whether this is relevant, but I have also heard the null-valued numeral written as 〇 and pronounced まる, but I don't know much about this.

  • 1
    This one is used a lot with apartment numbers, especially when the zero is the middle digit. 201 -> "にまるいち" – tcallred May 17 '17 at 22:27
  • 1
    201号室=にまるいちごうしつ. – Takahiro Waki May 19 '17 at 14:15

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy