May 01, 2007

Something About Nothing

Something About Nothing

Despite its original meaning, the word “ноль” (нуль) (from the Latin,  nullus — “nothing”) is truly something in Russia. On a personal note, every time I write this column, я начин≈аю с нул≈я – start from scratch; if I don’t forget what I wrote in the previous piece, there is no way to keep a fresh eye.

So what do I mean when I say zero is really something here? To begin with, there are two ways of writing 0 in Russian – ноль and нуль. The difference is virtually insignificant, but there are nuances that would mark one as either a native or an interloper.  The word нуль is an older word than ноль. Нуль has been known in Russian since Petrine times (Peter introduced Arab figures; before him all figures were identified with Cyrillic letters).

Whence the word? Supposedly, нуль came from the Dutch or another language of the Germanic group. The word ноль came from Swedish (noll). Starting from the 19th century, dictionaries have both forms, нуль and ноль. Vladimir Dal’s dictionary features two adjectives: нолев≈ой и нулев≈ой, but today нолев≈ой is outdated. 

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