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Unus, -a, -um means number "1". What is the word for number "0"?

https://www.translate.com/english-latin says it is nulla. Is it correct?

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  • This is a really good question! Thank you for your excellent posts on Latin StackExchange.
    – ktm5124
    Jun 21, 2023 at 2:08

4 Answers 4

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Classical Latin does not have a word for, or a concept of, “zero”. Fibonacci in about 1200 used the term zephirum, a transcription of Arabic ṣifr “empty”, then “zero” as a calque on Sanskrit śūnya “empty, zero”.

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  • It's a minor nitpick but śunya should be śūnya (vowel length is phonemic in Sanskrit and traditionally always marked). Śunya is listed in Monier-Williams' dictionary as a variant but quotable only from Sanskrit dictionaries and word lists
    – Au101
    Jun 15, 2023 at 20:28
  • @Au101. Thanks. Typo corrected.
    – fdb
    Jun 15, 2023 at 21:50
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    Zephirum, of course, eventually entered English as cypher. Jun 16, 2023 at 1:09
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Just an addendum, but you can translate "zero" as nullus, -a, -um when it's used in sentences like, "I have zero pigs." The Romans would say: nullos porcos habeo.

But in English, it's no different from saying, "I have no pigs."

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https://www.translate.com/english-latin says it is nulla. Is it correct?

No, it isn't. Nulla is classical Latin for nothing. It's one thing that the Romans could've used instead of the number zero but it's not the actual number itself. Nihil and nihilum would be other go-tos.

In New Latin, the default is variants of cipher: cifra, cifera, ciphra, cyphra (in Euler), chifra, zifra, ziffra, zifera, ziphera, &c. There's also zephirum

1202, Leonardo Fibonacci, Liber Abaci, Cap. I:

Cum his itaque novem figuris, et cum hoc signo 0, quod arabice zephirum appellatur, scribitur quilibet numerus, […]

With these nine figures, and with this sign 0, which is called zero in Arabic, any number can be written, […]

and zerum if you want zero to show up in the dative and ablative.

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  • Let us continue this discussion in chat.
    – cmw
    Jun 19, 2023 at 16:01
  • There are options A, B, C, D. There is also option E... if you want for something to happen. That thing... you might want to happen... is zero showing up as the Latin dative and ablative.
    – lly
    Jun 19, 2023 at 16:32
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    @cmw To me "the form zerō shows up in the paradigm of zerum" vel sim is entirely fine. (Similarly, as your example, "this form shows up in Vergil" or "this form shows up in Late Latin".)
    – Draconis
    Jun 19, 2023 at 16:51
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    @Draconis: I didn't quite understand the sentence as it was phrased at first, so I had the same question as CMW. I now understand it, and so I have edited it for clarity, pace Ily.
    – Cerberus
    Jun 19, 2023 at 17:41
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    Seems like it was originally cifra but this editor changed it with a cite and then no one ever changed it back. It has been left alone for 8 years now. Maybe this discussion will inspire someone to go fix it. xD Good catch.
    – lly
    Jun 21, 2023 at 11:57
0

The Latin word "nulla" is a good choice for translating the English word "zero". Here are some reasons:

  1. The Latin word "nulla" is attested in many ancient documents (as far back as the 6th century AD) to mean the number zero.
  2. The word "null" in computer science derives from the Latin word "nulla". The word "null" in computer science has been used to mean the value 0. It gets used in many contexts, like null pointers, null-terminated strings, and null references.
  3. The word "nulla" is a combination of "ne-" (not) and "ulla" (any), and it can mean "no one, none, not any, zero".
  4. For over one thousand years, the symbol N has been used to mean zero, and it stands for the Latin words "nulla" or "nihil". The letter N is still used today to mean 0 in many professions.

That said, I think there are many other options for translating the English word "zero" into Latin. The word "nulla" is a common choice and it is attested in many ancient and modern documents.

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  • 1
    Which profession (or language) uses "N" regularly to mean zero?
    – lly
    Jun 21, 2023 at 11:59
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    Neither WIktionary nor the OED acknowledge such an abbreviation.
    – Colin Fine
    Jun 21, 2023 at 22:10

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