Magazine article Russian Life

Something about Nothing

Magazine article Russian Life

Something about Nothing

Article excerpt

Despite its original meaning, the word "[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]" ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) (from the Latin, nullus--"nothing") is truly something in Russia. On a personal note, every time I write this column, [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]--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--[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] and [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]. The difference is virtually insignificant, but there are nuances that would mark one as either a native or an interloper. The word [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] is an older word than [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]. [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] has been known in Russian since Petrine times (Peter introduced Arab figures; before him all figures were identified with Cyrillic letters).

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Whence the word? Supposedly, [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] came from the Dutch or another language of the Germanic group. The word [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] came from Swedish (noll). Starting from the 19th century, dictionaries have both forms, [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] and [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]. Vladimir Dal's dictionary features two adjectives: [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], but today [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] is outdated.

There are phrases, though, where [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] is required: [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (the manner of delineating decimals: 0.2), [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (0:00, a.k.a. midnight), [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (0:0), for scorekeeping, but it can also mean midnight.

In other cases, [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] is more appropriate: [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (the odds are close to nil) and [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (temperature will fall below zero). And pilots can land a plane [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (in zero visibility).

So what's the rule? None. Zip. Nyetu. The vowels [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] and [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] alternate without much logic--you'll just have to memorize words on a case-by-case basis (hopefully not starting from nil, of course).

Note some other [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (zero-related cases):

"[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]" ("I talk to him, but he just seems to ignore me," from a parent-to-son conversation). …

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