Tuesday, November 18, 2008


It is tempting, when one begins to study another language, to question the usefulness of particular rules. This temptation perhaps reaches epic heights when users of phonetic alphabets confront the users of pictographs--particularly so when the would-be polyglot is the type who finds inane "told-you-so" joy in pointing out inefficiencies in others' designs.

Namely, myself.

Humbly I approach the mantle of the Chinese language, appreciating full well the vast and advanced cultural history it has supported. Indeed, there are many unexpected qualities to the Chinese writing system. One example would be the many-layered meanings contained within a word's characters. There is a sort of anchor to the past which English (indeed, phonetic) writing systems lack. Sort of an oral vs. written history, etc.

But I will be severe and discriminating in the following judgment: The Chinese character for zero is just plain (and I mean objectively) dumb.

Now that probably sounds harsh. Indeed it is. It is meant to be. How else can one expect a couple billion people to reform themselves? ...I kid. But seriously, lets take a look, shall we?

Counting, and numbers play a pivotal role in social life. Technologies, Economies, indeed the fabric of modern life would dissolve without numbers. And what's more, they are a part of the language which our brains use to reason with the senses. Numbers, and our systems of using them have lodged themselves deeply within our minds.

But there are two kinds of numbers--or at least two ways they are represented through language. You may say that three and 3 are essentially the same--different only in the label applied. Likewise, zero and none. But this is a pitfall. Three-thousand, or 3000, is not three-none-none-none. I'm not trying to say anything profound here, I'm just pointing out linguistic differences. Three-thousand, or three-hundred and fifty-two, for that matter, is an amount. Three-zero-zero-zero, or three-five-two, are digital representations of those amounts. Thus, we simplify things by abstracting the notation a step farther, and call them 3000 and 352. Blah blah blah.

In Chinese, If I would like a beer (which I would--as I'm pretty good here), I ask for "yi ping pi jiu," or "一瓶啤酒." Now the word I used for "a" is "yi" or one. It is the same I would use if I wanted a thousand, or "yi qian," or "一千." Here qian means thousand. But it is the same character I would use if I wanted 1000, or "一零零零." The difference is subtle, but important. It is as if I asked for 1 beer, please (rather than one). Maybe not such a faux pas among the text-mongers of yesteryear's nokias, but no one with a blackberry could get away with this. Both languages have digital and counting-based number systems, but in English, we have specialized characters for that digital system.

Now comparing our numbering systems, we have

Remember that the Chinese character is essentially the same as the word.

Excepting Zero.

The special case of zero arises from it's non-numerical meanings. One has a very intuitive place in the linguistic tradition. There is one beer. With luck, there will be two beers. Someday we could have 102 beers. But we will never have one-none-two beers. None is an entirely different concept than one, two, or the whole ilk of counting numbers. None has no place in counting numbers. But when we mark things digitally, none is an essential concept.

Thats when zero got invented. Zero is only related to none only by abstraction. The zero in one-zero-two means none tens, but represents 100. It is useful because digits are not directly related to any tangible, countable numerical meaning.

In English, we have zero or 0. In Chinese, zero had to be invented as well, and they called it ling. Ling serves the same role in Chinese as zero does in English. Ling is not none, but is related to none for the same reasons as zero.

And here is my complaint: Ling is stupidly complicated to write. Take a look at it.

There are 13 strokes in that behemoth. And it's not even a word. It's just a digit. Now granted, those who are accustomed to writing Chinese script will nail down 13 strokes in the blink of an eye. But that doesn't mean it makes sense. Si, or four, with five strokes is the next most complicated character. Ling is just stupid. But what really bugs me is the late inception of this character. Apparently, in its present form, the character showed up somewhere around the 14th century--right around the rise of the Ming dynasty. You know, the expansive, powerful, trading Ming dynasty? The one that built chunks of the great wall, sent out exploratory fleets, built the forbidden city, and had a standing army of over one-million men?

Or did they not know that... I guess it takes a while to write 1,000,000. Or 一零零零零零零.

Just sayin' is all...


  1. ok i have several points to get to (and i will get to them all because i have very little of a life) and not a lot of time to get to them.

    I seriously doubt that if you were to try and ask of 1,000,000 beers and you said you wanted "yi ling ling ling ling ling ling" beers you wouldnt at least get an odd look (and not just for the large quantity of beer you were ordering) if you were understood at all.

    yes all the digits are representations of abtract concepts of numbers. However, 152 is not an abstract concept. When you see 152 you don't see it as a single word like cat. In your head you convert into the abstract concept by going - 1*10^2 + 5*10^1 + 2*10^0. Your brain then calculates this and points you towards the concept of "one hundred fifty two". In this way 152 is an abreviation for a funtion - f(1,5,2). The only way that 152 would directly reference the abstract concept is if we had a number base of 153 or higher and saw "152" as a single character.

    I also dont see how three and 3 are similar to zero and none. Shouldn't you have said zero and 0? It dosn't really change anything, it just threw me for a loop.

    Finally, I concur. The character is overly complicated. There's probabely some cultural significance behind that (relating to ideas of nothing and such). But seriously, who gives a damn about other people's cultures?