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The year dot (was: Ebisedian number system)

From:Ray Brown <ray.brown@...>
Date:Thursday, July 18, 2002, 19:23
On Wednesday, July 17, 2002, at 09:55 , Christian Thalmann wrote:

> > You can always blame it on religion, which is probably even older > than counting, and can justify just about any counterintuitive > social feature. Just think of how there's no year "0" in our time > reckoning! ;-)
I know religion bashing is a favorite hobby of some, but this is, I think, one of the most silly examples I have seen. It has obviously escaped Mr Thalmann's noticed that zero simply did not figure in earlier number systems! Never used Roman numbers? I suppose the Romans left out zero because of the strictures of their pagan religion. And they also had no year 0, reckoning their years from the supposed date of the founding of Rome (753 BC). To them 753 BC was 'anno I AVC (ab urbe condita), 754 was 'anno II AVC' etc; and 752 was 'anno primo ante urbem conditam' 'the first year before the founding of the city'. Tut, tut - How counterintuitive of them to have no year 0. It must be due to their religion. As we say in this neck of the woods: COBBLERS! Before the Romans, neither the Greeks, nor the Egyptians nor the Babylonians, for their undoubted mathematical prowesss, developed the concept of zero as a number. I know it may upset the sophisticated moderns, but the simple fact is that for millennia upon millennia homines sapientes successfully lived out their lives without that concept *and it had nothing to do with all their many different religious beliefs.* ----------------------------------------------------------------------------------- On Wednesday, July 17, 2002, at 11:45 , Christian Thalmann wrote:
> --- In conlang@y..., Tim May <butsuri@B...> wrote: > >> Well, it's the first year before the start. You don't get zeroes when >> you count things, only when you measure things. > > When you count things, you get natural numbers, that is, positive > integers. As soon as you take negative numbers into account, zero > is part of the deal, and leaving it out is just inconsistent.
Yes, but how exactly were negative numbers expressed in Roman numerals? How in Greek, Egyptian or Babylonian numerals? They weren't. I suspect that without a proper understanding of zero, one does not develop the a proper concept of negative numbers. Good grief! I can think of many non-mathematical people now in 2002 who still find the concept of _negative_ numbers, as understood by mathematicians, somewhat hazy and certainly not intuitive. Consider also that, unlike us, the ancients normally counted time _inclusively_; e.g. if you were to ask a Roman how many months to the end of the year, s/ he'd not have answered "quinque" (12 - 7 = 5), but "sex", i.e. July, Aug., Sept. , Oct., Nov., Dec. Now for people who (a) habitually reckon time inclusively, and (b) do not have the concept of zero, then BC/AD system is absolutely intuitive.
> Consider: Between the beginnings of the years 100 AD and 300 AD lie > exactly 200 years.
In fact the ancients would reckon the number of years from 100 to 300 AD as 201. I know you said "beginnings" - but that just ain't they way they thought or reckoned things. And it had nowt whatever to do with any of the religions practiced in earlier times.
> Between the beginnings of the years 300 BC and > 100 BC lie exactly 200 years. But between the beginnings of the years > 100 BC and 100 AD lie 199 years.
No - anyone in the "pre-zero" days would have thought you a bit simple. They would for start reckon it as 200 years and think you had miscounted with your 199; and then, if they were kind, they'd have patiently tried to explain that 100 years + 100 years = 200 years. Yes, I know mathematically that's not so. But not all mathematics is by any means intuitive the 'person in the street'. Indeed, as Tim has rightly reminded us, we are dealing here with *counting* , just plain, ordinary counting as, e.g. a shepherd might do counting in sheep. We're not dealing with math(s). I have been teaching students computer science for the past 12 years and my experience is, in fact, that for the "ordinary person" counting from zero is not intuitive; indeed, it is counterintuitive. In computing, to keep the dumb machine happy, we usually begin counting from zero; we talk, e.g. of the zeroth (or is it 'zeroeth'?) bit, the zeroth element in an array etc. How often is 'zeroth' ever heard in everyday speech? Why is it that natlangs lack an ancient word for "zero"? (Yes, they have words for 'nothing', 'none', 'no' etc but not the mathematical zero). More often than not my 16, 17, 18 year old students, who come from a variety of ethnic backgrounds and adhere to many different religions and, many, to no religion, find counting from zero counterintuitive? And if I ask them to number elements or whatever off in reverse from a starting point, they will more often than not go: "1, 2, 3......" etc from right to left. That's the intuitive method. They can handle zero and negative numbers well enough in mathematical calculation, and money transaction. But in plain old counting things along, it's the millennia ancient 1, 2, 3......n, whatever direction you go - no zero or negatives. And nothing whatever to do with religion - just plain human cussedness. {snip}
> Not at all. Just call the year in which Christ was born the year > 0 AD = 0 BC, then we'd have no problem.
Well we would. We don't know exactly in which year Christ was born. We need our time-traveler to check it out. {snip}
> Our current system splits the continuum into two parts, and maps each > onto the natural numbers. That's more complicated and less intuitive > IMHO.
And it is an opinion obviously not shared by most homines sapientes since our species emerged many millennia back in Africa. You are thinking as a mathematician.
> What I've always found especially counterintuitive about the current > system: If the year 1 before Christ's birth is immediately followed > by the year 1 after Christ's birth -- where is the year in which > Christ was born?
Somewhere round about 6 BC I'd guess. Most people seem to cope well enough with our system; for those who don't like it or, more particularly, where accurate calculation is required, there _is_ another system; for on Thursday, July 18, 2002, at 12:43 , John Cowan wrote:
> People who actually care about this stuff relabel the BCE years by > one: 1 BCE = 0, 2 BCE = -1, 3 BCE = -2, etc. This is the convention of > ISO 8601, the standard for designating Gregorian dates and times. > (XML Schema implements this buggily, equating -1 with 1 BCE, and > leaving out 0 altogether.)
To return to where I began: On Wednesday, July 17, 2002, at 10:07 , Nik Taylor wrote: {snip}
> The concept of zero as a number didn't exist in Europe in the middle > ages.
Indeed not - nor, as I've observed, for the many millennia before the Middle Ages either. The concept of zero was apparently developed among Hindu mathematicians of India. Maybe we should credit their religion for this insight? (But it won't do to say something positive about religion, will it?). From there it spread westward through the Muslim countries. Oh dear, surely the Muslim clerics opposed the heretical zero and the infidel Hindu numeric symbols! Well, actually no. The Hindu symbols were readily adopted with the concept zero; and mathematics flourished in Muslim centers. Ah, so the Christians opposed zero and the new-fangled 'arabic' symbols (the Hindu symbols as they evolved in Muslim lands) because they were the work of the wicked Saracens? Well, again - sorry to disappoint - but no. The Arabic numerals in fact were eagerly taken up - and a variety of the western arabic numerals are still used by us today - together with the concept of zero, the word itself being derived from Arabic. Religion had nowt to do with zero or the system of counting years, except for determining the 'turning point'. But if a secular 'turning point' had been chosen (as, e.g. in ancient Rome), there'd have still been no year 0. IIRC even when the French revolutionaries introduced their new calendar with 1789 as year 1, there was no year zero - and the revolutionaries of the time were certainly not bound by any religious scruples. Indeed, to quote Nik again: On Thursday, July 18, 2002, at 12:04 , Nik Taylor wrote: {snip}
> ............. It has nothing to do with the religious origin. > It's just like the older system of counting "The Xth year of the reign > of Y". There's no zeros in such a system. What would the zeroth year > of the reign of so-and-so mean?
AMEN! ---------------------------------------------------------------------------- Sorry to have spun this out a bit, but I do find it irritating that on a list that is supposed to be devoted to constructed languages, a few people seem to use it as a platform to make snide comments about people's religious beliefs. IMNSHO it is a misuse of the list. I know it's fashionable to ridicule anyone who actually holds a religious, political or other ideological belief and won't join the band of skeptics. But ridicule is easy and cheap. I know I'm old fashioned; but my schooling was in the 1950s when we were brought up to respect other peoples ideas and try to see the other person's point of view. Weird, I guess - but to my simple mind the world would be a lot happier and safer if more people did just that. Happily I have found more enlightened people on this list and have had fruitful, interesting private email correspondence with people of quite different faiths to mine. Can we respect one another's beliefs and stick to conlanging, please? Ray.


Tim May <butsuri@...>