Wednesday, 10 October 2012

The meaning of the zero

More on telephone area codes (see two previous posts on this subject).

This all started because I was reflecting on the different meanings of the word zero and the symbol (0) in the everyday experiences of children.

Sometimes they meet 'zero' in contexts where it means 'nothing' in the sense of an absence of something. 'There are zero elephants in this room' means there is a total absence of elephants.

But sometimes zero is used to indicate an important point on a scale, as in 'the temperature is zero degrees celsius'. The zero here does not indicate 'nothing'. It does not mean there is an absence of a temperature – in fact, it's pretty cold and we can feel the zero out there! Similarly, time does not suddenly disappear at 'zero hours' (midnight). These examples are different from, say, having zero millilitres of wine left in your glass or having zero pence in your pocket: these zeros do indicate an absence of something!

So, the context of this discussion is that children have to learn to connect very different kinds of experiences to the same word and symbol (zero, 0).

So I then found myself considering what the zero at the start of a telephone code might mean, since this is a familiar experience of the symbol – and wondering whether it mattered that children, following the example of most adults, learn to say 'oh' rather than 'zero', when referring to 0 in this particular context.

I got to the point of wondering if it meant nothing at all, because all area codes start with 0 and therefore it has no function in discriminating between one area code and another. In which case, it matters not what we call it.

Brother-in-law Ron has put me right again! The zero does have a meaning, of course. It means in essence: 'here comes an area code'. Other digits at the start of a telephone number indicate other things. For example, the 1 at the start of the code 118 (for directory enquiries) indicates that we are dialling for some kind of assistance. And, if I dial 619555 when I am in Norwich then the 6 at the beginning signals that I am not using an area code, but just dialling a local number (effectively 01603 619555).

So, the zero has a meaning, but the meaning is simply an indication of what kind of call we are making; it does not connect with the other key meanings of zero that children encounter. So, any symbol could be used here. The use of zero is therefore arbitrary. So, does it matter if people say 'oh' rather than 'zero'? Only to the extent that the key they press when they say this is the zero key (albeit positioned unconventionally after the 9!), rather than the letter o (which would be interpreted as a six!).

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