The number zero (0) does not really have a Korean native numeral of its own. In fact, the only way to say zero in Korean is by Hanja: Yeong (영) or Gong (공).

I'm very tempted to say that it's because the whole concept of zero had never existed in the Korean numeral system, considering the fact that it also wasn't really part of the Roman Numerals, as the Romans used the Latin word "nulla" (which means "none") instead of a Roman numeral alongside their mathematics. So that means... the Koreans had used something like "없음" (which means "absent" or "nonexistent") instead of their own numeral? The number zero wasn't actually invented back then.

(Also, on a side note: in modern/contemporary days today, when writing (alongside?) Roman numerals, instead of writing the Latin word "nulla", we write the Arabic numeral 0, which is a real number and not just a symbol that represents nothing, in order to indicate zero. So 0/1/2/3/4 becomes 0/I/II/III/IV.)

Anyway, the point here is: Why didn't the number 0 actually have a Korean native number of its own?

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    No relevant materials have been found so far (reference). They guess that there was no need to create a word other than 영 and 공 that had originated from Chinese. As a side note, the Korean consonant ㅇ relates to 0 (reference). ㅇ looks almost the same as 〇; 〇 exactly means zero (0). One Hanja dictionary I have uses 〇 with other Chinese numerals to indicate page numbers.
    – Klmo
    Dec 28, 2019 at 10:11
  • @Klmo - you mean, 영/하나/둘/셋 etc, like 0/I/II/III? Read the part about the RNs. But, 영/하나/둘/셋 etc IS true, right.
    – user2563
    Dec 28, 2019 at 14:49
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    I do not understand your comment. Please clarify your points. // This is off-topic, but people prefer to say 영, 일, 이, 삼 rather than 영, 하나, 둘, 셋.
    – Klmo
    Dec 28, 2019 at 22:01
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    "Zero" is probably a more specific concept in Mathematics than "absent" or "null" in daily language. If old Korean literature in mathematics was done in Classical Chinese, then the more specific concept of "zero" is probably borrowed from there.
    – dROOOze
    Dec 28, 2019 at 22:09

1 Answer 1


There is circumstantial evidence that the concept of zero did come to Korea from China: 19th century Korean mathematicians certainly possessed copies of the seminal 數書九章 Mathematical Treatise in Nine Sections, originally written in the year 1247, during the time of the Southern Song. As intellectuals in the Joseon Dynasty, the mathematicians would have read this in the original Chinese text, not in translation, and pronounced it in Sino-Korean. In this text, 零[영] is commonly used to refer in the text to the concept of zero, and 零數 specifically comes up several times. It is also the first to use 〇 as a symbol for zero in China.

Note that the promulgation of this text in the late Song in China predates the adoption of hangeul by a couple of hundred years. It is thus conceivable that Song mathematics was the source of this piece of technical vocabulary used in Korea, and only then did the Korean language have the mathematical concept of zero, with 영 (and 공, also used in various Chinese varieties in southern China).

It is nonetheless true that we don't have much hard evidence of its direct introduction to Korea (as the link in the comment above states). It is also entirely possible (although unproven) that a native Korean version could have emerged. In fact, the idea of 없음 could have been a possible alternative; after all, the use of 無 as the concept of "nothing" in calculation is attested as far back as the Han Dynasty in Chinese history.

But Korean stayed with its two Sino-Korean terms, and in more recent times adopted 제로 from English in certain contexts. Compare how English adoped "zero", an Arabic loanword through Latin and medieval Romance languages, as the official way of saying the number, restricting the Latin-derived "null" and native Old English descendant "nought" to very limited uses. When new concepts, scientific/mathematical/technical or otherwise, different languages at different points in their history will use different means to describe and "reify" it.

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