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Year Zero: Counting to 2000
Dr. Orville Boyd Jenkins

I have heard that the reason the century ends after Year 100 is that there is no year 0 in the Roman Calendar, because in Roman culture, there was no concept of zero.

I HAVE HEARD this also. The purpose of this argument is to explain why the century is not over until the end of the year 100. But in reality, this fact is irrelevant to the problem.

When you count things, you never have zero anyway. When counting objects, you start counting with 1. The Roman lack of a zero did not affect counting, it only affected the kind of math they could do. (Incidentally, the Romans did have the concept of none, just as we do.)

The Romans did the same thing we do. The Romans would call it Year One when the year started and would finish Year One when the months of one year were up. We designate the year when we enter it (starting with January 1, 1999, and counting up to 365 days in monthly increments).

We count it as a year when we finish it On Dec 31, 1999 was OVER. Likewise, year 2000 will not be over until December 31, 2000.

Counting to 1000
Some people might overlook the fact that we count the year when we finish it. If we start with no years, and count 1 when we get to the end of the first, doing the same to 999, you still have only 999. So the end of AD 1000 finished the first 1000 years.

We have finished one thousand nine hundred and ninety-nine years and are still in the 2000th year of the millennium. Thus when we finish the 2000th year, we can say we have finished the 1000 years.

In counting years, one factor that might be confusing is that the 1900s are finished. But then 9 is always gone before you start year ten, and 99 years are finished before you get to 100, and 999 are still one year short of 1000. The 0 year (i.e., year 10, 100, 1000.) is always after the nine year (9, 99, 999).

Counting objects is easier, because you do not have to deal with the passage of time. You can line the objects up and touch each one as you assign a number to it. In the calendar we are lost in the flow and it becomes more of a mental exercise.

Year One
When do we normally celebrate a birthday? When a baby is born, he is in his first year from Day One, but we do not say he is one year OLD until 12 months is up, and the Year One is FINISHED. So it is Year One from the day of birth. That was the same in the Roman system.

When is a Day Over?
Another example:

We donít have this problem with days of the week, which use names instead of numbers.

When Tuesday comes, we are still in Tuesday, arenít we, until Tuesday ends at midnight and Wednesday starts. Then it becomes Wednesday. We do not say it is Wednesday on Tuesday, and we do not say the week is over until Saturday is finished. We don't get confused there because we use names instead of numbers.

But we also count 7 days in the week, and Sunday is the first. The 7th day is finished before we say the new week begins, when we start counting at one again.

Postscript: Computer Counting by 0
The only time 0 is used in counting is in computer technical jargon, because of binary system (only 2 numbers, 0 and 1). This just means that in digital computing, you use the numbers 0 and 1 for 1 and 2. But even in computing, this is changing. For instance, hard disk designations in BIOSes are now more commonly Disk 1 and 2 instead of Disk 0 and 1, regularizing it into the "natural" system of counting.

First written 1999
First posted on Thoughts and Resources 10 April 2002
Page updated 1 January 2010

Orville Boyd Jenkins, EdD, PhD

Copyright © Orville Boyd Jenkins 1999, 2004
Permission granted for free download and transmission for personal or educational use.  Other rights reserved.
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