Zero (Morphosyntax)

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The term zero is used for supposed elements of language structure that have no overt counterpart in the pronunciation, especially in morphology and syntax.

  • "...dans tout paradigme grammatical, lorsqu'une forme dépourvue de morphème est nécessairement liée à un ensemble de formes qui en sont pourvues, l'absence de signe dans le premier cas et interprétée comme valant, non pas zéro signe, mais signe zéro" (Bally 1922:2)
  • "In other cases there is not even a grammatical feature: a single phonetic form, in the manner of homonymy, represents two meanings which are usually distinguished by means of a linguistic form, as, singular and plural noun in the sheep (grazes): the sheep (graze). Here the Hindus hit upon the apparently artificial but in practice eminently serviceable device of speaking of a zero element: in sheep: sheep the plural-suffix is replaced by zero — that is, by nothing at all." (Bloomfield 1933:209)

Term properties

Most often, zero is used as an adjective (e.g. zero element, zero marker, zero root). However, it may also be used as a noun.



The use of zero structure elements in modern linguistics has been inspired by Panini's use of lopa 'blank' (see Allen 1956). The term zero was used by Bally (1922), but is probably older. The discussion in Bloomfield (1933: 209, 2155ff.) and Jakobson (1939) have been influential in spreading the term zero.


  • Allen, W. S. 1956. "Zero and Panini." Indian Linguistics 16: 106-113.
  • Bally, Charles. 1922. "Copule zéro et faits connexes." Bulletin de la Société de Linguistique de Paris 23: 1ff.
  • Bloomfield, Leonard. 1933. Language. New York: Holt & Co.
  • Jakobson, Roman. 1939. “Signe zéro." In: Mélanges de linguistique offerts à Charles Bally. Genève. (Also in: Selected Writings, vol. 2, 1971)
  • Meier, Georg F. 1961. Das Zero-Problem in der Linguistik. Berlin: Akademie-Verlag.

Other languages

German Null