LINGUIST List 7.451

Sun Mar 24 1996

Sum: Billion

Editor for this issue: T. Daniel Seely <>


  • Bernard Comrie, billion: summary

    Message 1: billion: summary

    Date: Sun, 24 Mar 1996 07:06:58 PST
    From: Bernard Comrie <>
    Subject: billion: summary

    Herewith a summary of the responses I received to my question on the numerical value of "billion", supplemented by a small amount of dictionary-and-grammar research on my part. Please bear in mind that what follows is based primarily on a small number of responses supplemented by secondary material. I will be grateful for any corrections or further additions, which I will summarize for a later posting. Where I have taken information from a standard monolingual dictionary, I have cited the (abbreviated) name of the dictionary; where I have taken information from a bilingual dictionary, I have just indicated "dict." I should point out that while the standard monolingual dictionaries I have checked nearly always agree with reports from the ground for the language in question, this is not infrequently not the case with bilingual dictionaries (e.g. many recently published dictionaries give 10^12 as the only value of "billion" in British English); statements in a dictionary of language X from country Y about language P or country Q are particularly likely to be erroneous (e.g. many dictionaries of other languages fail to report the change in the value of "billion" that took place in French in 1948--see below).

    There are two systems. In one, "billion" is 10^12, "trillion" is 10^18, i.e. for a given numerical prefix n the value of the term is 1 000 000^n; I will call this the 12-system. In the other, "billion" is 10^9, "trillion" is 10^12, i.e. for a given numerical prefix the value of the term is 1 000^(n+1). In the literature, the 12-system is often referred to as the German system (its spread across much of continental Europe may indeed be due to German influence), in the English-language literature sometimes also as the British system (but see below). The 9-system is sometimes referred to as the French system, not too appropriately--it isn't the system currently used in French (see below), and both systems are actually of French origin (see below); it is also sometimes referred to as the American system (its current spread is largely the result of American influence).

    A brief history, taken from the Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd ed (1989): The series "billion", etc. is first attested in France, by the end of the first quarter of the 16th c., with the value of "billion" as 10^12, i.e. the 12-system. By the end of the first quarter of the 18th c. French had shifted the usage to 10^9, i.e. the 9-system. In 1948, French shifted back to the 12-system, apparently very effectively, since both current dictionaries (Larousse, Petit Robert) and my respondents agree that French is solidly on the 12-system--including North American French. Other languages took over the French usage, so depending on when they took it over you get different systems, e.g. Britain, probably in the 17th c, took over the 12-system, as did Germany, while the US took over the 9-system in the 19th c. Of course, many languages adopted the system not directly from French; for instance, the 12-system adopted by German then spread to many other European languages.

    In describing the distribution of the two systems, it is important to bear in mind at least the following parameters: the language; the country; the time; the user. Take the case of English: Traditionally, British (12-system) and US (9-system) usage differed; in recent years British usage has increasingly accommodated itself to US usage; this trend in Britain apparently started in technical writing. Under "user", one should also take into account that substantial segments of a speech community might never have cause to use numbers in the range 10^9 and above, though in these days of national budgets (and even budget deficits) of the order of 10^9 or 10^12 currency units, even the moderately informed lay person may have some encounter with them. For instance, the fact that the US budget deficit has been in the trillions (10^12) of dollars is a recurrent political issue. In Turkey, inflation has apparently resulted in familiarity even with "quadrillion" (10^15). But in Russia and Hungary, even linguists may not to know the official values of "billion" (10^9 in Russia, 10^12 in Hungary), although such higher numerals were used in Hungary during the hyperinflation that followed the Second World War--the highest banknote denomination was apparently "one milliard billion pengo" (10^21), with even higher denomination vouchers issued to enable people to pay their taxes.

    What about the current distribution of the two systems?

    The 12-system is dominant in western and central continental Europe, in particular German, Dutch, Swedish, Danish, Norwegian, Finnish, French (since 1948), Spanish, Catalan (dict.), Galician (Diccionario Xerais da Lingua), Hungarian, Polish (Slownik jezyka polskiego), Czech (dict.), Slovak, Upper Sorbian (dict.), Serbo-Croatian (Serbian, Croatian; dict.), Slovene (Slovenian), Hungarian (though the terms are apparently little used and likely to be unknown even to linguists). In the case of Spanish, this includes American Spanish, though Puerto Rico uses the 9-system. The 12-system is cited for European Portuguese by a standard Brazilian dictionary (Novo Aurelio), where it is contrasted with Brazilian usage (9-system). The 12-system was traditional in Britain and former British territories (excluding North America), but outside Britain itself seems to have been largely replaced by the 9-system. In Britain, both systems seem to be operating, with the 9-system dominant in economic reporting. (I speculate on how a British bank would interpret a cheque made out for one billion pounds. Unfortunately, the cost of such an experiment would exceed the resources I have allocated to this research. Suggestions for funding will, of course, be gratefully received.)

    The 9-system is universal in US English. In continental Europe, it is found in Italian (replacing an earlier 12-system, but my sources give no idea when), Russian, and Turkish--but see below for complications--and in Greek (with the terms "ekatommy'rio" 10^6, "disekatommy'rio" 10^9, "trisekatommy'rio" 10^12; dict.). It is also found in Brazilian Portuguese (Novo Aurelio). In Afrikaans (Bruce C. Donaldson, Afrikaans, 1993), informal usage has the 9-system, though in official and media usage 10^9 is "a milliard" and equivalents of "billion" etc. are not used. Some respondents and other sources suggest that the 9-system, under American influence, may be starting to affect some other continental European and Spanish-American languages/countries.

    Bilingual dictionaries of Arabic that I have consulted give both the 9- and the 12-system, without indication of the distribution by country, etc.

    Although I didn't ask about "milliard", "billiard", etc., the discussion would be incomplete without them. In most languages that use the 12-system, there are terms for the intermediate powers of 1000, such that "milliard" is 1000 millions (10^9), "billiard" is 1000 billions (10^15), etc. But this does not apply to Spanish, which uses "thousand millions", etc.. Despite the listing of the English word "milliard" in several bilingual and at least one monolingual dictionary as the/a normal British expression for 10^9, I have only encountered this word in British English in discussions of numeral systems as a translation equivalent of the foreign term, and in financial reports of some European institutions; I certainly wasn't taught the term in school, and indeed probably wouldn't have known what it meant if I hadn't encountered its equivalent in other languages.

    In Italian, Russian, and Turkish, 10^9 is usually "milliard". In Italian and Russian, "billion" exists as a less frequent synonym of "milliard". For the higher numerals, the 9-system is used, i.e. "trillion" is 10^12. In Turkish, partly as a result of inflation, both "trillion" and "quadrillion" are in current use. In Russian, none of the terms in the series "billion", etc. is in normal use. In Italian, it is more usual to express these higher numerals in terms of milliards, i.e. 10^9 is "milliard", 10^12 is "thousand milliards", 10^18 is "milliard milliards", etc.

    And note that in any of the languages/countries mentioned, the system may in practice, at least in ordinary usage, stop well short of its possible limits. Thus, at school in England I was taught "trillion", but not "quadrillion". And that highest-denomination Hungarian banknote (10^21) was "one milliard billion", not the potential "one trilliard" or "one thousand trillion".

    Incidentally, my interest in this question arose as follows. A reasonable standard to which one might hold a numeral system is that its expressions should be unambiguous. When I worked on Haruai (Papua New Guinea), which has a bodypart system, this clearly wasn't the case, e.g. "shoulder" can plausibly be 10, 14, or 22 (and somewhat less plausibly 26, 34, ...). They can be differentiated (by indicating verbally or gesturally which shoulder, by indicating verbally whether this is the first or second pass across the body). So I got interested in the general question of ambiguities in numeral system. At least for me, "billion" in British English is such a case. And those who operate across language/country boundaries either sense the problem of shifting interpretations, or are at risk through not knowing about the cross-linguistic and -territorial variation that exists. (And those responsible for purchasing sports and recreation equipment should be aware of the dangers inherent in the ambiguity of an order for "two billiard tables".)

    Finally, some respondents noted that there is now an ISO recommendation that would avoid the ambiguous terms by using prefixes for the powers of 1000 as follows: Kilo-, Mega-, Giga-, Tera-, Peta-, Exa-. While some of these are entering ordinary usage (e.g. salaries expressed in K, for kilo-, for thousands of currency units), I don't know if this system will replace the existing ones in ordinary usage. It also has the disadvantage that you have to think up a new relatively arbitrary term each time you want to extend the system, though maybe this isn't a real practical problem for ordinary usage, and I have no intuitions about what the Latinate prefixes would be between "decillion" and "centillion".

    I am grateful to the following for information: Jan Anward, Elena Bertoncini, Michael Betsch, Bill Byrne, Annabel Cormack, Alan Cornell, Anna Fenyvesi, Frederik Fouvry, Laura Gonnerman, Hartmut Haberland, Ted Harding, Tooru Hayasi, Jussi Karlgren, Istvan Kenesei, Jaro Lajovic, Stefan Langer, Maria-Eugenia Nino, Gavin O Se, Juan Pena, Marc Picard, Masha Polinsky, Delphine Renie, Malcolm Ross, Ron Ross, Torgrim Solstad, Alain Theriault, Anna von Klopp.

    - Bernard Comrie Dept of Linguistics GFS-301 tel +1 213 740 2986 University of Southern California fax +1 213 740 9306 Los Angeles, CA 90089-1693, USA e-mail

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