LINGUIST List 7.451

Sun Mar 24 1996

Sum: Billion

Editor for this issue: T. Daniel Seely <>


  1. 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

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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