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Numbers
by David Short on 05/27/03 at 09:38:09

I've just seen the new section about numbers.

The view of number conventions is rather distorted.  It looks as though English-speakers invented numbers and everyone else then copied us from there following either the UK or the US.

The system you call British is in fact the system used as far as I now in virtually all countries.  It is about as widespead as the metric system and may merit the name "international".  Ironically, the UK is one country where it is not in fact used.

It is true that the traditional "British billion" is the international billion equal to a million squared, but, for decades now, the American billion equal to a thousand million has been commonly used.  It's a pity we have succombed to the influence like this, but it's done now, and you will be hard-pressed to find any British publication in which a billion is used to mean a million squared.

Another discrepancy is the inclusion of the "milliard".  Although it is true that languages of countries using this system do generally have a word that looks like this (e.g. milliard, milliardo, miljard...), English is not one of them!  You may find it in old texts (or even dictionaries), but it is just an example of borrowing the French word to avoid having to say thousand million.  Nowadays, we'd just call it a billion.  Ask an English person in the street how much a milliard is and he or she will have no idea whatsoever.

The French have not "recently" adopted the "British" system.  Some French mathematicians, way back in the 17th century, started to incorrectly use the number conventions, but then went back to the logical, international system that had been invented in France and Italy in the 15th and 16th centuries.  Unfortunately, the 17th-century mistake was copied by the Americans, and unfortunately again, the British copied the Americans in the 20th century, turning the system in which a billion is a thousand million into not so much the system used in a particular country, but the system used in the English language.  That is, we can now speak of the international numbering convention, and the one used in English.

It is perhaps also worth pointing out that the international system is associated with the use of points or spaces to separate thousands and commas to mark decimals, whereas the English system uses commas for thousands, and decimal points.

Finally, it should be noted that, due to the domination of the English language, a large amount of material used in the non-English-speaking countries is actually originally translated from English (CNN news reports etc.).  Now, because many (too many) translators are lazy, not properly trained or just stupid, they sometimes put numerous Anglicisms into their texts.  This means that you do occasionally see texts in Italian, Spanish, etc., that put the world population at six trillion instead of six billion (six thousand million), because they have stupidly translated the English "billion" by "billione", "billón." etc.  However, this sort of mistake is not widespread enough to talk about any change of system.

Keep up the good work on the site.
David Short,
English/Spanish teacher and French/Spanish/Italian-to-English translator from London, residing in Bordeaux.


Re: Numbers
by Robert Fogt on 05/28/03 at 02:16:43

Thanks for providing the information.  I will put it on my to-do list to do more research on the subject.

Hopefully someday I'll get to live in a country other than the just the U.S.

My work on this site could certainly use a more worldly view.


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