What amount would you prefer to have saved in the bank, one billion colones or one trillion colones?
The figures almost never lie: 1,000,000,000 is clearly less than 1,000,000,000,000 so it is almost certain that if you are given a choice, amount number two will be your choice.
The confusion comes if we talk about billions, the term in English, or billions, the term in Spanish.
Why are they not the same?
Their writing and pronunciation are so similar that you often have to stop and think about the equivalence.
But the billion of the English-speaking countries is equal to 1,000 million: a 1 followed by 9 or zeros: 1,000,000,000.
Meanwhile, the billions in Spanish are equivalent to a million million, that is, to a 1 followed by 12 zeros: 1,000,000,000,000.
The truth is that figures such as billions, trillions or quadrillions are very large amounts that we rarely encounter in daily life.
They are inevitable if we talk about the economy: the debt of a country or its GDP, for example.
In science, they are used to refer, for example, to how far a star is from the earth and in technology if we want to talk about the number of web pages that exist.
Long and short scale
English-speaking countries use what is called a short numbering scale, which means that your jump in the figures – from millions to billions and trillions … etc – is done every 1,000 units.
In Spanish, the long scale is used and they jump in figures every million.
That makes it easier for us to refer to larger numbers.
Part of the blame in this mess is that both systems before reaching the trillion or the billion are the same.
The figure that precedes them is one million and from there one system uses the short scale and the other long one, advancing through the figures in different jumps.
Some go faster and others slower.
The long scale is the most used in continental Europe and in most countries in South and Central America.
The exceptions are Puerto Rico and Brazil.
And it is that the influence of the United States is important.
As Daniel Linder, professor in the Department of Translation and Interpreting at the University of Salamanca, in Spain, explains, the term billions is gaining ground.
“Right now in the practice of translating into Spanish and I imagine that the same thing is happening with other Romance languages, the English or Saxon or North American mode is being adopted more and more. Billions with ten figures are being adopted.”
“For the more traditionalists this is an incorrectness, but for the non-traditionalists it is simply a kind of adaptation of the Spanish language and Romance languages towards a reality of the world,” he explains.
The short scale is used in most English and Arabic speaking countries. Japan, China, India, and other Southeast Asian countries use a different naming system. In Africa there are some countries that use the short scale and others that use the long scale.
When did it start to be different?
Carlos Marquéz Linares, professor at the Department of English and German Philologies at the University of Granada, in Spain, recalls how the use of billions in English has been spreading.
“The Oxford English Dictionary reminds us that due to the influence of the French system, which combined the short scale and the long scale, in American English this word came to designate one billion, a meaning that was extended to British English and the rest of the varieties of English later of the Second World War ”
“Since the 1970s, it is the accepted meaning today even in the UK.”
Ironically, recalls the professor, in French today “billion” no longer means a billion, but a million million, as in Spanish, and for a billion in French the term “milliard” is used.
So, which would you rather see on your bank statement, one billion or one trillion colones?
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