# The number billion ("miliardo")

From Duolingo:

Dek, cent, mil, miliono, miliardo

Ten, hundred, thousand, million, billion

Why is billion miliardo and not biliono? Trillion is triliono.

• This is just a method that's not based on English. If I remember correctly it's from French. Sep 21, 2016 at 2:13
• Yes in French we say "Milliard" Sep 22, 2016 at 17:12

Esperanto uses the long scale, used in most of continental Europe, as opposed to the short scale, in Europe used mostly in England and Russia. A detailed Wikipedia article about the two scales is here. Interestingly, England used to use the long scale, but eventually switched to the short scale, apparently mostly due to US influence.

PMEG gives the following values:

miliono 1.000.000 (ses nuloj)
miliardo 1.000.000.000 (= naŭ nuloj)
biliono 1.000.000.000.000 (= dek du nuloj)
triliono 1.000.000.000.000.000.000 (= dek ok nuloj)

While Reta Vortaro notes that the word "biliono" is actually defined differently in different dictionaries, and thus recommends against using it, to avoid confusion, and suggests using "mil miliardoj":

Diversaj vortaroj difinas la vorton malsame; iuj donas ambaŭ signifojn, iuj nur la unuan, aliaj nur la duan. PIV2 dekretis ke nur la kontinent-eŭropa senco ekzistu ― kvankam ĝi avertas kontraŭ eventuala konfuzo kun biliono2. Ĉiel ajn, por eviti konfuzon oni prefere ne uzu tiun vorton („miliardo“ kaj „mil miliardoj“ estas nemiskompreneblaj). [Sergio Pokrovskij]

This is not a problem that is particular to Esperanto but results from the fact that there are two systems for naming numbers (the short scale and the long scale). Note that this ambiguity is also true for triliono. The word miliardo comes from the long scale, but as it doesn't exist in the short scale it is the recommended way to refer to 10⁹ (a US billion) because it is unambiguous.

There is a good video on YouTube by Numberphile explaning the two systems. They show that the long scale has a nice logic to it. This seems pretty compelling to me so personally I would be happy if Esperanto would standardise on the long scale despite the fact that it is confusing for most English speakers.

• The long scale actually is the standard in Esperanto. However, it's under pressure from English in the same way as the other languages that still have it.
– user54
Sep 21, 2016 at 10:35

It seems to be from French (as is mil = 1000). Here are the "large numbers" according to PMEG:

• miliono 1.000.000 (million)
• miliardo 1.000.000.000 (billion)
• biliono 1.000.000.000.000 (trillion)
• triliono 1.000.000.000.000.000.000 (quintillion)

The root of the problem is that the French, who primarily invented the terminology for numbers larger than a million, couldn't make up their mind. (The million was an earlier Italian invention.) For further details see Wikipedia on Long and short scales.

• In the 15th century, the French started using billion for million squared: 1 billion = 1 million millions. (This was consistent with the long scale.) Many languages, such as (British) English and German adopted the word in this original sense. Unfortunately this left a gap between million and billion, with no word for a thousand millions. This gap was the root of the confusion that followed.
• In the 16th century, some people used the word milliard instead of billion for a million millions! But towards the end of the 16th century the word was apparently reinterpreted so as to fill the gap between a million and a billion (a million millions). A milliard could now be 1000 millions.
• In the 17th century, some people started closing the gap differently by re-interpreting the rarely used word billion as referring to the much more frequently used value of 1000 millions. (Logically, a trillion was then 1000 billions etc. This is known as the short scale.)
• Apparently, in the 17th century people suddenly had a more frequent need for really large numbers. Some switched to the short scale, which re-interprets billion as the more frequently needed 1000 millions. Some started using the word milliard in this sense to fill the gap in the long scale. (Or to continue in a way that has since died out completely: 1 billiard = 1000 milliards, 1 trilliard = 1000 trilliards, etc.)
• In the early 19th century, French standardised on the short scale and considered the long scale obsolete. Americans followed their lead.
• In the mid 20th century, French switched back from short scale to long scale.
• Around the same time, under American influence, British English switched from long scale to short scale. The same is currently happening in most languages.

In Zamenhof's time, the long scale was a logical choice. It was probably the internationally more popular system at the time. And it created less ambiguity. Miliardo could have no other meaning, the word biliono was very rarely used, and even if it was, the presence of the word miliardo showed that the long scale was in use. (If you use the short scale, your audience doesn't get these clues and has to guess whether by biliono you mean a thousand millions or a million millions.)

But nowadays journalists all over the world are translating English news reports without switching from the short scale to the long one, even if their language officially still uses the long scale. As a result, the short scale has become the de facto international standard and should perhaps become the official standard in Esperanto as well. It's inherently more practical anyway, even though in a sense the prefixes are shifted by one.

PS: At least the major European languages all agree to group zeros in groups of three, and the Greek (1 myriad = 10 000) and Indian (1 lakh = 100 000) systems are only of relatively local relevance.

• I disagree with the last paragraph. "Milliard" is commonly used in French, "billion" is a word I very rarely hear ("mille milliards" would be more common), and translating English "billion" as "billion" would be a bad and misleading translation. I suspect it is similar in other languages. Sep 21, 2016 at 8:07
• I disagree with the last paragraph too. Translators use milliard when they translate. The average person wouldn't realise how much zeros a billion has, so it would be ambiguous, but everyone knows what a milliard is, in the countries that use it. Sep 21, 2016 at 9:51
• At least in German the battle for the long scale is practically lost. Maybe in some other countries journalism still has higher standards, but I don't think in the long run the other languages can withstand the combined pressure of English and those languages such as German which are already beginning to topple. If you look at the Wikipedia articles for billion in various languages, you will typically find a mention of how the short scale use is common in translations from English.
– user54
Sep 21, 2016 at 10:18
• PS: The reason I am saying the battle is lost is that while older people generally use the long scale, younger people generally use the short scale. The same is true in the UK, where the government officially adopted the short scale in 1974 and young people follow this in much the same way that they make almost full use of the metric system.
– user54
Sep 21, 2016 at 10:39

Historically 1,000,000,000 is called "billion" not in English, but specifically in North American English. In British English, "billion" used to be strictly the original "bi-million" meaning of which "billion" is a short form dating back to the 16th century: the product of two millions, or 1,000,000,000,000. Only in the late 20th century did Brits start to use "billion" in the American way, instead of calling that quantity "miliard". Needless to say, Esperanto is older than that recent history, and doesn't come from English or from North America.