EP words of the week (#15): mil milhões / bilião

On Wednesday, we discussed differences between EP and BP in small integers (in the age group of John Hughes movies and YA novels); tonight, we go from micro to macro stage, dealing with numbers past the million stage.

And the changes are quite drastic: not only are there changes in vocabulary, but there are also changes in the actual notation of numbers themselves – that is, the same large number in EP (billion, trillion, quadrillion, quintillion) doesn’t equate to the same number in BP with the approximate name.

Regarding changes in vocabulary, they’re pretty straightforward: the ending -llion is rendering in EP as -lião (bilião, trilião, quadrilião/quatrilião, quintilião…) and in BP as -lhão (bilhão, trilhão, quadrilhão/quatrilhão, quintilhão…). It’s as simple as that!

The changes in the value of numbers are related to the different scales used to name integers powers of tenPortugal (and most of Europe and Latin America save for Brazil) uses the long scale, creating segments of millions of… numbers in between the -lião numbers I’ve written in the previous paragraph. Brazil (like the US and the British Isles) uses the short scale, which carries no such division (the number that comes after is always a thousand more than the one that came before). That means:

  • 1 000 000 000 (109) is mil milhões (EP), but um bilhão (BP)
  • 1 000 000 000 000 (1012) is um bilião (EP), but um trilhão (BP)
  • 1 000 000 000 000 000 (1015) is mil biliões (EP), but um quatrilhão/quadrilhão (BP)
  • 1 000 000 000 000 000 000 (1018) is um trilião (EP), but um quintilhão (BP)

And so on. You can take some time to assimilate all this before clicking to access the rest of the article (which is breazier, I promise). I completely understand your predicament!

While these are numbers that people don’t usually use in daily life, it helps knowing these differences when you run into them (for example, if you’re a British tourist reading the Economics and Finance section of a Portuguese newspaper, you have to think not only about the changes in currency and exchange rates but also on the different scales to get an idea of the actual value of numbers involved).

Finally, it’s important to stress that sources in Portugal will always use the long scale regardless of currency; that means “um bilião de libras/dólares” in a Portuguese newspaper refers to one trillion pounds/dollars (in the UK/USA) – that is, 1012 £/$.

Mil milhões de dólares zimbabuanos (EP) = Um bilhão de dólares zimbabuanos (BP)
Um bilião de germes… (EP) = Um trilhão de germes… (BP)

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