The most distinctive counting system in English? Indian cardinal numbers

By Richard Shapiro, OED

Of the many forms of English spoken around the world, few exhibit a great deal of variation from the British English model of counting. A conspicuous exception is provided by Indian English. Two Hindi words for cardinal numbers have passed into standard Indian English, bringing with them a distinct way of thinking about numbers. These are lakh, meaning one hundred thousand, and crore, meaning ten million.

Both terms are first recorded in the OED in quotations taken from editions of Samuel Purchas’s Pilgrimage, a vast collection of travel narratives first published in the early seventeenth century. The various editions of this collection provide an invaluable resource for documenting vocabulary borrowed from around the world, often supplying the earliest evidence for such words. At this point Purchas’s collections account for the first quotations of 295 dictionary entries and over 650 individual senses, ranging from unusual exotica to more mundane commonplaces.

While Purchas provides the first written documentation in English for crore and lakh, these terms and their cognates were already well-established in many South Asian languages. As the use of English in India surged during and after the British Raj, both became standard usage in the English of the region, and they remain in common use in Indian newspaper articles, textbooks, and works of literature.

Money—and gameshows

While widely used in a variety of contexts, we find that both crore and lakh are most frequent in discussions of money. The first series of the Indian version of the popular game show Who wants to be a Millionaire? did not offer a top prize of one million rupees, as viewers of the British and American versions may have come to expect, but instead contestants fought to reach one crore rupees. Lesser prizes were counted in lakhs, while those below one lakh are in thousands. This is typical of the counting system used in Indian English.

The prize immediately below the one crore grand prize was one of fifty lakh rupees (fifty multiples of one hundred thousand). Where a speaker of British English would naturally convert this number to five million rupees, such a conversion would be far more unusual in Indian English. Large numbers of rupees are counted in multiples of lakhs until they reach one crore, with million usually being skipped altogether (although see below for a common exception).

The values of these terms are reflected in the Indian system of numerical notation. The OED’s entry for lakh cites the Times:

1955 Times 3 Aug. 2/6 Detailed prospecting, which has so far cost 19·80 lakhs of rupees, led to the location of iron ore in Kalabagh and its suburbs in the Punjab.

The London-based newspaper uses the Indian system of counting for its Punjab-based story, supplying the value of rupees in lakhs, rather than the British English equivalent, 1.98 million. Numerically, British notation would render this figure as 1,980,000—commas dividing one million and 980 thousand. However, standard Indian notation gives this as 19,80,000. To a speaker of Indian English, this figure may be easily read as the above number, the commas here dividing 19 lakh and 80 thousand. It would be unusual for such a speaker to count this as 1.98 million, as the use of million is unnecessary in a counting system based on lakhs and crores. Therefore, large numbers continue to be rendered in lakhs until one crore is reached, and recorded as 1,00,00,000. The first comma here represents the crore, followed by commas for lakhs and thousands.

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One million dollars (or 4.5 crore)

While crore and lakh are the standard terms used to count Indian money, there are some financial contexts in which a speaker of Indian English would use the millions and billions favoured by speakers of other forms of the English language. In fact, there are certain cases in which we could find crore and million being used by the same Indian writer, even in the same sentence. In discussions relating to money, this is most common when drawing a distinction between Indian and non-Indian usage. The Times of India, cited in the OED’s lakh entry, relates the attendance of Indian businessmen at the World Economic Forum in Davos, and the extravagant prices associated:

2011 Times of India (Nexis) 30 Jan., Over 100 Indian CEOs, who have spent anywhere between $50,000 (over Rs 22 lakh) and $1 million (Rs 4.5 crore) to attend the event.

The forum at Davos being the apogee of globalized economic power, the attendance fees are given in the currency of the globalized economy: the US dollar. The dollar values are provided using the standard US notation—50,000 to represent fifty thousand, rising to the rounded figure of 1 million. To provide the figure in rupees, the writer not only converts the values from dollars to rupees, but also the counting system from the US standard to its Indian counterpart. Tipping its hat to globalization, the newspaper retains the distinctive counting system that is firmly established in Indian English.