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BBC英语六分钟:How much is a zillion?

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A million, a billion and a zillion - which of these is biggest and which one is not an exact number?  Rob and Catherine talk about the language we use to describe numbers and teach you some useful new vocabulary.
This week's question
What does 'hyperbolic' mean? Is it…
a) endless,
b) enormous or
c) exaggerated?
Listen to the programme to find out the answer.
Vocabulary  
zillion
a very big but indefinite number
indefinite
vague or without clear limits
numeral
number
morpheme
the smallest unit of meaning in a language
intensifier
makes the meaning of another word stronger
prefix
a letter or letters added to the beginning of a word to change its meaning
Transcript
Note: This is not a word-for-word transcript
Rob
Hello, I'm Rob. Welcome to Six Minute English, where we discuss an interesting topic and a zillion items of vocabulary.
Catherine
Hi, I'm Catherine. Er… Rob? We aren't going to discuss a zillion items of vocabulary – we're going to discuss six Rob. We've got six minutes.
Rob
OK, I just wanted to introduce the word zillion because that's what we're talking about today!
Catherine
A zillion means a very big number.
Rob
But when we talk about a zillion things we don't mean an exact number – just a very big one.
Catherine
Did you know Rob that numbers like zillion are called 'indefinite hyperbolic numerals'.
Rob
Really?
Catherine
Indefinite means vague or without clear limits, and numeral is another word for number. But can you tell me what 'hyperbolic' means? Is it…a) endless,
b) enormous or
c) exaggerated?
Rob
I'm going to say… endless. Can you give us another example of an indefinite… hyperbolic numeral pleaseCatherine?
Catherine
I tell you what – why don't we listen to an expert in the field to find out more. Stephen Chrisomalis is a Linguistic Anthropologist at Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan. And he knows a lot about numbers! See if you can spot a few hyperbolic numerals, Rob!
Rob
OK.
Stephen Chrisomalis, Linguistic Anthropologist, Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan
The smallest indefinite hyperbolic numerals are words like umpteen and umpty and umptisteen and fortyleven, and these are big, indefinite, but we still have a sense that these are quite small because of the morphemes -ty and –teen. Then above that you have the numerals like zillion and jillion and squillion, and those are clearly bigger than a million because most of us know what a million is, and we know that everything less than a million has… you know… has some different form.
Rob
OK – I heard umpteen and umpty, which end in the morphemes -teen and –ty – like fifteen and fifty. Then there were two more I didn't catch…
Catherine
A morpheme is the smallest unit of meaning in a language, for example, a word or part of a word, by the way. So you didn't catch umptisteen or fortyleven?
Rob
Hmm. No. I'm not familiar with umpti…steen and forty-whatsit.
Catherine
But let's get back to what Stephen Chrisomalis was saying. The ending –illion tells us a number is big – because we recognize it from real numbers like million and billion.
Rob
So when we put a funny morpheme at the front – to make zillion, jillion, or squillion – we understand that the number is probably more than a million.
Catherine
Exactly. Now do people use big indefinite numbers anywhere else in the world, Rob?
Rob
Sure. In the Middle East, a thousand and one is used as a big indefinite number – like in the famous storybook, A Thousand and One Nights. In Japan they use eight thousand. And in Sweden they say femtioelva – which means fiftyleven.
Catherine
But it still sounds like here in the UK we use sillier numerals than in other parts of the world.
Rob
That's true. And it gets even sillier when we start using intensifiers – these are words – or prefixes in this case – that make the meaning of another word stronger. Let's listen to our expert in the field again, talking about this.
Stephen Chrisomalis, Linguistic Anthropologist, Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan
The intensifiers are ka and ga and ba. So if I were to ask, which is bigger, a zillion or a bazillion? Almost all English speakers will say that a bazillion is definitely bigger than a zillion.
Catherine
OK – well we haven't got a gazillion minutes to finish the show – but I should explain that a prefix is a letter or letters added to the beginning of the  word to change its meaning. Now, let's move on to today's question. Rob, I asked you: What does 'hyperbolic' mean? Is it…
a) endless,
b) enormous or
c) exaggerated?
Rob
I said endless.
Catherine
And you were wrong again I'm afraid Rob! The answer is c) exaggerated.  It has a more specific meaning in mathematics, but the origin of the word is the same. The noun hyperbole comes from Ancient Greek.
Rob
OK, let's use some hyperbole to talk through the vocabulary items we heard today. Number one is 'zillion' – which means a very big but indefinite number. For example, 'I have a zillion things to do today.'
Catherine
OK, number two – 'indefinite' means vague or without clear limits. For example, 'Rob will be on holiday for an indefinite period of time.'
Rob
Really? Who told you that?
Catherine
Let's move on to number three! Numeral – or number. For example, 'The letter X is the Roman numeral for ten.'  Number four – a morpheme is the smallest unit of meaning in a language, for example, a word or part of a word.
Rob
For example, 'Gazillion' contains two morphemes – ga and zillion.'
Catherine
Number five – an 'intensifier' makes the meaning of another word stronger. 'Rob made me an excellent cup of coffee this morning.'
Rob
Did I? The intensifier in this example is 'excellent'. I'm glad you like my coffee, Catherine! OK, our final word today is 'prefix' – which is a letter or letters added to the beginning of a word to change its meaning.
Catherine
For example, 'Un is a very common prefix in the English language.'
Rob
Unquestionably! Well, that's all we have time for today. But if you would like to befriend us – that's be-friend with the prefix 'be' + the noun 'friend'…
Catherine
Then please visit our Facebook, Twitter or YouTube pages. You'll find umpteen useful tips on how to improve your English!
Rob
Not umpteen, Catherine! Squillions! Gazillions, in fact! Bye.
Catherine
Bye!

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