The history of the language of economics and business

  • 1. Introduction
  • 2. Antiquity
  • 3. The Early Middle Ages
  • 4. The High and Late Middle Ages
  • 5. The Renaissance
  • 6. Foreign languages in business in modern times
  • 7. From “Handlungswissenschaft” to Betriebswirtschaftlehre
  • 8. The language of economics from the Mercantilist period to the present
  • 9. Conclusion


To begin a volume about applied linguistics with a chapter on language history may strike the reader as strange. Yet, before turning to more obviously relevant topics, it may be useful to put the language of economics and business briefly into historical perspective. One benefit that the scholar can reap from a historical approach is a heightened awareness of the internal complexity that characterises our object of inquiry. At first glance, the catchy label “business language might lead one to assume the existence of a homogeneous entity corresponding to that label in the outside world. However, the historical perspective shows how, from very modest beginnings in the language of commerce, this special language has developed ever more capillary ramifications in modern societies with the increasing division of labour, and with the growing sophistication of business techniques and economic thinking. Another benefit of the historical approach is that it sensitizes the researcher to the fact that the overwhelming dominance of English in this domain is a relatively recent phenomenon: Italian, French, German, and to a minor degree even languages such as Arabic, Dutch and Japanese, have all helped to shape the vocabulary and genres of the international language of economics and business. Last but not least, we should not forget that all speakers have memories, and that the latest stage of history is therefore part and parcel of synchrony. This verdict, of course, also applies to language history, as is shown by the many occasions on which speakers make metalinguistic comments about the obsolete or neologistic character of an expression. In a 2014 magazine I read: “Economists used to call this inflating the currency. Some still do, but in Washington DC they now call it quantitative easing.” And in a Financial Times article dated 17 September 2004: “For the

DOI 10.1515/9781614514862-002

past 15 years, Intel [...] has been trying to find new opportunities to balance its core business. For the first half of the 1990s, managers referred to this ambition as ‘Job 2’, as opposed to ‘Job 1’, which referred to the core business.” These two quotations, which one could multiply indefinitely, remind us that the language of economics and business is highly dynamic, much more so than our dictionaries would have us believe.

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