If we limit ourselves to Europe and its neighbours, the documented history of business language reaches back as far as the 4th millennium bc. This is due to the exceptional durability of the clay tablets used by the Sumerians, and later on the Akkadians, to document important information. Much of this information concerned economic transactions, such as the purchase of houses or slaves, or an elementary form of book-keeping. According to Graslin (2007: 20), the Akkadians had separate words for local trade (mahiru) and long-distance trade (karu), although in general the economic sphere and its vocabulary were not yet clearly separated from other activities of everyday life.
Proto-Indo-European is even older than Sumerian, dating back to the 5th or 6th millennium bc. However, given the lack of written documents, Proto-Indo-European “business language” can only be reconstructed by comparing the oldest stages of the daughter languages. An early attempt in that direction was made in 1886 by Otto Schrader, who discovered that Proto-Indo-European possessed words for concepts such as ‘property’, ‘barter’, or ‘price’. This meant that, by around 5,000 bc, the Indo-Europeans had already reached a level of economic development well beyond that of primitive civilizations as described by ethnologists. While Benveniste (1969:146) agreed on that point, he insisted that the act of buying and selling involving two individuals should be distinguished from “commerce” in the more ambitious sense of an activity carried out by specialized agents - and for such concepts ProtoIndo-European had no specific designations (p. 140). The corresponding terminologies did not appear until later, in the individual Indo-European languages, along with the development of commerce - more specifically, long-distance trade (p. 141). They were created either on a native basis (cf. Latin merx ‘commodity’ ^ commercium ‘commerce’, mercare ‘to trade’ ^ mercator ‘merchant’; otium ‘leisure’ ^ negotium ‘business’ ^ negotiari ‘to do business’ ^ negotiator ‘wholesaler’) or through borrowing (cf. arrhae ‘deposit', taken from Phoenician). The same is also true of concepts such as ‘debt' or ‘loan', whose designations were created in the individual languages by means of semantic specialization of existing words (pp. 171, 181).
As well as confronting us with a world in which the language of business was not yet neatly separated from everyday language, the study of business-related vocabulary in Sumerian, Akkadian and the older stages of Indo-European is instructive from a methodological point of view. In fact, the very nature of the linguistic evidence available, and the scarcity of independent information about the material and social world referred to, invite scholars to reflect constantly on the relationship between words, concepts, and “reality”. Graslin (2007: 26), for example, argues that our modern conceptual categories in the business sphere overlap only imperfectly with the ancient Akkadian categories. The same observation applies to Roman times. France (2007: 335), in a penetrating study of Roman fiscal terminology, warns against projecting modern categories on to the past without reflection, having found it difficult to pin down the exact meanings of such Latin terms as stipendium, tributum, or vectigal. The task is further complicated by the fact that words tend to be more stable over time than concepts. For example, Latin tributum was originally a neutral term reserved for Roman citizens, but it was later put to a new use by the Emperors - possibly with euphemistic intention - as a designation for the tax the provinces had to pay to Rome (France 2007: 352).
Problems of interpretation tend to be even more demanding in the realm of private finance, for which documents are scarcer. A lucid discussion of many banking and business terms in the Roman world can be found in Andreau (2004). For instance, the Romans had a word for ‘banker’, viz. argentarius, but there has been an intense debate among economic historians as to exactly what banking activities Roman argentarii carried out. Andreau (2004: 30) suggests that they were essentially deposit bankers. Furthermore, the Romans also had a word for ‘loan’, viz. mutuum, but to what extent did the related concept match that of our modern term? According to Andreau (2004:147), the Romans had a much vaguer concept of ‘loan’, ignoring, for example, the modern distinction between loans for production and loans for consumption.
Indeed, by present standards, the Roman economy was relatively unsophisticated, lacking not only bank money, paper money, bonds and shares, to name but a few central features of the modern business world, but also commercial tools that did not appear until the Middle Ages, such as the bill of exchange or double-entry book-keeping. Unsurprisingly, Latin also lacked terms to express these concepts. In other cases, however, the lack of a direct equivalent for a modern term cannot be taken as evidence that the corresponding reality was unknown to the Romans. For instance, they had no term for ‘crisis’, that is, no term covering all the different situations that we today subsume under this concept, yet they did have words for more concrete instances, such as liquidity crises, which they candidly referred to as inopia nummorum ‘lack of coins’. Generally speaking, Roman reasoning about business and the economy was rather low on abstraction. Tellingly, the Romans have left us elaborate treatises on agriculture, politics and rhetoric but no systematic treatment of economic matters.
The problem of imperfect conceptual fit is still highly relevant in contrastive analyses of economics and business terminology in modern languages. In spite of the profound homogenizing effect that several centuries of intercourse among European merchants and economists have had on our conceptual systems, there remain numerous differences that would deserve closer scrutiny by linguists. Valuable studies have been contributed, for example, by Levy (1932: 315-316) on the concept of ‘middle class’, by Hummel (1993) on ‘employee’, by Krause (2008) on ‘performance’, and by IKufte (2014) on ‘responsibility’. It is no coincidence that none of these scholars comes from the Anglo-Saxon academic sphere, where the conceptual structuring of the economy and the business world in present-day English tends to be taken for granted.