The Renaissance

Although a certain number of Italian business genres and terms had already found their way into other European languages during the Late Middle Ages, it was the invention of the printing press that radically changed the landscape. Information about cutting-edge business techniques, such as the bill of exchange and doubleentry book-keeping (largely exclusive to Italian merchants during the Late Middle Ages), now began to be diffused internationally through texts in several major European languages. As we noted in Section 4.3, the same is true of books on commercial arithmetic. Hoock and Jeannin (1991-2001) counted no less than 1,500 books on commerce in European languages from the 16th, 2,000 from the 17th and 8,000 from the 18th century.

This frenetic editorial activity is the reason why so many business terms in European languages - apart from Italian itself - date back to the 16th and 17th centuries and are to be considered straightforward Italianisms (cf. Schirmer 1911b and Wolf 1983 on German [Wilhelm 2013 unfortunately is very unreliable]; Bruijn-van der Helm 1992 on Dutch; Rainer 2003 on the Spanish and Rainer 2014 on the French terminology relating to the bill of exchange). The translations, however, were not always made directly from an Italian original; occasionally some intermediary source came into play. Haschka (1960), for example, has demonstrated that the English terminology of double-entry book-keeping had its immediate source in Jan Ympyn Christoffels’ Nouvelle instruction of 1543 - itself based on an Italian source - which was translated “out of Frenche into Englishe”. Ympyn’s treatise was published at Antwerp, which, together with Lyon, was then one of the two most important commercial and financial centres in Europe. As a fundamentally French-speaking city, it played a prominent role in the creation and diffusion of French commercial terminology (Jeannin 1989: 42).

Unfortunately, historical and etymological dictionaries often fail to reflect this state of affairs as faithfully as one would wish: in part because in-depth studies of the history of business terminology are still scarce, but also because, even where they exist, lexicographers do not always take them into account (Haschka’s findings, for example, are still ignored by the Oxford English Dictionary). One important source of first attestations in French dictionaries is Kuhn’s (1931) Leipzig dissertation on 17th-century commercial terminology. This, though, is essentially based on documents from the second half of the period and therefore leaves the earlier history of these terms in the dark (lettre de change, for example, is dated 1671, while the oldest attestation presently available is from 1401). Overall, the situation in the 16th century looks paradoxical: just as the commercial centre of gravity shifted from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic, and, consequently, Italy’s position in international trade started to decline, Italian commercial techniques, commercial genres and terms conquered the world. Thus, from a linguistic point of view, there was no break at all, with the Late Middle Ages merging neatly into the Renaissance.

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