Foreign languages in business in modern times

Until the Thirty Years’ War (1618-48), Italian remained the most important foreign business language in the German-speaking lands, at least in Augsburg and Nuremberg (cf. Gluck, Haberlein, and Schroder 2013), while afterwards French became predominant. Polish and Czech were in little demand because of the German-speaking bourgeoisie in the countries where these languages were spoken. However, as noted by Peters (2000:1502), the merchants of the Hanseatic League conducted business with Russia in the language of their customers. In 1423, Dutch merchants were even prohibited to study Russian in order to protect the trade monopoly which the Hanseatic cities enjoyed with the Russians.

Low German, the language of the Hanseatic League, also had a deep influence on the Scandinavian languages. It was eventually abandoned in written communication in favour of High German in the 16th and 17th centuries. The dominant role of French in Europe in the second half of the 18th century can be inferred from the fact that in 1800, the German author Felix Reishammer published a treatise on foreign exchange arbitrage in French. His justification of the choice was that French was the most commonly known language, at least among people interested in the subject of his book (Jeannin 1989: 50). English did not gain prominence prior to the 18th century, with the first German-English textbook on business correspondence being published in 1780. Some 150 years later, Fehr (1909: I) observed: “Das Englische gilt heute allgemein als die erste Handelssprache der Welt.” [Today, English is universally considered to be the most important language of commerce].

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