English in comparison with German, Polish and Spanish

In the introduction to this chapter we mentioned the structure of a language as one key determinant of its terminological profile. The profile of economics and business terminology outlined in Section 2 thus describes the situation in English only and does not automatically apply to other languages. In the present section, we investigate the extent to which our findings for English also apply to other European languages. Specifically, we will compare English with a second Germanic language, German, and with Polish and Spanish as representatives of the Slavonic and Romance languages families, respectively. Although all four languages belong to the Indo-European language group, we will see that there are huge differences between them in the areas of economics and business language.

Methodological preliminaries

What, then, is to be the basis of our comparison? Clearly, there are various options. One would be to establish comparable lists on the basis of economics and business textbooks written in English, German, Polish and Spanish, a second to look up the terminological equivalents of our English terms in translations of English textbooks. In our case, the latter alternative was ruled out by a purely practical problem, viz. the unavailability (to us) of German, Polish and Spanish translations of the textbooks by Samuelson and Nordhaus (2010) or Rugman and Hidgetts (2000) in the relevant editions. Admittedly, the first approach has the advantage that the terminology used in the other languages would probably be less influenced by English than in translations. However, it too has a drawback: the difficulty of knowing how far any inter-language differences identified merely reflect differences in the subjects treated in the respective textbooks. In view of these considerations, we finally settled on a third approach, viz. to produce our own German, Polish and Spanish equivalents for the terms on our lists of economics and business terminology, and to use these as the basis of comparison. Since specialized dictionaries in this domain are full of gaps and often contain unreliable translations, each proposed equivalent was checked with the aid of the infinite resources nowadays provided by the internet.

The terminology of business is in constant flux, and for many concepts there are two or more competing terms in current use. The reasons for this are manifold. First, for most areas of economic and business terminology there is no institution that has the authority to issue binding norms regarding language use (cf. Chapter 19 on language planning, standardization and linguistic purism). Accounting (cf. Chapter 21) is a partial exception in that respect, but even in accounting terminology polymorphism is the norm rather than the exception (see the example discussed below). Second, in the case of Polish, the still unstable state of business terminology is a direct consequence of the fact that not until some 25 years ago did the country become a market economy. A third factor is constituted by the “polycentric” nature of three of the four languages considered here: English, German and Spanish are each spoken in more than one country, so that usage and the official norm can vary accordingly. Polycentrism is particularly pronounced in the case of Spanish, a language spoken in some 20 countries and with no natural linguistic centre of gravity.

Here, it should suffice to give just one telling example of polymorphism from the terminology of accounting, viz. the German, Polish and Spanish equivalents of the English term return on assets. This term has two German equivalents, Gesamtka- pitalrendite and Gesamtkapitalrentabilitat, both of which translate literally as ‘total capital return’. The variation here derives from the fact that there are two options for expressing the concept of ‘return’, viz. Rendite and Rentabilitat. In Polish, there are three, viz. rentownosc, dochodowosc and zwrot, as well as the additional possibility of adding wskaznik or stopa ‘rate’ at the beginning. The result is a range of possible realizations for the underlying concept ‘(rate) return(-GENITIVE) assets- genitive’, of which the following five have some currency: wskaznik rentownosci aktywow, rentownosc aktywow, wskaznik dochodowosci aktywow, dochodowosc aktywow, stopa zwrotu z aktywow. For Spanish, Rainer and Schnitzer (2010: 661) identified no less than 18 different formal realizations: return may be rendered as retorno, rentabilidad or rendimiento, assets by the singular form activo or the plural activos, the preposition on as either de or sobre, while speakers are free to insert or omit a definite article between the preposition and its complement. Apart from these native terms, in all three languages the English term is occasionally also used without adaptation. Dictionaries, both mono- and bilingual, generally only provide little idea of the number of polymorphisms to be found in practice and therefore constitute very unreliable sources for the study of the language of economics and business. When we encountered cases of polymorphism in the process of translating our list of business terms, we decided to choose the variant which the Google search engine found to be most frequent.

The comparison will proceed following the parameters identified in Section 2 as most relevant for English. Of course, not all parameters are equally pertinent from a contrastive perspective. The part-of-speech parameter, for example, can be glossed over, since the languages under consideration have almost identical word-class systems. Another parameter that we will not discuss in detail is the percentage of simplexes, which is approximately the same in all four languages, although not always does a simplex in one language correspond to a simplex in another. The German equivalent of the English simplex asset, for example, can be either a simplex (Aktivum) or a compound (Aktivposten, literally ‘active item, entry’), while the equivalent of bill is a derivative (Rechnung, literally ‘calculation’). A third parameter that need not be taken up here is neoclassical compounding since combining forms are scarce in the English terminology of business, as we have seen in Section 2.6, and the same is true for the other languages. The combining form euro- present in our only example from the business list (Eurobond) has been adopted unchanged by German (Eurobond, Euromarkt-Anleihe), Polish (euroobligacja) and Spanish (euro- bono). The parameters relevant from a contrastive perspective are therefore the degree of complexity of complex terms and the relative weight of different patterns of word formation. To consideration of these two factors, we will add some observations on the role of non-assimilated English loan words in German, Polish and Spanish business terminology.

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