Literature review

Although several popular research foci can be detected when surveying research into accounting language, it is not easy to categorise the contributions clearly as the various areas involved show many overlaps. In fact, a distinct classification might not only be impossible, but also misleading, as much research cuts across several aspects: many critical studies of accounting, for instance, tend to engage in metaphor analysis, too, and so in fact would fall into both categories. Nevertheless, the main focus of research seems to have been in certain specific areas.

The first of these is meaning, on which early work involving language in accounting largely focused, usually from a communicative point of view and originally applying semantic-differential techniques. The main researchers in this area include Haried (1972,1973) and Adelberg (1979,1982). Much of this work focuses on the perception of accounting terms by different groups involved (e.g., Houghton 1987; Adelberg and Farelly 1989; Bagranoff, Houghton, and Hronsky 1994; Wines 2006).

There is considerable common ground between the works just mentioned and research into the readability of accounting texts. Amongst these we can find Adelberg (1983), Smith and Taffler (1992), Bloomfield (2008a), and Li (2008). These surveys often tend to be quite mechanistic in their approach, as Kettunen (2011: 9) criticises, and focus on longer texts rather than terminology (see also Sydserff and Weetman

2002). A comprehensive overview of this line of research is provided in Hellmann, Perera, and Patel (2010: 4-8).

One of the most bountiful areas of research concerns accounting and metaphors (see also Chapter 18, Section 2.2.4). Generally, most authors in this field seem to define metaphors in the way Lakoff and others see them (compare, e.g., Lakoff and Johnson 1980). There are roughly three (again, overlapping) themes running through this area of research. First, accounting itself is frequently seen as a metaphor, i.e. the metaphor applied to the concept of accounting provides an interpretation of the nature and significance of accounting (Morgan 1988: 481). Second, the use of metaphor in accounting is discussed much more theoretically, and, third, various metaphors used in accounting texts are closely scrutinised, usually from a rather critical point of view as regards their function.

In the first group of studies, for instance, we can find Avery (1953), who was one of the first to discuss accounting as a language from a metaphor-theoretical perspective. Amernic and Craig argue that accounting functions as a lens and an instrument that encourages the perception of accounting as “accurate, objective and a faithful and complete teller of the truth” (2009: 882). Morgan presents a whole list of metaphors for accounting, all reinforcing a myth of objectivity, including accounting as history, economics, information, rhetoric, politics, mythology, magic, disciplined control and ideology, as well as domination and exploitation (for a full list of original sources see Morgan 1988: 481). Finally, McGoun, Bettner, and Coyne (2005) argue that financial statements can function as lenses, photographs and even the board game Scrabble. In their analysis of these pedagogical metaphors, as they call them, the overlap with the second group, which includes (sometimes highly) theoretical treatises, becomes apparent.

As examples of the second group we again find Morgan (1988: 480), who dwells on accountants’ “overarching metaphor encouraging a numerical view of reality”. Robson, not dissimilarly, sees accounting “as a numerical inscription device for long distance control” (1992: 703). Another contribution is made by Walters (2004), who even brings Nietzsche into play. From a metaphor-theoretical perspective, Walters-York sees metaphor as an inseparable component of accounting discourse serving a number of functions, such as fluency, articulation and defamiliarisation, which might also be used rhetorically to “situate and obscure the agents of persuasion in a text” (1996: 60). In a similar vein, Young (2013: 884) argues that metaphors are not just “optional flourishes”, but that they further the understanding of concepts and subject matter. Awareness of the use of metaphors “decreases the possibility that they will be regarded as facts, directs our attention to the inevitable omissions of any metaphor and asks us to recognize the values at work in the selection of features to highlight through metaphor”.

In general, metaphor-related work in the third group overlaps very much with papers of a critical nature as regards the function of language in accounting discourse. A full enumeration of these critical papers would go far beyond the scope of this chapter, which can only list a qualified selection. Some of the most interesting earlier work in this area, for instance, includes Gambling (1987), Solomons (1991), Tinker (1991) and Cooper and Puxty (1994). Examples of more recent work include Young (2003) on rhetorical strategies applied by the Financial Accounting Standards Board, Courtis (2004) on obfuscation in annual and interim reports, Craig and Amernic (2004) on rhetoric used in a privatisation process, and Amernic and Craig

(2010) on the use of accounting language to, as they put it, facilitate a CEO’s narcissism. On the language of standard-setters, Hronsky and Houghton (2001:135) remark that “subtle changes in the wording of regulations are perceived to have differences in meaning, and these differences are detected and acted upon by practitioners”, thus highlighting the importance of language choice. Most recently, Merkl-Davies and Koller (2012) employ critical discourse analysis in analysing the use of metaphor in a company chairman’s rhetoric.

A further branch of research considers language change in accounting. Most work in this field focuses on a rather narrow range of examples and instances. More generally, Mills (1989: 33) argues that the history of accounting is reflected in the change in the use of certain keywords. Building on this, Potter (1999) illustrates the power of new terminology in the context of public sector reforms in Australia. Parker (1994), on the other hand, suggests reasons for the introduction of new terminology into accounting English. The most comprehensive overview in this area is probably provided by Evans (2010), who not only aims to provide a more structured linguistic approach, but also puts special emphasis on the motivations behind changing accounting language.

Accounting terminology has also been scrutinised from a genre-analytical point of view, where accounting is seen as a language for specific purposes with its own characteristic discourse types and features (see Bhatia 2008). Flowerdew and Wan (2006), for example, examine tax computation letters as a rather specific sub-genre, while in Flowerdew and Wan (2010) they apply a similar approach to audit reports.

Some researchers have also analysed accounting terminology from a lexicographic angle. In connection with an ongoing online dictionary project, Fuertes- Olivera and his co-researchers address the dynamic nature of accounting terminology, particularly across languages (Fuertes-Olivera et al. 2013). Fuertes-Olivera and Nielsen

(2011) focus on remedying deficiencies in existing dictionaries by using conceptually similar terms in both source and target languages, and, in other work, illustrate how the problem of missing equivalence can be tackled in an online accounting dictionary (Fuertes-Olivera and Nielsen 2012).

Finally, the issue of translating accounting terms has become more and more prominent, together with the growing trend towards standardisation. The next section will therefore focus on these two aspects together, as translation of this highly specific language frequently turns into an obstacle to harmonisation efforts.

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