Let’s make a language, part 25a: Business (Intro)

In today’s world, business is big, well, business. Commerce, economy, capitalism rules all. So it’s not surprising that we have a lot of words to describe such a topic. But it wasn’t always that way, and a lot of the terms we use to talk about business are, in fact, derived from strange places.

On the wealth of nations

The idea of value, of course, is about as old as civilization. From the first time one man noticed that his neighbor had something he wanted, we’ve had an economy. When trades became possible, when people became settled enough that they could diversify, business was born. Business then begat money, credit, coin, currency, and all those other nifty things we associate with wealth today.

Word-wise, a lot of basic terms in the business sphere are pretty old. Some English terms (e.g., gold) have come down almost directly from the Indo-European days with little change in meaning. Many others derive from Latin (credit, coin) or Greek (economy). Business itself is an example of an Anglo-Saxon native, dollar is a German loan, and so on.

Tracing the etymology of business and commerce words tells us a lot about the economic history of the English language. A lot of the “technical” terms are classical in origin, stemming from the past few centuries. Words that came about in medieval times represent concepts that existed in those times, and it’s clear that the Romans had an idea of credits and debts. In the oldest days, there might not have been a thriving stock market, but there was indeed a stock market.

“Stock” is meant here as “livestock”, which brings us to the next point: even if there’s no money, that doesn’t mean there’s no wealth. Coin only came about as an easier way to keep track of wealth, but anything can have a price. Land, cattle, grain, slaves, or anything a culture considers valuable will eventually be bought and sold, and the traders will need words to talk about those actions. The earlier they “discover” business, the more likely the base terms will be native, rather than loans from more advanced neighbors.

The day job

It doesn’t take a lot of sophistication to work out the rough outline of an economy. The things people do often will quickly become named, and those things a culture treasures will be among the first in line for native words. An agrarian society built upon a complex system of barter will have a much different set of “core” words than a highly capitalist mercantile empire. An expanding nation full of coinage will spread its money words to its penniless neighbors, as with the Roman denarius, whose descendants can be found throughout the Western world: dinars, deniers, and the “d.” abbreviation for pennies (whether old English coins or American nails).

Work itself can also be the subject of linguistic invention. Today’s English takes a functional approach to that, usually deriving an agent noun out of an action verb (programmer, cameraman). We’ve already seen some of that in earlier parts, but it’s pertinent here, too. And it’s another case where history and etymology mix: although many terms are simple agent derivations, we’ve got a few that aren’t, and those tend to be older.

Tools of the trade

On a more mundane level, the simple acts of trade, being so commonplace, so ancient, will almost certainly be nativized, if not fully native. We buy and sell, we trade and offer. Then again, we also exchange, accept, and reject, and all those are Latin loans. But those aren’t exactly newcomers to the language. They’ve been around. People use them all the time, because they do those things all the time, and the words aren’t considered foreign except by the most extreme purists.

So, once again, we can see the connection between language and culture. Business starts small, with trades, purchases, barter, payment, loans, and the like. Most everybody throughout history has done something of that sort, so there are common words to describe such actions and concepts in most languages. Loanwords will only come about here when an outside force presses them upon the speakers.

As economic science progresses, the terminology grows, but the same golden rule remains. A corporation might seem like a relatively recent invention, but the word is Latin, derived from corpus, the body. Pecuniary is a word that comes from ancient roots related to cattle, a valuable material good in such times. Economy itself? Greek, from an term roughly describing management or administration. The big-business words of today, like quant and blockchain, might not have the same pedigree, but they’re no less a product of their time.

Coming up

The next two weeks will see the usual posts for Isian and Ardari. Next month, however, is another “off” month for the series. Instead, I’ll be making a new translation special, just as soon as I figure out something to translate. Then, we’ll come back in July for Part 26, a study of government. Hopefully, ours won’t be as awful as the real thing.

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