Meanings and Roots of the Word “Accounting”




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Meanings and Roots of the Word “Accounting”

A Comparative Study of Sixty Five Languages

(Jacques Richard, Professor at Université Paris Dauphine, August 2009)


Abstract

The objective of this paper is to answer six main questions. Question one: what are the words that are actually used to denote “accounting” in the different nations that exist across the globe? Question two: can we classify these words into families and do these families correspond to the families of languages traditionally proposed by linguists? Question three: what families of words used to denote “accounting” are the most spoken in the world? Question four: what are the roots of these words or of these families of words? Question five: do these roots have different meanings and cast different angles of light on the nature of the “accounting science”? Question six: do these meanings imply to revisit the question of the relationship between words and objects such as debated by Michel Foucault? The main answers to these questions are that only six families of words are used to denote “accounting” for about 90% of people living on the earth; that these words are mainly not in line with the linguistic families; that the most spoken word for accounting is coming from the Semitic (practically Arabic) language; that the roots of the words used for denoting “accounting” express very different meanings that highlight the different facets of the accounting science and that , contrary to the Foucault’s thesis, these words (roots) seem to give some representation of the complex nature of accounting.


Keywords: accounting, history, etymology, epistemology, philosophy, linguistics

Email-address: Jacques.Richard@dauphine.fr or Jacques.Richard17@laposte.net


Above and beyond brief allusions to this question that can be found in a great many books and articles, examining the specific words that denote accounting in different languages and their etymology is a relatively new and fragmented field of study. It would seem that, in 1984, Baladouni was the first to publish a paper in The Accounting Historian’s Journal (Vol. 11, Number 2, pp 101-109) specifically focusing on the etymology of certain accounting terms in the English language based on his study of the illustrious Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology edited by Onions (1966). No doubt, we may find other such studies for words used in other languages or, lacking that, simply turn directly to their respective etymological dictionaries, such as Duden for German, Fasmer for Russian, Dubois, Mitterand et Dauzat for French, etc. Yet, all these disparate sources do not provide us with a complete overview of the question. The purpose of this paper is to undertake a systematic comparative study with a global scope and to answer six main questions.

Question one: today, what are the words that are actually used to denote accounting in the different nations that currently exist across the globe?

Question two: can we classify these words into broader families and, if so, do these families correspond to the families of languages traditionally proposed by linguists? For instance, are the words used in Israel and in Arab-speaking countries “closely related” due to the fact that these countries use languages related to the so-called Semitic language family?

Question three: what families of words (whether or not they correlate to linguistic families) are the most spoken in the world? For example, is the stem “count”, found in the word “accounting”, dominant worldwide due to the strong influence currently exerted by so-called “Anglo-Saxon” countries over the setting of international accounting rules? In other words, is there a link between the “popularity” of a word (meaning, the number of people who use it) and the political and economic domination of one nation or one group of nations on the global stage?

Question four: what roots of words (or families of words) are currently used and what are their meanings? Delving into the history of words and searching for their meanings is a classical task in traditional linguistics, which notably sets out to show that the basic purpose of words is to represent objects. Yet, this purpose is denied by some schools of linguistics, which assign a purely symbolic function to words and thereby relativize, if not deny outright, the significance of etymology.

Question five: Let us assume that we can assign meaning to different roots of the words for “accounting”. Does this meaning (or these meanings, in the case of plurality) cast a uniquely different light, or different angles of light, on to the nature of “accounting science”?

To conclude this study, we return to the issue of the relationship between words and objects with the help of Foucault (1966) and, with help of Kant (1787), revisit the question of objectivity in accounting (sixth question).


Part One: words used around the world to denote “accounting”


Rather than setting off into the unknown and tackling this question haphazardly, we take as our frame of reference a classification of languages drawn up by linguists and we examine, for each of these families of languages and for each language in those families, the nouns used to denote the concept of accounting. The problem is that there are a number of language classifications available, which leads us first to address this problem before we can move on to selecting one classification and finding the words we are seeking.


1.1 The diversity of language classifications and our choice


Like all sets of objects, languages can be classified according to various criteria, notably by their genealogical, typological or areal features (Peyraube, 2003, p.7). The oldest approach is the genealogical approach, also known as the (language) tree (Stammbaum), first set out by Lottner (1858) and Schleicher (1861). Families of languages are split in hierarchical order into mother, daughter and sister languages on the basis of lexicostatistical analysis that compares basic vocabulary and the word stems that make up this vocabulary: genealogically—or genetically—related languages are those that share a large number of words in common and derive from the same mother language. The typological approach, founded at the turn of the nineteenth century by the works of grammarians such as Schlegel (1808), Bopp (1816), Rask (1818) and Grimm (1819), then improved upon by the neo-grammarians who discovered the laws of phonetics such as Saussure (1878) and Brugmann (1886), seeks to show that, looking beyond genealogical diversity, we can view languages through observation of shared linguistic structures by distinguishing, notably, agglutinate languages (made up of radicals and affixes, such as Turkish), flexional languages (with declinations and conjugations, such as Russian) and isolating languages (with combinations of monosyllables, such as Mandarin) . Lastly, the areal approach gives primacy to considerations of a geographical order by observing that the homology of languages may stem not from common origins but from relations between them (as asserted by Johannes Schmidt from 1872 onwards with his theory of waves—Wellen-Theorie). However, according to Peyraube (2003, p.7), “when we speak of language classification, we generally mean a genealogical or historical classification. This is the orthodox viewpoint”. Here, we bow to orthodoxy by taking as the basis of our study a well known genealogical classification—the Freelang classification (2009)—while reserving the right to comment later on the problems raised by this choice.


According to Freelang, twenty-three languages families can be discerned that bring together the majority of known languages spoken today or in the past across the globe. These families are: Indo-European, Basque, Dravidian, Uralic, Caucasian, Altaic, Japonic, Ainu, Korean, Sino-Tibetan, Austro-Asiatic, Afro-Asiatic, Nilo-Saharan, Niger-Kordofanian (Niger-Congo), Khoisan, Austronesian, Indo-Pacific, (Aboriginal) Australian, Creole and Pidgin, Amerindian, Na-Dene, Eskimo-Aleut, and Paleo-Siberian.

We exclude from our study certain families of spoken languages in Africa, such as the Nilo-Saharan, Niger-Kordofanian and Khoisan families, despite their intrinsic interest, because these languages are dominated and infiltrated in everyday usage by other languages (for instance, in Wolof, the French word for accounting is used).

For the same reasons, we exclude certain families of languages spoken in the Americas, in Siberia and in the Pacific, such as the Aboriginal Australian, Creole and Pidgin, Ainu, Amerindian, Na-Dene, Eskimo-Aleut and Paleo-Siberian families. The Indo-Pacific family and the Neo-Melanesian languages spoken in Papua-New Guinea are excluded due to the small number of speakers and the fact that they are largely unknown even to linguists (Encyclopédie Bordas, henceforth Bordas, 1994, p.3136). Serious study of these languages would entail very specific focus.

We focus our attention on the first eleven families in the Freelang classification as well as the Austronesian family (the languages of Indonesian). Together, these families encompass almost the entirety of languages that play or have played an active role in the ancient and modern history of accounting; and they also cover more than 90% of the world’s current population.

In analysing these families, we do not necessarily adhere to the order of classification laid out by Freelang, in particular so that we can spotlight first those languages that have had an influence on other languages (in the specific context of studying the word “accounting”).

Initially, we raised two main questions:

-Question one: is the root of the word accounting used in the languages in each of the linguistic families and sub-families in Freelang’s classification a common stem? This first condition should be met, if we are to be able to talk, in the strict framework of our study on the word, of a family or, at the very least, of a group or a branch of languages;

-Question two: does the stem of the word accounting belong with stems in the linguistic family to which the language relates, according to Freelang’s classification? If this condition is met, as well as the first condition stipulated in the previous question, we can then say that the language in question responds, from the standpoint of the word “accounting”, to the criteria of the Freelang classification; if this is not the case, then we are dealing with a loan word—or borrowing—from another language family that may signify an intrusion caused by external economic or social influences.

To carry out our study, we have drawn on a variety of sources. Obviously, we have used dictionaries; however, bearing in mind that they are not always up to date with the latest changes in technical usage, we have also called on the services of accounting institutions (like the CNCC), consulted directly with Embassy translators and read accounting literature from various countries whenever our knowledge of the languages concerned has enabled us to do so.


1.2 Study of words used to denote “accounting” in the different language families of the Freelang classification


1.2.1 The Afro-Asiatic Family

This family essentially includes the group of Semitic languages: Arabic, spoken in many countries in the Maghreb and in the Middle East; Hebrew spoken in Israel; and Amharic, spoken in Ethiopia. We choose not to study the Berber, Omotic and Chadic (Hausa) language groups because these languages, in their corresponding countries, are dominated by other languages (for example, the Berber languages in the Maghreb are dominated by Arabic).

The presence of peoples speaking Semitic languages in the Middle East dates back to a least 3000 B.C. and the Akkadians, the neighbours of the Sumerians in Mesopotamia (Bordas p.113). Subsequently, from around 2000 B.C. to the Christian era, other peoples developed Semitic civilisations and languages such as the Aramaeans (whose language Jesus Christ spoke), the Canaanites, and the Sabaeans (see The Free Encyclopedia Wikipedia’s—henceforth Wikipedia—article “Semitic”, 2009).

Figuring among the Canaanites were the Phoenicians and the Hebrews : the latter borrowed from the former (via the Aramaeans) their alphabet to develop Hebrew writing; the Sabaeans, known for the famous Kingdom of Saba , developed with other Arab tribes living further North (such as the Nabataeans of Petra) the Arabic language, which in time also borrowed the Phoenician alphabet, but in a variant form considerably less closely related than Hebrew script (Wikipedia, 2009, article “History of the Alphabet”). Yet, this does not prevent linguists from asserting the genetic relationship between Hebrew and Arabic, a family tie that we will verify exists with respect to the word “accounting”.

In Modern Classical Arabic, accounting is “mouhâssaba” “محاسبة”( Mounged, 1970, p.73); this noun is derived from the verb “hassaba” “حسب” that includes the triliteral—or triconsonantal—root “HSB” of which one of the main meanings is “to count” (Reiz, 2008, p.1262).

In Modern Hebrew, the word for accounting is “hèshbonaout” (חֶשׁבּוֹנָאוּת) (Cohn, 2009, p.152). Despite appearances, this word is wholly related to the corresponding Arabic term; indeed, we can recognise at the beginning of the word the three consonants H, SH and B that match the trio HSB in the Arabic (the SH replacing the S). That Arabic generally uses a prefix “mou” to indicate functions derived from verbs should not conceal the fact that the two languages are related. The close genetic resemblance between the two languages appears more clearly when we note that, in Hebrew, to count” is said “hishiv” (Cohn, Larousse, 2009, p.153), which is very close to the Arabic “hassaba” with a ‘v’ and similar vowels. Since vowels play only a secondary role in Semitic languages—they are not even written out in newsprint—and since the final ‘v(eit)’ in Hebrew is interchangeable with the final ‘b(eit)’ in Hebrew and the ‘b(a)’ in Arabic—these consonants all derive from the Aramaic alphabet in which they were all written the same way—we can consequently assume that we are dealing with one and the same triliteral root: HSB. This triliteral root HSB is very old: it can be found in both the Torah (Genesis, XV, 6) and the Qur’an (Surah “Saâd” XXXVIII verses 16-25 and 53, and Surah “Ghâfir” XL verse 40) with the meaning of “to count”.

In the Amharic language, the root HSB is also in play, with the word for accounting “hissâbmazeguebayayaz” (Ethiopian Embassy in Paris, 2009) being based on the word “hissâb” meaning “account”. In short, we can say that the “accounting languages” of Arabic, Hebrew and Amharic form a homogenous group and conform to their classification in the group of Semitic languages. As we see below, this is far from being the case for other language families and, mostly notably, Indo-European languages.


1.2.2. The Indo-European Family

This family comprises nine groups (subfamilies/subdivisions): Indo-Iranian, Hellenic, Italic (Romance), Celtic, Germanic, Balto-Slavic, Slavic, Armenian, and Albanian. Since the Celtic languages are dominated by others, we will not examine them here.

1.2.2.1. The case of the Indo-Iranian

As its name implies, this group includes both the Indo-Aryan and the Iranian branches.

Contrary to common expectations, in the Iranian languages (essentially Persian Farsi spoken in Iran and Afghani Pashto spoken in Afghanistan and Pakistan) the word “accounting” is not

a word stemming from Persian, but is derived from Arabic: it is “hassâbadaria

 

حسابداری “ (CNCC, 2009), which contains the same basic HSB triconsonantal root as its counterpart used in Arabic-speaking countries—“mouhâssaba”. This stems from the fact that the territory of modern-day Iran, formerly controlled from 2000 B.C. by Aryan peoples (The Medes and the Persians), was conquered 637 A.D. by Arab tribes, resulting in “a fusion of Arabic and Persian elements” (Bordas, p.2582) that would outlive later conquests by the Turks in 1055 and the Mongols in 1405). Afghanistan—“land of invasions since the first Indo-European migrations in the third millennium B.C.” (Bordas, p.59)—was conquered by the Turks and Arabs in the tenth century A.D. before falling under the yoke of, first, the Turkic-Mongols Genghis Khan (1220) and Tamerlane (late fourteenth century), and then the Persians in 1507.


Languages in the Indo-Aryan branch comprise mainly Urdu, Hindi and Bengali, but also include other closely related languages. Hindi is the official national language of India, Urdu is the national language of Pakistan, and Bengali, that of Bangladesh. All of these languages share a common derivation from Sanskrit. According to Bordas (p.5364), “Hindi and Urdu are in fact two sides of the same language” that “only differ in script (the Devanagari alphabet for the first, the Arabic alphabet for the second), in certain lexical elements (notably religious), and in their identification with a culture or religion (Hinduism for the first, Islam for the second) and even with a State” (Bordas, p.2363). Bengali is heavily influenced by Sanskrit and, like Hindi, is written in Devanagari script (Wikipedia, 2009, Article “Bengali”).

The most straightforward case is that of Urdu. As is the case with Farsi, the word “accounting” in Urdu is not a term derived from Indo-European roots, but from Arabic: “accounting” is “mouhâssaba” and “accountant” is “mouhâssib” (The English-Urdu Babylon Online Dictionary). This is not surprising when we consider that Pakistan is an Islamic country heavily influenced by Arabic-Turkic culture.

In Bengali, the word “accounting” is also based on the Arabic word “hissâb” (Bangladeshi Embassy in Paris, 2009).

The case of Hindi is far more complex. In fact, this language employs two very different kinds of words to denote accounting. 

First, there are words of Sanskrit origin like “ lekhA-karma” (Balbir and Balbir, 1992, p.859)or “lekhA-kana लेखांकन (Google dictionary) all based on the stem”lekh लेख”; secondly, there are the words “hissâb –karma (Chaturvedi& Tiwari, 1975 p.869 and Balbir and Balbir, 1992, p.1043)or “hissâb-kiwAba”(Universal word-Hindi Lexicon online2009) all based on the stem “hissâb,हिसाब” , which clearly relate to the Arabic root “hassaba” (that has also given in Hindi the commonly used Arabic word “hissâb-kitâb” for “accounts”). The fact of there being two kinds of words for one concept is typical in Hindi: Bakaya and Montaut (1994, p.X) show that it is common to use a doublet to denote the same referent, “one of Sanskrit origin, the other of Arabic-Persin origin”.

The insertion of a word of Arabic origin into the hereditary language of Sanskrit can be explained by socio-political factors: following the Gupta empire (from around 300 to 750 A.D.), in which Sanskrit literature reached its peak, and a Medieval period of resisting Muslim invaders (750-1200), the India Subcontinent finally fell under the domination of Turkic Sultans (the taking of Delhi in 1192 by Muhammad of Ghor) until 1526. The Turks used the Arabic word “hissâb” to denote accounts (see above) and thereby became the vector for introducing this word to India. Subsequently, the Mughal (1526-1707) and Maratha (1707-1818) Emperors—descendants of the Mongols who invaded from the Central Asian Steppes and were all Muslims—once again promoted the use of terms with Arabic origins, a use that has been continued until today.

To conclude, the word “accounting” in the national languages of Bangladesh, India and Pakistan—one of the most populous regions in the world—cannot be closely tied to the branch of Indo-Aryan languages: it is a complex “dissonant” element. In contrast, the Sinhala language in Sri Lanka employs the word “ganakathi karanaya”, which has purely Sanskrit roots:“ganana” means “to calculate” in Sanskrit (Stchoupak& alii,1087,p.223).

We should emphasize that, at this point in the paper, we have not accounted for the existence of English and other languages used in this regions, as we intend to address this issue later.


1.2.2.2. The case of the Hellenic group

This group pertains to the language spoken in Greece, Crete and Cyprus. Indo-European peoples (the Hellenes or Achaeans) settled in the Peloponnese in the 3rd millennium BC and gave birth to a language from which stemmed Mycenaean Linear B—the ancestral language of Modern Greek that dates back to at least the 2nd millennium BC. According to Bordas (p.2213), “Modern Greek continues from Ancient Greek much more faithfully than Romance languages extend from Latin”. This assertion is wholly justified in the light of our study: in Modern Greek, “accounting” is “λογιστική”-logistikê” (Rosgovas, p.140). This word stems from the Ancient Greek “logistikos”, an adjective that refers to everything pertaining to the practical science of calculation, in contrast to “arithmétikos” that pertains to the theoretical science of calculation (Bailly, 1929, p.1199); in turn, this adjective derives from the ancient verb “logidzomai”, of which the primary meaning is “to calculate”, “to count” or “to bring to account” (Bailly, 1929, p.1198). All these nouns and verbs stem from the same radical “log”, unique to the Greek language. Contrary to the previously Indo-European languages studied, we find in Greek a situation that does conform to the “logical/logic of the language family”.


1.2.2.3. The case of the Italic, or Romance, languages group

This language group basically encompasses seven languages according to the Freelang classification: Portuguese, Spanish, Catalan, Occitan, French, Italian and Romanian. These languages cover a broad geographical area because they include all the countries in Latin America and a great many countries in Africa where they are considered, officially or tacitly, to be the languages of business and sometimes even national languages.

With respect to our study, this language group displays two major features:

-The first feature is its almost total homogeneity: to denote the word “accounting”, all these languages currently use the stems “cont” or “compt”.

The radical “cont” is used in countries speaking Portuguese, Spanish, Italian and Romanian to form the words “contabilitad”, “contabilidade”, “contabilita” and “contabilitate” respectively, by joining the suffixes “abilidad”, “abilidade”, “abilita” and “abilitate”—which stems from a word meaning “ability”—to the radical “cont”. In short, accounting in these countries is the discipline exercised by those who have the ability to handle the account.

Among the countries in which the radical “cont” is tied to the suffix “abilidad” (a contraction of “habilidad”), we find Spanish–speaking countries such as Spain (Cuyas, 1967, p.89) and all the countries in Latin America with the exception of those in which Portuguese is spoken.

In Portugal and in Portuguese-speaking Latin American (notably Brazil), the suffix “abilidade” (a contracted form “habilidade”, also meaning ability) is joined to the radical “cont” to create the word “contabilidade”.

In Italy, the stem “cont” is correspondingly tied to the suffix “abilità—ability” (Balmas, 2003, p.78).

Finally, in Romania (Ciucur, Toiu, Ristea, Vilsan, 1980; Feleaga and Ionascu, 1993) “cont” is tied to the suffix “abilitate”, which directly draws on the word “abilitate” (ability)—very close to “abilidade” with a simple shift from the dentals ‘d’ to ‘t’—to form the word “contabilitate”. We should note that in Moldavian the term “contabilita” is associated with “evidenta” (Moldavian Embassy in Paris, 2009), an original language feature to which we will return later.

The stem “compt” is used in all French-speaking countries, including Belgium, Luxemburg and the French-speaking Cantons in Switzerland; it is also used in Canada in the province of Quebec as well as in all African countries that use French as the official language of cultural, economic and political life.

The radical “compt” is derived from “cont” by the adding of the letter ‘p’ between the ‘n’ and the ‘t’ and by palatalising the letter ‘n’ to make ‘m’. By joining the suffix “er” to indicate action, we produce the verb “compter”, which means—basically speaking—“to calculate” similar to “contar” in Spanish and Portuguese, “contare” in Italian and “conta” in Romanian. In fact, in Old French “compter” was pronounced “conter” (Grandsaignes d’Hauterive, 1994 p.216) and the added ‘p’ only occurred relatively recently in circumstances we will examine in the following point.

-The second feature is linguistic “purity”. As implied by the name “Romance” languages, this language group should be firmly rooted in the Roman language—Latin. The modern term used to denote “accounting” does not deviate from this claim: the radical “cont”, and its variant “compt”, do indeed stem from the Latin verb “computare” (Bouffartigue and Delrieu, 1981, p216; Grandsaignes d’Hauterive, 1948, p.168) and in Latin the primary meaning of “computare” is “to calculate” (Gaffiot, 1934, p.367).

We should note that the modern French radical “compt / compter” is more closely related to the origin Latin than the Italian, Spanish and Portuguese radicals “cont / contar(e)”. Bouffartigue and Delrieu (ibid p.216) point out that, in French, “the verb ‘conter’, which initially meant ‘to talk about numbers’, soon came to mean ‘to talk about facts or events’, or ‘raconter’. It was to establish a distinction between these two usages that a meaningful ‘compter’ was recreated with spelling in line with its etymology”; such differentiation does not occur for the word “contar(e)” in the other languages within the family.

In summary, just like their Greek counterpart, the group of Romance languages perfectly meets the criteria of the Freelang classification.


1.2.2.4. The case of the Germanic group

This case is far more complex. According to the Freelang classification, the Germanic family includes a West Germanic branch and a North Germanic—or Nordic/Scandinavian—branch:

The West branch primarily encompasses the English, Dutch and German languages;

The Nordic/Scandinavian branch contains the Icelandic, Norwegian, Danish and Swedish languages.

The makeup of this group can be explained by the tribulations of the Germanic peoples. “One part of the Germanic tribes, perhaps chased out of Scandinavia by an ice age, settled en masse along the German-Polish coast around 600 BC, then continued on to Silesia and reached central Germany by 300 BC, pushing back the Celts” (Bordas, p.2149). These travels would explain the genetic link between the Nordic languages and German. The genealogical relationship with English stems from events that occurred later in 500 AD: “the German tribes suffered the invasion of the Huns and so moved into the Roman Empire and the British Isles (England)” (Bordas, p.2149). The English, Dutch, German and Nordic languages therefore have common roots that we should find in the word “accounting”.

However, this is not at all the case. Contrary to expectations, the English language uses a word of Latin origin whereas the other Germanic languages employ words not derived from Latin.

Parker (1994) has shown that in the UK the earliest word for commercial accounting was “reckoning” ,it means a word belonging to Germanic languages; but the English language currently uses a word containing the radical “count”, related to the radical “cont” used in the Romance languages.  The word “accounting” is formed from the stem “count” with the added prefix “ac” and suffix “ing”. This suffix indicates the act of doing an action: from this standpoint, “accounting” refers to the “act of building the accounts”. This word is used in all so-called Anglo-Saxon countries throughout the world and, most notably, the United Kingdom, the United States, Canada (English-speaking), Australia and New Zealand, as well as all the English-speaking countries of Africa. In short, if we were to focus on the word “accounting” alone, the English language and the countries where it is spoken should not be grouped with the Germanic languages but with the Italic-Romance languages: the word “accounting” is a cultural intrusion in the English language. Cases similar to that of the word “accounting” are not uncommon in English, as Watkins (2000, p.IX) explains: “although English is a member of the Germanic branch of Indo-European languages, it has an exceptionally mixed lexicon” and “it has borrowed extensively and systematically from its Romance neighbors”.

In contrast, other members of the family use words that are typical of Germanic literary heritage. A large number employ the variants “rech”, “rek”, “reck” “reg” and “rach”, all stemming from a common root, to denote the word “accounting”.


In Germany (Baëtge, 1976; Schneider, 1997), Austria (Lukas, 1995, p.1022) and German-speaking Switzerland (Bertschinger, 2001, p.2457), currently the word “accounting” is mostly rendered “Rechnungslegung” or “Rechnungswesen”. This word is made up of two terms: “Rechnung” and “Legung / Wesen”: “Rechnung”, roughly meaning “calculation”, comes from the verb “rechnen” (the radical “rech” terminated with “en”, common to regular verbs), which means “to calculate”; “Legung” comes from the verb “legen”, which can be found in Gothic (“lagjan”), English (“lay”), Swedish (“lägga”) to mean “to lay down or to place”; as for “Wesen”, it means “to be”. In other words, according to this terminology, “accounting” is the action of “laying down calculations” or “consists of calculations” (accounts). The older term for bookkeeping (“Buchführung”) that dominated until around 1900 seems to be increasingly confined to works of a technical nature (Bechtel, 1989).


In the Netherlands, the word used is “Rekening” or, even more commonly, “Jaarrekening”  (Beckman, 1987, p.7). “Rekening” (calculation) comes from the verb “rekenen” and the root “rek”, which means “to calculate” and is closely related to the German “rechnen” (for further details, see Duden, 1963, p.554). As for “Jaar”, this words means “year” (cf. the English “year”, the German “Jahr” and the Swedish “ar”, all of which derive from the Greek “Horos”); so in modern Dutch, “accounting” is the “annual calculation”. We should note that this Dutch expression does appear to have a trace in South Africa where the Afrikaans word for “accounting” is “rekeningkunde” despite the fact that communications issued by accounting bodies in this countries employ the word “accounting” alone (CNCC, 2009).


The variant “reg” can be found in Norway and Denmark. In Norway, the word “accounting” is expressed as “regnkapsføring” (Johnsen and Eilifsen, 1995, p.1168): “regn” comes from the verb “regne” (to calculate) and is related to the German “rechnen”; “kap”, from the same root as “Schaft” in German, “shaft” in English and “skaft” in Swedish, and all relating to the Greek “skeptron” (according to Duden, 1963, p.593), points to the idea of a branch (of knowledge); “føring” (related to the German “Führung”, the English “fare” and the Swedish “föra”) means “to conduct or to carry out”. Consequently, in Norwegian, the apparent meaning of “accounting” is “the carrying out of the discipline of calculation”. It should be noted that Norwegians sometimes also use the word “bokföring”, which is close to the German “Buchführung” meaning bookkeeping (for more on this point, see developments below). The situation is similar in Denmark where most books use the word “regnkabs voesen” to refer to accounting (“kabs” and “voesen” referring back to the German “Shaft” and “Wesen”) , but the older word “bogföring” remains, notably to denote accounting laws (Hansen, 2001, pp.647 and 717).


Swedish stands alone in its use of another Germanic stem—“vis”. In Sweden, the word “accounting” is currently “redovisning” (Rundfelt, 2001, p.2351): the main element is the word “visning”, which comes from the verb “visa” (meaning “to show”) that relates to the German “weisen” (Duden, p.759); the other word, “redo”, is a borrowing from the Latin “reddere” or “reddare”, which means “to give again or anew”. Here, accounting is clearly the action of “giving a new picture” (implicitly, of reality), an originality to which we will return later.


Before we leave the Germanic group, we may conclude that the old word “bookkeeping”— “Buchhaltung” or “Buchführung” in German, “Bokföring” in Swedish and “boekhouding” in Dutch—have mostly disappeared from general use, although it still sometimes rears its head.


1.2.2.5. The Slavic group

The Slavs are Indo-European peoples “who hailed from North of the Carpathian Mountains and spread out as far as the Peloponnese and the Black Sea, under attack from the Huns” (Bordas, p.4799) and their languages are “less markedly different from each other than are the Romance or Germanic languages” (Bordas, p.4799). In fact, this statement is not valid in the case of the word “accounting”: some Slavic languages use a word based on Slavic vocabulary whereas others borrow a word from the Germanic languages.

Slavic languages that use an indigenous word are Russian, Bulgarian, Czech, Slovak and Macedonian: for the most part, they fall back on a word whose main component appears as one of three variants—“chët”, “chet” or “chtov”.

In Russia (Makarov, 1966; Mazdorov, 1972; Sokolov, 1991; Kyter 2004; Sokolov and Sokolov, 2006), the main word for “accounting”, primarily “chëtovodstvo” or “chëtovedene” but often simplified to “bukhgalteria” (bookkeeping), has, since the 1930s, officially been “bukhgalterskiy uchët (бухгалтерский учёт)”. This nomenclature, which has survived the reforms of Perestroika, is made up of two parts—“uchët” and “bukhgalterskiy”: the first term “uchët” is itself made up of “u”, which expresses the idea of “outcome” (or “result”), and the main element, “chët”, meaning “account” or “calculation” and derives from the Slavic verb “(u)chest (учесть)” roughly meaning “to calculate” (Tcherba et al, 1993, p.696); “bukhgalterskiy” is an adjective derived from the German “Buchhalter” meaning “keeper (Halter) of the book (Buch)”. Given these conditions, the word-for-word translation of the Russian word for “accounting” is “the bookkeeper’s calculation”. We should emphasize that this word blends two linguistic influences: a German influence in “bukhgalterskiy”, which reflects the power that German specialists wielded in the Royal Courts of Russian from the eighteenth to the twentieth centuries up until 1918, and a Slavic influence in the term “uchët”.

In Bulgaria, accounting is referred to as “chëtovodstvoto” (Zakon za chëtovodstvoto, 1991). Once again, the Slavic term “chët” (calculation) can be found in conjunction with the suffix “vodstvo” meaning “the carrying out” (from the verb “vodit”). Here, we are dealing with a strictly Slavic term: the German component is not present. We should also note here that the Bulgarian language also makes an allusion to the root “smet”, of which we will speak later when we discuss and analyse words for the accounting plan (Zakon, ibid.).

In Czech (Zakon o uchetnistve), the term used is “uchetnistva” which is composed of the adjective “chetni” (pertaining to calculations) and “stva”, from the verb “vest” (to lead) stemming from the same root as “vodit” in Russian; in Slovak, the term “účtovníctvo” is identical save for an inversion of the ‘t’ and ‘e’ and a shift to ‘o’ vowels.


Before concluding with the Slavic group, we should nonetheless mention three languages that stand out. In Ukrainian, “accounting” is “bukhgalterskiy oblik” (the CNCC portal, 2009) and in Bielorussian “bukhgaltarskiy ylik- бухгалтарскі ўлік » (Google dictionary, 2009) whereas in Macedonian it is “smetkovodstvo” (Macedonian Embassy in Paris, 2009). We will return to these three singular cases further on in this paper.

Those Slavic languages that fall back on a Germanic word are Polish, Serbian, Croatian, Slovene, Montenegrin, and Bosnian.

In Bosnian, Croatian, Serbian, Montenegrin and Slovene, “accounting” is in general “rachunovodstvo” (Turk, Tepsic, Petrovic, 1980; Embassies of the countries in question in Paris, 2009) whereas in Polish the word used is “rachunkowośc” (Ustawa o rachunkowosci, 1994; Gmytrasiewicz, Peche, Swiderska, 1980). These two words, so closely related, are mainly comprised of: the prefix “rachun”, from the verbs “rachunati” in Serbo-Croatian and “rachowac” in Polish and both related to the German “rechnen” meaning “to calculate”; and the suffixes “wosc / wac” (in Polish) and “vodstvo” (Serbo-Croatian), meaning the act of leading or carrying out (from the Latin “vedere”). In short, in these languages, “accounting” is the act of “leading calculations”. We should note that these languages do not use Slavic words even though there exists a verb “to calculate” with a Slavic root; thus, in Polish there are the verbs “liczyc” (to calculate for oneself) and “czysc” (to count) that are not used in this case. An etymological dictionary of the Polish language provides one explanation for this situation with respect to the verb “rachowac”: “rachowac replaced the Polish “liczyc” and also “czysc” with the German “rechnen” (with a shift from the ‘e’ to an ‘a’) as late as the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries” (Brückner, 1996, p.451). It is highly probable that this situation arose from the growing influence of German traders and accountants in that era. Yet this does not take away from the fact that its influence has remained in these five Slavic languages when it has left no trace, or at least only a minor trace, in the other languages in this family.

It is noteworthy that this breakdown of the Slavic group does not correlate with the traditional split of Slavic languages into West Slavic (Polish, Czech, Slovak), South Slavic (Serbian, Croatian, Bulgarian) and East Slavic (Russian, Ukrainian, Belarusian) branches. Also of note is that the old word for “bookkeeping”, “knjigovodstva” in Serbo-Croatian, was in use until recently in Yugoslavia (Jezdimirovic, 1974; Vujic, 1979) and, to an extent, remains so today in Bosnia where it is still used in conjunction with the word “rachunovodstvo”.


1.2.2.6. The case of the Baltic group

The Baltic languages are Latvian spoken in Latvia and Lithuanian spoken in Lithuania. It is widely accepted that these languages have strong ties to ancient Indo-European lexicons: “Lithuanian displays some remarkably archaic features that evoke the Sanskrit in the Vedic texts and the Ancient Greek of Homer” (Bordas, p.2886). This assertion seems to be valid with respect to the word “accounting”, but paradoxically more in the case of Latvia than Lithuania.

In Latvia, “accounting” is “grāmatvedība” (CNCC, 2009), a word made up of “gramat” deriving from the Ancient Greek “gramata” meaning first “characters in writing”, then “written text”, and in particular, as suggested by Democritus, “book of accounts” (Bailly, 1939, p.416). If we add that “vediba” means the act of “leading or carrying out”, we see that accounting is “the profession of the scribe” (referred to as a “grammateus” in Ancient Greek).

In Lithuania (CNCC, 2009), the word for accounting appears as “buhalteriné apskaita”: the first term is of a German type (bookkeeping) and the second, a variant of “uchët” (calculation in Slavic language), in which the ‘ap’ corresponds to the ‘u’ and the ‘skaita’ to the ‘schët’. As in Russian, accounting is “calculation on the basis of bookkeeping”.


1.2.2.7. The case of the Armenian and Albanian groups

In Armenian, “accounting” is “haschaba” ՛հաշվարկ (Armenian Embassy in Paris, 2009), a word in which we can clearly discern the footprint of the Arabic root “hassaba”. This can explained by the fact that Greater Armenia was, for more than five centuries, under the yoke of the Ottoman Turks (Bordas, p.348). The Albanian language, in contrast, uses the term “kontabilitet” (CNCC, 2009), reflecting the influence of Italian culture.


With these last two small groups, we draw to an end our analysis of the family of Indo-European languages. We observe that, in many cases, the families of the word “accounting” do not correlate with commonly accepted language families.


1.2.3. The Uralic family

This family broadly includes Finnish, Estonian and Hungarian.

Genetic relationships have been established between Finno-Ugric, Sami -Lappic) and Samoyedic languages (Bordas, p.3647): “The Finnish settled in modern-day Finland around 100 AD. Arriving from Estonia, they pushed the Samis further north” (Bordas, p.1914). The Aestii came from the Ural Mountains (Bordas, p.1735) as did the Magyar people who settled around 895, and perhaps even as early as 700, in the high valley of the Tisza River that passes through modern-day Hungary (Bordas, p.2402).

With regard to the word “accounting”, genetic relationships among the three languages are hard to establish. This word is “Raamatupidamisteenused” in Estonian (CNCC, 2009), “Kirjanpito” in Finnish (Näsi and Kankaanpää, 1995, p.1069) and “könyvvitel” or “könyvelés” in Hungarian (the Confucius Online Dictionary). The Estonian term contains three parts: “Raamatu” meaning “books”, “pidamis” meaning “house”, and “teenused” meaning “service”. Word-for-word, the Estonian for “accounting” is “the service of house books”. We observe a similar construction for the word in Finnish, which contains only two parts: “kirjan” meaning “book” and “pito” meaning “to keep” or “to maintain”. The same goes for the word in Hungarian:  “köniv” meaning “book” and “vitel” meaning “to hold”. We may conclude that in all three cases, accounting is the “keeping of books” like the German “Buchführung”, with the common words “pito”, “pida” and “vitel” signifying (book) keeping.


1.2.4. The Caucasian family

This family is broadly composed of the Georgian, Abkhaz, Avar, Cherkess and Chechen-Ingush languages. The Cherkess, the Turkish name for the Circassians, are a people made up of two groups—the Adyghe people and the Kabardians—who have lived in the North of the Caucasus Mountains since Antiquity and were converted to Islam in the sixteenth century by the Ottomans before coming under Russian rule after they defeated the Turks in 1859 (Bordas, p.5058).The same situation is to be found for the case of Chechen-Ingush people (Bordas,p.5060).On the contrary Georgian and Abkahaz people have remained largely orthodox.

In Georgian, the word for “accounting” is “Bugalteria” ბუღალტერია (Georgian Embassy in Paris, 2009); this word derives from the German (Buchhaltung) and corresponds to the Russian word in use before the Bolshevik Revolution. To judge from the dictionary Chechen-Ingush languages would use both the Russian word “buhkgalterskiy uchët” and some Arabic word composed of the principal term “hissap” (Matsiev and Ozdoev, 1966, p.519).The same situation seems to occur for Adyghean where the dictionary offers a choice between the Russian “buxgalterie uchët” and the Arabian based “buxgalterie hitap”(Txarkaxo,2004,p.126) In Caucasus the religious divide seems to determine the use of words for accounting.


1.2.5. The Altaic family

This family’s name originates from the location in the Altai Mountains of the Turkic and Mongol tribes that later emigrated towards Europe (the Turks) and the Far East (the Mongols) and broadly comprises two groups—Turkic and Mongolic languages. The Turkic group encompasses the languages of Turkish (mostly spoken in Turkey), Azeri (spoken in Azerbaijan), Kazakh (spoken in Kazakhstan), Uzbek (in Uzbekistan), Turkmen (in Turkmenistan), Kyrgyz (in Kyrgyzstan), Tartar (in Tartarstan, part of the Russian Federation) and Uyghur (in Xinjiang, China). The Mongolic group includes Mongolian (or Khalkha) spoken in Mongolia and Kalmyk spoken in the Republic of Kalmykia (Russian Federation). Due to Turkic-Mongol expansionism, especially in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries (the Mongols), today this group of peoples still covers a vast expanse of Central Asia, from Turkey to Xinjiang province of China. Yet this ethnic domination is not found at the level of language, in particularly with respect to the words for “accounting” currently used. In this respect, we can discern three cases: the case of the Turkish language in Turkey, the case of the Altaic languages spoken by the populations that have been ruled by the Soviet Union, and the case of the Altaic languages of peoples living in Communist China.

In Modern Turkish, the word for “accounting” is “muhâssebe” (Tekinalp, 1995, p.1368; Peker, 1987). Here again is the Arabic word for “calculation” that we encountered in our analysis of the Indo-Iranian group of languages. The genuinely Turkish verb (of Altaic origin) “say-mak” (to count), from the root “say” and commonly used in Modern Turkish (Halbout and Güzey, 1992, p.397), is therefore not used to form either the noun “accounting” or the word “account”, which is “hessap” (Halbout et al., p.501) and in which the Arabic triliteral HSB can be found with a classical modulation of the labial ‘b’ into another labial, ‘p’. It is known that, around 2000 BC, Turkic tribes, undoubtedly ethnically mixing with the Mongols, settled on land that is in modern-day Mongolia (Bordas, p.5320) and that the term “Turk” comes from the “Türük” tribe who lived in the Altai Mountains around 600 AD. Subsequently, from the sixth to the eleventh centuries, nomadic Turkic tribes moved from East to West and, after Sultan Alp Arslan defeated the Byzantines in 1071, finally settled in Anatolia. During this long victorious trek across Central Asia, the Seljuk Turks certainly “Turkicised” the populations they conquered but, in return, converted to Islam in particular when they came into contact with Persian Islam converts (Bordas, p.5320 and above). This encounter with Islam and the influence of the Madrasahs (Örten, 2008) explains the presence of the Arabic word pertaining to accounting. The subsequent territorial expansion of the Ottoman Turks, which reach its peak under Suleiman the Magnificent (1520-1566), contributed to spreading this word across Central Asia; hence the word “muhâssebe” is still used today in many regions such as Persia, Azerbaijan and the Caucasus.

However, in the Turkish-speaking regions that fell under the rule of the Russian Empire and subsequently the Soviet Union where populations were forced to speak Russian, words of Arabic origin were rivalled by the Russian word “bukhgalterskiy uchët”. By 2009, despite the fall of the Soviet Empire and regardless of the recognition of national Altaic languages as official languages, Russian remains the language of business, particularly in Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, to such an extent that the Russian word “bukhgalterskiy uchët” is still used by their respective populations who remain for the most part bilingual. Yet the national languages of these countries also use either a word stemming uniquely from the Arabic root “hassaba”, such as “hessap” in Turkmen, “hissobot” in Uzbek (Embassies in Paris of the relative countries, 2009). , “hessabat” or “mühasibat”

in Azeri (Kazymi &Nasretdinov, 2010, p.49), or offer a mixed Arabic-Russian word, such as “bukhgalterlik essep”or a pure Arabic word such as “essepshilik” in Kazakh (Garmenov & Kosovid,2008,p. 30). The case of Mongolia is a little different. This land gave birth to warriors (Genghis Khan and his descendants) who would found the largest empire in the world in the thirteenth century, but this empire collapsed in the fourteenth century and Mongolia would once again achieve autonomy for only a brief period 1911 and 1919 before falling under the rule of the Chinese (its southern part) and the Soviets (its northern part). Today, in the now-independent northern part of the country, the word “accounting” in Mongolian is “bërtgeltoostoo” (CNCC, 2009): this is not a native Altaic word, but the Russian word “bukhgalterskiy uchët” that has been Mongolicised.


The conclusion we may draw here is that, with respect to the word “accounting”, the Altaic languages do not, strictly speaking, exist, even in Turkey. Beyond Turkey, in all the countries that have been Islamicised, we can observe a double intrusion: the language of business employs either Chinese words (for the Uyghurs in Xinjiang province) or Russian words (in the other countries) whilst the official indigenous languages use an Arabic term. Even around Kazan in the Republic of Tartarstan, Russian Federation, where the descendants of the notorious Mongol tribes of the Golden Horde live today, we can find the Arabic word “under the Russian language”: in the Tartar language, even though a native Altaic verb “to count” exists (“san” related to the Turkic “say”), “accounting” is in fact “hissap-tchi” (Safioullina, 2007, p.378), a strange blend of the Arabic-Turkic word “hissâp” with the ending “tchi” that curiously reminds us of the Russian word “uchët”!


1.2.6. The Sino-Tibetan/Sino-Thai family

This family contains three main groups: the Chinese—or Sinitic—group, of which Mandarin is by far the major language; the Tibeto-Burman group, which mainly encompasses the Tibetan and Burman languages; and the Kradai group, which basically contains the Thai and Lao languages.

In Modern Mandarin Chinese, “accounting” is “kuài ji” (会计 or會計) (Chinese-English Dictionary FLP, 2007, p.914). This word is composed of two elements: the element “kuài”会) has the primary meaning of “general account” (Dictionnaire concis chinois-français Larousse, 2000, p.313), whereas the element “ji”(计or計) (pronounced “ti”) means “to count or to calculate” (Larousse, 2000, p.240). At first glance, “accounting”, in Mandarin, is “general account with the help of calculation”. This word is very old and first appeared in the chapter on the Xia Emperors (the first Chinese dynasty from 2050 to 1600 BC) in the work “Shiji” (
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