Indo-European Language and Society

Chapter 11. An Occupation without a Name: Commerce


The comparison of Indo-European languages furnishes no common designation for commerce as a specific activity, as distinguished from buying and selling. The particular terms which appeared in different places are usually recognizable as borrowings (Lat. caupo, Gr. kápēlos), or recent creations (Gr. émporos). The Latin negōtium, itself a recent word, has a peculiar history:
1) A calque on Gr. askholía, negōtium conveys the same senses as the Greek model, which are positive despite the negative formation: “occupation, impediment, difficulty.”
2) At a later stage negōtium is the equivalent of Gr. prâgma ‘a thing’, but also more specifically and especially in derivations “commercial affairs.” A calque, semantically this time, on prâgma , negōtium becomes the designation for “business.”
The specialization in the sense of “commercial affairs” of a term originally meaning “occupation,” far from being an isolated phenomenon, recurs in modern languages (Fr. affaires, Engl. business, etc.); it reveals the difficulty of defining by specific terms an activity without a tradition in the Indo-European world.


One might think that “buy” and “sell” would lead to a study of the terms relating to commercial activities. But here we make a fundamental distinction: buying and selling are one thing, commerce in the proper sense is another.
To begin with we must clarify this point. Commerce is not a concept that is everywhere alike. It allows of some variations according to the type of culture. All those who have studied commercial relations report that in civilizations of a primitive or archaic character, these relations have a very peculiar character: they concern the whole population; they are collectively practiced, there is no individual initiative. They are exchanges which entail entering into a relationship with other populations by a special procedure. Different products are offered in exchange by the partners. If an agreement is reached, religious celebrations and ceremonies may take place.
In Indo-European there is nothing of this character. At the level at which the facts of language allow us to study the social facts, we are very far from the stage of civilization just reported. No term seems to evoke collective exchanges by primitive populations nor the tribal manifestations that take place at such an occasion.
The notion of commerce must be distinguished from that of buying and selling. The man who cultivates the soil thinks only of himself. If he has a surplus, he carries it to the place where other cultivators assemble for the same purpose as well as those who have to buy food for their own sustenance. This is not commerce.
In the Indo-European world commerce is the task of a man, an agent. It constitutes a special calling. To sell one’s surplus, to buy for one’s own sustenance is one thing: to buy, to sell for others, another. The merchant, the trader is an intermediary in the circulation of produce and of wealth. In fact there are in Indo-European no common words to designate trade and traders; there are only isolated words, peculiar to certain languages, of unclear formation, which have passed from one people to another.
In Latin, for instance, the term pretium ‘price’ is of difficult etymology; its only congener within Latin is interpret-: the notion may be that of “bargaining, a price fixed by common accord” (cf. inter-). For “commerce” Latin, and only Latin, has a fixed expression, constant and distinct from the notions of “buying” and “selling”: commercium, derived from merx, with mercor, mercator. We have no etymology for merx, the sense of which is “merchandise,” or more exactly “object of trade.” From this comes mercor ‘to engage in trade, to make an occupation of it’, usually in a far-off country, and mercator ‘trader’.
These terms, as we can see, have no connection with those indicating the process of buying and selling: they are different notions. Besides, such commerce and trade is not practiced by citizens, but generally by persons of inferior status, who often are not natives of the country but foreigners, freedmen, who specialize in this activity. These facts are well known in the Mediterranean, where the Phoenicians practiced trade on a large scale; in fact, several commercial terms, notably arrha ‘pledge’, entered the classical languages via the Phoenicians. Still others came as “wander-words” and by borrowings. Lat. caupō perhaps has something to do with Gr. kápēlos ‘small merchant’, ‘retailer’, although the forms do not exactly coincide. Neither of them can be analyzed, and we might have here a borrowing from some Oriental language. As we have seen, Latin caupo has been borrowed into Germanic and given rise to kaufen and verkaufen, and from Germanic it passed into Slavic.
Large-scale commerce demanded new terms formed within each language. Thus Greek émporos designates the large-scale merchant, who carries on his business by sea: emporeúomai ‘to voyage by sea’ is employed for large-scale commerce, which is necessarily of a maritime character: the form émporos simply indicates the action of bringing something into port after crossing the sea. It is not a specific term relating to a specific activity. Often we do not even know whether the notion of commerce existed. Thus, while we have for “to buy” and “to sell” ancient terms in Iranian which are partly shared with Indic, in the Avesta there is not a single mention of any term relating to commerce. This is probably not due to chance because, although religious notions predominate in this great work, those of daily life also find a place. We have, therefore, to suppose that commerce had no place in the normal activities of the social classes to which the Mazdian gospel was addressed.
We know that in the Roman world it was otherwise. Besides commercium, which has already been cited, Latin has the word negōtium, a term which is central to a rich development of economic terms. Here the facts seem so clear that it might seem to be sufficient simply to mention it. In fact, it has a remarkable history, in the first place because it proceeds from a negative expression.
There is no difficulty about the formation itself of the term negōtium; it is from nec-ōtium, literally “absence of leisure,” incidentally a formation which is all the more certain because we have in Plautus an analytical variant of negōtium: fecero quanquam haud otium est (Poenulus, 858) ‘I shall do it although I have not the leisure’. The commentators compare it to another passage in Plautus: dicam si videam tibi esse operam aut otium (Mercator, 286) ‘I will tell you if I see that you have the time or that you are prepared to help me’ says one character, and the other replies: “I am prepared to, although I have no leisure” quanquam negōtium est, that is, “although I have something to do.” In this connection scholars quote quid negoti est either as a simple question or with quin “what hindrance is there (to doing something)?” Thus it appears that the notion was constituted in historical times in Latin. However, the analysis proposed for negōtium leaves out the essential point. How and why did this negative expression become a positive one in meaning? How does the fact of “not having leisure” become the equivalent of “occupation, work, office, obligation”? To begin with, why did Latin have the occasion to coin such a phrase? From the fact that negōtium presupposes a verbal phrase, negōtium est, which in fact we find, one might conclude that the archaic negative particle neg– is exclusively verbal. This would not be altogether true. We have nec with a verbal form in ancient texts: thus in the law of the Twelve Tables: si adgnatus nec escit, ‘if there is no adgnatus (to succeed somebody to inherit his possessions)’: here nec is equivalent to non. But nec is also used as the negation of a word: thus in Plautus, nec ullus = nullus, or in the Ciris: nec ullo volnere caedi ‘not to be inflicted with any wound’. Similarly, the term res nec mancipi is opposed to res mancipi, a familiar legal term which remained in use. Nec as a negation of a word survived in the classical language in words like necopinans, neglegens. There is thus no difficulty in supposing that Latin formed a compound negative, negōtium, independent of the sentence negōtium est. But the problem remains: why do we have here a negative expression and why did it have such a development?
There is no explanation in Latin itself. The essential fact which we propose to establish is that negōtium is no more than a translation of Gr. askholía (ἀσχολία). It coincides entirely with askholía, which literally means “the fact of not having leisure” and “occupation.” The word is ancient. The sense which interests us is attested from the beginning of its use in Greek (the beginning of the fifth century). We find in Pindar a characteristic example: the poet addresses the city of Thebes which he praises:

…τό τεόν…
πράγμα ĸαὶ ἀσχολίας ὑπέρτερον θήσομαι

(Isthm. I, 2)

“Ι shall place your interests above all occupation.” This is no poetic word: it is employed by Thucydides in the sense of “hindrance, affair.” It is also found in colloquial language in Plato. Socrates says when taking leave: ἐμοί τις ἀσχολία ἐστί, of which mihi negōtium est could be the Latin translation, with exactly the same sense in which we encounter the expression in Plautus.

Besides, askholía ‘occupation’ signifies also “difficulties, worries” in the expression askholían parékhein ‘cause worries, difficulties’. Another example from Plato: τὸ σῶμα μυρίας ἡμῖν παρέχει ἀσχολίας ‘the body causes innumerable difficulties for us’. This could be translated literally as negōtium praebere or exhibere, which has the same sense of “creating difficulties for somebody.” Askholía can also be taken in the sense of “affair” in general: askholían ágein ‘to pursue an affair’, like negōtium gerere.
Finally, from askholía, we go back to the adjective áskholos ‘who has no leisure’, in fact, “who is occupied with something.” In Latin we have, on the contrary, an adjective derived from negōtium. On the model of ōtium: ōtiōsus, negōtiōsus was made, which corresponds exactly to all the senses of áskholos.
It is therefore Greek which determined the formation and the sense of the Latin word: precisely because of the meaning “leisure” for Greek skholḗ, askholía was from the outset a positive concept. This is why the analysis of negōtium does not necessarily imply a predicative origin necōtium (est). It is a compound of the type of nefas ‘not-(divine) law’. Later, fixed in the sense of “commercial affairs, business,” negōtium gave rise to a series of derivatives, both verbal and substantival: negōtiārī, negōtiātor, negōtiāns.
It is at this point that Greek made its influence felt in another form. The Greek term askholía certainly means “private or public business” but without the distinct implication of commercial business which negōtium has. The Romans themselves tell us that they coined these terms in imitation of Greek. Aulus Gellius tells us that negōtiōsitās was used to render polupragmosúnē, while Cicero created negōtiālis to render pragmatikós. From this time on, in imitation of the Greek prâgma, an altogether new system of derivatives from negōtium was organized. We can observe a curious semantic process: negōtium, from this moment on, takes on all the senses of Greek prâgma; it signifies, like prâgma, “thing” and even “person.”
It has sometimes been suggested that this was a calque on khrē̂ma. This is not so. It was prâgma, along with its family, which served as a model for negōtium and all its family. From this comes the verb negōtiātor, imitating pragmateúesthai ‘to occupy oneself with trade’, and the agent noun negōtiātor, imitating pragmateutḗs ‘trader’.
Such were the conditions which, by a complex process, gave rise to a rich lexical development in Latin, producing forms which still live on in many European languages. At two stages there was semantic borrowing from Greek: the first resulted in negōtium, a direct and immediate calque on askholía; at the second stage certain derivatives were created to apply to commercial transactions on the model of derivatives of prâgma. At this first stage the form itself was imitated; at the second there was semantic innovation. Such is the history of this word family, a history which is very much less straightforward than appears in accepted accounts, from which an essential component is missing: the Greek terms which served as inspiration for Latin forms have not been recognized. [1]
It will be useful to glance at the modern equivalents of negōtium. The French word affaires is no more than a substantivization of the expression à faire, j’ai quelque chose à faire ‘I have something to do’, from which comes j’ai une affaire ‘I have some business’. But the semantic content which affaire, affaire commerciale has today is foreign to the literal meaning. Already in ancient Greek prâgma, the vaguest of words, had taken on this precise sense. In Latin, in the case of negōtium, a negative expression was used to express the notion of “commercial affairs”: the “absence of leisure” is an “occupation,” but the term tells us nothing about the nature of the activity. Modern languages have created the same expressions by independent routes. In English, the adjective busy produced an abstract noun business. In German the abstract noun Geschäft is very vague, too: schaffen indicates the action of making, or forming, of creating in general. In Russian dělo also signifies “work” and then “affairs” in all the senses of the French word.
We see here a widespread phenomenon common to all these countries and already revealed in the original terms: commercial affairs as such have no special term; they cannot be positively defined. Nowhere do we find a proper expression which denotes them specifically. The reason is that—or at least in the beginning—this was an occupation which did not correspond to any of the hallowed, traditional activities.
Commercial affairs are placed outside all occupations, all practices, all techniques; it is for this reason that they could not be designated in any other way than by the fact of “being occupied,” “having something to do.”
This highlights the new character of this type of activity, and we are thus in a position to observe this lexical category in all its peculiarity in the process of formation, and to see how it was constituted.
It was in Greece that this terminology was created, but Latin was the intermediary through which it spread, and it remained active in a renewed form in the Indo-European world down to the modern vocabulary of the West.
Among the concepts in the economic sphere studied here in their most striking or most singular expressions, we note that the clearest terms are often those which have assumed a sense determined by the general evolution of the economy and which denote new activities and techniques.
The difficulties which present themselves in this respect are different from those which we encounter in other spheres of the Indo-European vocabulary. The problem is not so much to identify survival as to interpret innovations. The expressions often belong to a new type of designation which is partly still in current development.
This section took as its point of departure particular terms which had acquired a technical sense or were in the process of doing so. This explains their diversity, their unequal distribution, and the variety of their origins. We are observers of the constitution of a vocabulary which was in some cases already specified in ancient times, but on the whole took shape in the course of the individual history of each language.
The terms for wealth and operations such as exchange, purchase, sale, loan, etc. are found connected with institutions which often developed on parallel lines. Hence the analogies observed between independent processes.
It will also have been noticed that the usages and techniques of the Indo-European peoples were at a different stage of development from those of the people of archaic cultures. In a number of the processes analyzed above the difference of level was considerable.
As the result of the investigation we have been able to discern in the Indo-European world a material civilization of considerable elaboration, existing as early as the period which can be reached by the most ancient word-correspondences. The terms which have been the objects of study are embedded in a highly articulated social structure, which is reflected in features which are often convergent, though at different epochs and at different levels, in Greece and Rome, in the Indo-Iranian world, or in Germanic.
Through some of these terms we can sometimes catch a glimpse of the origins of our modern vocabulary. All this does not merely reconstitute a vanished world of long ago; our study is not limited to relics. By this means we reach back to the origin of notions which still live on in one form or another in the languages of today, whether they persist by direct tradition or whether, by way of loan translations, they have taken on a new semantic life.


[ back ] 1. On negōtium see our article “Sur l’histoire du mot latin negotium,” Annali della Scuola Normale Superiore di Pisa, vol. XX, Fasc. I-II, 1951, pp. 3-7.