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It seems that the French language has one word for both accounting and bookkeeping:

Comptabilité

For example the wordreference website translates accounting as:

accounting n (profession) comptabilité nf

Sharon studied accounting in college.

Sharon a fait des études en comptabilité.

And for the word bookkeeping, the translation given is simply comptabilité.

Is this really the case: Does the French language has one and only one word for both of those terms?

Any explanations and side notes are welcome.

  • 1
    Quite right, even if French sometimes distinguishes uses tenue de comptes for bookkeeping, the word comptabilité comprises both, accounting and bookeeping. Here's the entry comptabilité from the Dictionnaire des Termes Commerciaux, Financiers et Juridiques, with lots of examples. – Laure SO - Écoute-nous Apr 1 '17 at 10:37
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A look at the trilingual dictionary Dictionary of Commercial, Financial and Legal Terms (HERBST, ed. Spinger) shows us that indeed both account (-ing, -ancy) and bookkeeping are used to translate the French comptabilité.

  • Le bureau de la comptabilité → Accounts department
  • La comptabilité commerciale → commercial bookkeeping
  • a "bookkeeper" and an "accountant" are both called comptable in French.

Wikipedia has a page Comptabilité in French that links to the page "Accounting or accountancy" in English.

The English page bookkeeping in Wikipedia has no French counterpart.

It is a fact though that tenue de compte (the exact French translation of "bookkeeping") exists but is hardly ever used outside the banking world and what a French person will read as "frais de tenue de comptes" will be listed as "bank account fees" on a bank statement written in English.

This could lead us to think that the difference between "accountancy" and "bookkepping" is a cultural one and if you look deeper into this we can see that the difference is not that obvious to the English speaking world and sometimes needs to be explained.

  • There is often a misconception that bookkeeping and accounting are the same thing. While they both work to assist you with your finances, there are some important distinctions between the tasks of a bookkeeper and an accountant. [source]

  • Bookkeeping versus accounting

If we look at comptabilité in Termium Plus (The Government of Canada’s terminology and linguistic data bank) we can seen they distinguish between

  • comptabilité

    • Champ d'expertise recouvrant l'ensemble des compétences, responsabilités, recherches et activités comptables, y compris les principes, normes, méthodes et systèmes, envisagés tant du point de vue théorique que pratique. (translated as "accountancy" in English)

    • Système d'information permettant de rassembler et de communiquer des informations à caractère essentiellement financier, le plus souvent chiffrées en unités monétaires, concernant l'activité économique des entreprises et des organismes (translated as "accounting" in English)

and

  • tenue des comptes

    Travail qui consiste à classer et à enregistrer les opérations et les faits économiques se rapportant à une entité dans les comptes de celle-ci. (translated as bookkeeping in English) With the following note: On emploie parfois le terme «comptabilité» au sens de tenue de la comptabilité. (Sometimes the word "comptabilité" is used with the meaning of bookkeeping.

Pierre Labardin, a lecturer in management and Marc Nikitin, professor in management, wrote a paper about the history of the word comptabilité from a linguistic and historical perspective. We learn in this paper that the merging of the words "bookkeeping" and "accounting" is fairly recent in French history. In their abstract they write:

In the French language, the word comptabilité (accounting) has gradually replaced tenue des livres (bookkeeping) around the beginning of the 19th century. After that, adjectives were progressively added (commercial accounting, industrial accounting, general accounting, auxiliary accounting, etc.), in keeping with the division of labour in newly created accounting departments.

The first part of the paper is called I. De la tenue des livres à la comptabilité (From bookkeeping to accountancy).

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Accounting is the Latinate version of bookkeeping. As is the case with many other English words, this is, too, an example of a terminological doublet so characteristic of the English language (e.g. commence vs. begin, love vs. amour, etc.)

As is known, the Latinate terms within these lexical doublets tend to be used in more formal registers than its Anglo-Saxon equivalents.

Hence it is accounting, and not the native bookkeeping, that has given the name for the science of keeping financial records.

  • 2
    Thank you for your answer. I am not familiar with the discipline, but websites such as this one say that accounting is a broader discipline. Basically, bookkeeping is only to record transactions and is the first step to accounting. So they don't hold roughly the same meaning as would commence and begin, to take your example. – Mina Apr 1 '17 at 9:58
  • Checking money.stackexchange.com where they have separate tag for bookkeeping ("the process of recording business data in a prescribed format. It often forms the first step in the accounting procedures of a company") and accounting might show you that the two terms do not cover the same scope in English. – Laure SO - Écoute-nous Apr 1 '17 at 16:12

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