Terminology matters everywhere

terminologyEvery time you convert an idea or an image in your brain into a phrase, and for every expression of a concept, you instantly and consistently search for the term that will most clearly describe what you think, what you mean. This automatic process is very quick, based on the thesaurus of terminology you have stored in your brain. These concepts are interrelated and the terms you have stored for them are organised in an ontological taxonomy, in domains and sub-domains. The whole process is running in your mother tongue and in other languages you might know. If you know them well enough, the process is monolingual, if not it is bilingual, it passes through a translation and conversion process. If it happens that you speak more languages, you have a multilingual thesaurus in your head, a kind of aligned database or translation memory with aligned relations between the terms in the various languages. Your choice of words and word combinations to communicate precisely what you think, what you wish and what you feel, is a continuous terminology exercise. We convert concepts into terms every second of the day.

DaliTiroirsThus, when you think about the process of expression and communication, you find all the main aspects of terminology. From the concept to the term, passing through classification, storage, data, memory, ontology, taxonomy, translation, interrelation, alignment, monolingual, bilingual and multilingual search and expression, clearness and mono-semantic speaking, research and memorisation. And as terminology is created through the mental mechanism of thought and expression, terminology is found in all academic activity and research related to this process. For example, in the fields of linguistics, teaching, translation, interpretation, communication, marketing, management, web construction, revision and proofreading, journalism and information. But terminology also matters in specific scientific fields and activities; legal and medical terminology, chemistry and pharmacology, architecture, construction, technical instructions, tenders, the creation of new terms for new products. Have you ever considered how much of your activity requires you to look for or create terminology? And then you have to manage this terminology, order your findings, enrich your sources, target your searches, interconnect your concepts, define your terms, organise your knowledge and share your findings. Term-mining, term definition, referencing, taxonomy, ontology, lexicography and terminography, neologisms and buzzwords have to be organised in your brain and in your daily life and private and professional activity. These inherent aspects of language and communication have become a very important science in the academic field and an important factor for ensuring quality in international and globalised professional activity in industry and in the public sector.

In universities, not only linguistic and translation faculties, but also some scientific departments dedicate courses and workshops to terminology. In this era of big data, we have passed from learning how to search the web, to a stage where we have to combine, merge and network the immense amount of information available. With the globalisation of scientific activity and cooperation, effective and high level multilingual communication is a sine qua non for every successful career. Finding, using and developing correct terminology in each sector is thus essential in modern studies. Terminology is also key to a lot of IT research and development and is an integral feature of almost all translation software and tools. In fact it is key to drafting any text in any field. In computational linguistics, terminological research focuses on the development of terminology browsers, databases and databank add-ons, widgets, term-extractors, alignment tools and terminology toolbars. Terminology is interconnected with CAT-tools and machine translation. The number of specialised terminology curricula in graduate and post-graduate studies, masters and PhD courses is constantly increasing and theoretical theses and studies as well as the results of technical research in this field now offer a rich bibliography.


In industry, large corporations constantly move their headquarters, joint ventures and big brands have factories everywhere and production, marketing, promotion and commerce now transcends borders. The furious growth of the on-line market has increased the need for multilingual communication. Precise product descriptions in many languages are needed for worldwide trade. What is more, in consumer rights, an inaccurate description or badly translated instruction is considered as a defect of the product itself that is covered by guarantee and insurance. Therefore, investment in terminology is equally as important for businesses as investment in production quality. For example, imagine the huge amount of terminology that car manufacturers have to use in the languages of all the countries where they sell their cars. This process applies to millions of products in every field of commerce. As well as the use of pre-existing terminology, the creation of new terminology for new products is also a very interesting process. This can be born of an urgent need to describe a totally new invention or functionality and tough worldwide competition means that the immediate choice and copywriting of the new name can have serious implications. It can also lead to mistakes and inaccurate or misleading descriptions, since technicians are not linguistic experts. Therefore all large international corporations have a terminology service or use terminology software in their translation activities. Most of them compile specialised glossaries, accessible on their websites and through meta-search tools, which constitute a very rich source of accurate and reliable terminology in very specific domain for translators worldwide. There are also multiple trainings available, webinars, certifications, on-line presentations and video guides for the best practice in terminology management. Terminology is of course very present in all social media and the frequency of the use of a term on these platforms even became lately a reliability criterion, a passport for a neologism to enter in a dictionary, confirming the descriptive “democratic” character of the language.

And last but not least, terminology matters for international institutions, agencies, NGOs and associations. It is both a tool and a service. It permits the linguistic consistency of legally binding texts, like in the European Union which issues 80% of the laws of its member states. These laws are translated into 24 languages and each one of these texts has the legal value of an original, regardless of whether they were first drafted in a different language and subsequently translated. The EU has the world’s largest translation service with some 5,000 translators and interpreters working in 552 linguistic combinations for 10 Institutions and 58 specialised agencies. It goes without saying that using the correct terminology at every stage of the complex intergovernmental legislative procedure is crucial to the efficiency and functionality of the whole system. The first regulation of the EU guarantees multilingualism and it is regarded as a fundamental right of all EU citizens. The European Parliament provides the most complete information on terminology management and cooperation in the EU in a public website. The situation is similar in the UN and its wide network of specialised organisations and agencies. All treaties, conventions, resolutions and reports are translated into 6 languages and each language version constitutes a binding original under international law. The third big international organisation which has a Court to ensure the implementation of its rules and also functions in several languages, is the Council of Europe. These three organisations are the clearest examples of the importance of terminology, since any linguistic inconsistency can provoke a judicial dispute which may result in legislative power being transferred to their courts, thus undermining the distinction of powers, a pillar of any democratic structure. But there are also thousands of other international organisations of varying size which rely on terminology services and tools. For example, many sport associations have to enforce their rules and instructions in all countries and in many languages. As do thousands of smaller international and intercultural associations, organisations and movements, because terminology is a global activity.
Like all tools and mechanisms for human communication, it begins by satisfying monolingual needs and expands to fulfill multilingual comprehension needs; from serving small local specialised joint ventures it expands to huge databases covering a large number of languages. This vibrant world of terminology, covering academia, industry and institutions, is organised in well-structured organisations and networks. These can be regional, international or take a global approach, with a focus on the respective needs of these three fields. The thousands of members and workers of this huge network store, share and create a tremendous amount of multidisciplinary and multilingual terminology entries every day, mostly in on-line dictionaries, glossaries and databases.
This big data asset has to be managed correctly to serve the transformation of the concepts produced by our thoughts to terms, thus enabling us to communicate and cooperate in the most accurate way in the globalised world of today and tomorrow.

Rodolfo Maslias
Article written by Rodolfo Maslias, Head of the Terminology Coordination Unit of the European Parliament in Luxembourg.