Plain Terminology

March 14, 2019 10:00 am

Linguistic activity is the continuous conversion of perceptions and thoughts into utterances. The latter are useful not only to share the former with others, but also to better analyze and memorize them. The human brain constantly converts concepts into terms.

Indeed, we probably never pay attention to this steady process of creation. When we say, “I can think in several languages,” it means that our knowledge of each language permits our brain to convert images into words directly in that language without passing through a translation process.

In order to communicate to another person the same concept you have in mind, you have to use the terms that will create the same concept in his or her mind. This is the process of transmitting an image through language: My concept (the image created in our brain), My term (our expression of this image in words), Your term, the perception and understanding of this expression that can lead to the creation of the same concept (image) in the brain of our target person or group.

My concept → My term → Your term → Your concept

When My term expresses My concept in a language different from yours, between My term and Your term we have the function of translation.

Since every person expresses concepts in words according to many criteria (knowledge, cultural background, geographic surroundings, experiences, mood), My term and Your term do not necessarily coincide, even in the same language, to permit you to conceive the same message that I want to transmit to you. In this case, between My term and Your term we have the function of interpretation (not according to the linguistic but to the cognitive meaning).

The vertiginous increase of communication has made us conscious of the need for plain language and for adapting the language used towards the various target-groups and according to the purpose and domain of communication. And if we agree that terminology is the tool that converts the concepts – the quick film corresponding to the cognitive process of our brain – into spoken and written communication, then we can conclude that aside from the very precise, if possible normative scientific and legal terminology, we need also a plain terminology.

A terminology that makes our communication understandable to the other party. A terminology adapted to the situation, the conditions, the objectives, the target groups. In finance, marketing and branding, terminology that is client oriented, based on sentiment analysis, and that makes the product attractive. In journalism and broadcasting, terminology that is current, flexible, metaphorical, provocative, and that makes the communication interesting for the audience, the spectator or the reader. In the health sector, terminology is vital for the ability of a doctor or a chemist or a nurse to explain to the patient what to do in a clear and unambiguous manner. To enforce the law (which every citizen is obliged to know), all parties in a dispute must understand it. And all these plain terminologies have to be offered in the respective tools – glossaries, databases, extractions for CAT or MT tools – both monolingual and multilingual.

To respect these needs in connection with the standards of scientific and legal terminology, a comprehensive terminology tool should use ontologies, tagging and complex entries containing multiple terms for the same concept corresponding to the various layers, situations and target audience, like the so-called terminology event. Plain terminology research and referencing obeys the same rules and fulfills the same quality standards as scientific or legal terminology. Plain terminology terms are not second category terms. They might even be more difficult to process than the terms found in legal acts or scientific sources.

These are the reflections that led me to launch the project “Terminology without Borders.” The project involves the European Union (TermCoord to manage the project, the terminologists of the various EU Institutions and language communities working on projects in the addressed fields, the related EU Agencies and the Translation Centre coordinating their terminology work), as well as the respective UN Agencies, several University departments specializing in terminology, and civil society organisations.

The terminology produced by this wide-ranging collaboration will certainly feed into the EU database IATE. But it is the first project involving EU terminology that is addressed not only to the translators and interpreters of the Institutions, but also to the citizens, who are the real sponsors and clients of the biggest human linguistic machine which produces terminology in 24 languages in more than 100 domains of daily life.


Written by Rodolfo Maslias, Head of the Terminology Coordination Unit.

Edited by Cosimo Palma, Communication Trainee at the Terminology Coordination Unit of the European Parliament (Luxembourg), and Anabel Mota, Study Visitor in Communication at the Terminology Coordination Unit of the European Parliament (Luxembourg).

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