The Classical Schools of Terminology

If you have been reading my blog for a while or already know about the history of terminology, you are probably aware of the fact that terminology didn’t start with linguists but rather with subject-matter experts who started compiling and standardizing terms with a view to improve communication among them and avoid duplication of efforts. So it was practical experience that gave rise to different schools of terminology in those times.

If you have been reading my “Who is Who” biographies, you remember experts-turned-terminologists such as Carolus Linnaeus, Swedish medical doctor and botanist (1707-1778), Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier, French chemist (1746-1794), Heinrich Paasch, German-Belgian nautical expert (1853-1904), Alfred Schlomann, German engineer (1878-1952), Sergej Alekseevič Čaplygin, Russian aerodynamics expert, (1892-1942), Ernest K. Dresen, Latvian/Russian-Soviet linguist (1892-1937), Dmitrij Semënovič Lotte, Russian engineer (1898-1950), John Edwin Holmstrom, English engineer (1898-19-) Helmut Felber, Austrian civil engineer (1925-2005), and of course Eugen Wüster, Austrian engineer (1898-1977). They came from different schools and some were even performing terminology work simultaneously from their own countries without knowing that others were doing similar work.

The classical schools of Terminology are the Vienna (Austrian) School, the Soviet School, and the Czech (Prague) school, all of which emerged from the work done by these experts. According to Maria Teresa Cabré, there are three approaches that these schools took:

  • A first approach that considers terminology to be an interdisciplinary but autonomous subject at the service of scientific and technical disciplines.
  • A second approach focusing on philosophy, which is primarily interested in the logical classification of concept systems and the organization of knowledge
  • A third approach focusing on linguistics, which considers terminology a subcomponent of a language’s lexicon and special languages as subsystems of general language.

The Vienna or Austrian School was born thanks to the work of Eugene Wüster who in 1931 presented his thesis on the international standardization of technical language with emphasis on electrical engineering, at the Technical University of Berlin. His dissertation was the turning point for terminology as a science. The International Standards Association (ISA) created the widely-known Committee 37 on Terminology and while living in Austria he founded a private terminology research institute. The General Theory of Terminology was developed based on his thesis, and its principles and methodologies — univocity, the synchronic approach, the onomasiological approach, and the standardization of terms —  gave rise to what we know today as the Vienna School.

The Czech or Prague School is based on functional linguistics. As M.T. Cabré puts it “The Prague School is the most ‘linguistics-centered’ school” and it was founded on the theory of literary language and the theory of cultural language. It was almost exclusively concerned with the structural and functional description of special languages, in which terminology plays an important role; it focused on the standardization of languages and terminologies; and its terminological work was linked to the Czech Language Institute (a part of the Academy of Sciences). Czech scientists and linguists focused on the theoretical and applied research of Terminology. According to M.T. Cabré, the School was led by Eduard Benes, Vilém Mathesius, Josef Vachek, and Nikolai Trubetzkoy, and mainly Lubomir Drodz and Ferdinand de Saussure.

The Russian School was founded in 1933 by  Dmitrij Semënovič Lotte and Sergej Alekseevič Čaplygin and gained momentum thanks to the translation into Russian of Wüster’s thesis in 1935 (four years later to its publication). In 1961, D.S. Lotte published the “Fundamentals of the Structure of Scientific and Technical Terminology”. Lotte and Čaplygin also created the Scientific and Technical Committee on Terminology that later published the “Guide for the Preparation and Regulation of Scientific and Technical Terminologies”. It focused on the standardization of concepts and terms in the light of the problems connected with the multilingualism in the former Soviet Union.

The three schools kept close contact and collaborated with each other and we owe to them the foundation of what terminology has become today. The new theories and approaches have updated and developed on the traditional theory to take into account not only new technologies but also to adjust to new cultural and communicative needs. But as M.T. Cabré puts it “The universal validity of the premises established by the classical theory, which is indebted to the historical and scientific context when they were formulated, was thus questioned; but questioning them did not mean that their appropriateness for particular applications, subject areas and goals be denied.”

Sources and further reading:

Cabré, M.T. Terminología. Teoría y Práctica.

Cabré, M.T. Terminology: Theory, Methods, and Applications.

Faculdade de Letras da Universidade do Porto. Notes on Terminology. MTSL. Canadian Translation Bureau

Herţeg, Crina. The contribution of the Prague School to the study of language.

Kast-Aigner, Judith. The terminology of the European Union’s development cooperation policy. Gathering terminological information by means of corpora.

Terminology. Theory and Practices. A PowerPoint presentation. Unknown author.

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