My SmarTerms 8: The Synchronic and Diachronic approaches of terminology

Sand-Clock--29774The General Theory of Terminology (also known as the Traditional Theory) proposes as one of its approaches to terminology work that terms and concepts should be studied synchronically, that is, analyzed in one period in time, usually the present, without taking their history into account, while the diachronic approach studies the historical development and evolution of language.

Richard Norquist explains: “Diachronic literally means across-time, and it describes any work which maps the shifts and fractures and mutations of languages over the centuries. Synchronic literally means with-time […]and studies language at a given, frozen moment.”


The terminological distinction between synchronic and diachronic (historical) linguistics was first made by Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure (1857–1913) in his Course in General Linguistics (published posthumously in 1916). Actually, all linguistic study prior to Saussure was diachronic.

To better understand the concepts, Saussure used a chess metaphor. In chess, a person joining a game’s audience mid-way through requires no more information than the present layout of pieces on the board and who the next player is. They would not benefit from knowing how the pieces came to be arranged in this way. Therefore, chess could be studied diachronically (how the rules change through time) or synchronically (the actual rules).

Wüster’s Traditional Theory –which was the first theory on terminology to be formulated– used exclusively the synchronic approach in his terminological analysis. However, the Communicative (Cabré) and the Sociocognitive (Temmerman) Theories, for example, moved away from the synchronic approach. For example, Temmerman studied the word “splicing” to identify the history of its meaning, particularly its evolution over time, its use by different cultural groups, and its presence in both general and specialized language.

Wendy Marie Schrobilgen, in her PhD thesis on Italian Internet Terminology, argues that absolute synchrony is impossible because the Web is dynamic and, much like natural language, is ever changing, and she used the synchronic approach for most of her work, but also made a diachronic analysis for comparative purposes, and suggested that further study on that topic would benefit from a diachronic approach.

Take a look at this fun cartoon to get a final general idea (comparison Spanish–synchronic/Latin–diachronic).

Sources and further reading:

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