The study of terminology as an academic discipline

As translation professionals, we are used to dealing with terminology related issues. Therefore, if you ask anyone what they understand by ‘terminology’, most will answer that it is the subject that brings together the specialized terms of science and technology, with the glossary being the most emblematic representation of the study of terminology. However, the idea of ‘terminology’ implies more than a mere collection of terms.

In recent decades, terminology has been the subject of reflection from the perspective of its principles, bases and methods, achieving the status of a scientific discipline. In this sense, terminology can refer to three different meanings: firstly, the discipline that deals with the study of terminological units; secondly, the set of practices, guidelines or principles that govern the collection of terms; and finally, the totality of terms covered by a specialized subject.


Terms: an ancestral and universal necessity

Since the beginning of mankind, people have felt the need to communicate and transmit knowledge from one to another, and it is in this process of transmitting ideas that what we call terminological units arise.

Terminological units are a type of lexical units that acquire specialized meaning in academic and professional communicative contexts. This is why terminological units are characteristic elements of scientific and technical language. 

Thus, from the origins of specialization, words with a specific value began to be used in all the languages of the world; and, as societies became more complex, the need to use words with specific meanings has multiplied. In this regard, some areas where this need to use a specific type of vocabulary manifests itself prematurely would be, for example, agriculture, artisanry or war.

However, it is important to bear in mind that the terminological differences that we can appreciate in the different languages are not to be found in the structure of the languages themselves, but in the social and pragmatic conditions in which they are configured. In other words, the speakers of each language don’t all have the same terminological needs.

The origins of terminology

Terminology, as a discipline whose purpose is the study and compilation of specialized terms, is not a recent subject, since the development of vocabularies and terminology glossaries dates back to ancient times. 

From a Western perspective, Greek was the language used by science throughout classical antiquity, while Latin became more important during the Middle Ages and, above all, during the Renaissance. However, it was not until the 18th century that intellectuals began to conceive of terminology as a systemic necessity, rather than as something specific. Thus, the publication of the first encyclopedias and numerous dictionaries in this period is noteworthy, as a sign of the determination of intellectuals to categorize specialized knowledge.

During the 19th century, with the development of science and technology, the need arose not only to name new concepts, but above all to standardize and establish new names that would allow communication between specialists in a precise and clear manner. It is also important to bear in mind that the 19th century witnessed the birth of linguistics as a scientific discipline, which then laid the foundations for the later development of terminology as an autonomous subject.

Terminology as an academic discipline

Now in the 20th century, terminology has become a crucial necessity for the development of many activities. Moreover, thanks to the Austrian linguist Eugen Wüster, (considered the father of modern terminology science), terminology will reach the rank of an academic discipline, which some have regarded as a new, distinct scientific discipline.

The general principles of Eugen Wüster’s General Theory of Terminology are as follows:

  • The starting point of terminology is the concept itself.
  • Behind a terminological work lies a precise delimitation of a single system of concepts.
  • The need for the terminological definition to reflect the location of the concept in the conceptual system itself.
  • The univocity of the term: each term must be assigned to a denomination and each denomination to a single concept.
  • The synchronous approach to terminology.


It is important to bear in mind that, during the first half of the 20th century, linguists did not show much interest in terminology. In fact, it was at the end of the 1960s when a fundamental change took place in linguistic studies, with a shift from the formal paradigm to the functional paradigm, i.e., the conception of language as a tool for communication. In this context, terminology is at the center of interest, as it becomes the fundamental element in specialized communication.

Terminology as an interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary subject

Currently, there are three different positions on the consideration of terminology as a scientific discipline.

The first position holds that terminology should be conceived as an autonomous and self-sufficient discipline, since it has its own foundations, although it is true that it has been historically connected to other disciplines, as a complementary element.

A second position argues that terminology cannot be conceived as an autonomous discipline, but as an integral part of another discipline (which, for some, is linguistics, for others philosophy, and for others scientific-technical specialties in general). Those who advocate this proposal claim that terminology has no autonomy whatsoever, but is just an extension of another discipline.

A third position states that terminology stands out precisely because it is an interdisciplinary subject, which has shaped its own idiosyncrasy by selecting elements from the areas of knowledge to which it is indebted and thus configuring its own scientific field.

In relation to the latter, there is a certain consensus that terminology is presented as a discipline that, although it may have theoretical foundations and a specific object of study, is defined in relation to other subjects, from which it borrows a specific set of concepts. It is, therefore, an interdiscipline.

Likewise, terminology is conceived as a transdisciplinary subject, as it participates in all specialized subjects, since they use terminology to shape their knowledge. In other words, without terminology, there is no specialized knowledge.


Carlos Sánchez Luis