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date: 22 January 2022

History of Languages for Specific Purposesfree

History of Languages for Specific Purposesfree

  • Wolfgang PöcklWolfgang PöcklUniversity of Innsbruck


It is often said that languages for specific purposes (also named special languages or technolects) are the product of a division of labor. Although this concept was introduced only as late as 1776 (by Adam Smith, in An Inquiry Into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations), the idea that professions or occupations of all kind are characterized by a particular vocabulary that is not understood by all native speakers was already manifest in the writings of medieval scholars (for instance, in Dante’s De vulgari eloquentia).

In the Middle Ages most Romance languages conquered a more or less wide range of domains. The question arose whether they were also appropriate to serve as a medium of scholarship. The disciplines taught at the universities (arts, theology, law, medicine) had a strong Latin tradition; their knowledge was popularized by means of translations, which enriched the vocabulary and the syntactic flexibility of the emerging languages. Thus, the translators—sometimes organized in “schools”—contributed to the elaboration of the target languages and to their emancipation from Latin. Aside from the septem artes liberales, however, a second group of (seven) disciplines without Latin roots (called artes mechanicae) established and introduced mainly native vocabulary typical of the respective occupational fields.

During the first centuries of modern times, more and more scholars felt that their mother tongue should take the place of Latin as a means of propagating scholarship and new findings. In the 17th and 18th centuries, French held the lead among the modern languages in nearly all fields of knowledge; it maintained its dominant position among the Romance languages until the second half of the 20th century. On a global level, German was a strong rival in the humanities and several scientific disciplines in the 19th century; for many decades, however, English has been the universal medium of communication in the scientific community. This process has given rise to many discussions about language planning measures to be taken in order to curtail the Anglo-American supremacy.

Before the 18th century, special languages did not have a strong impact on the physiognomy of developed languages. In the sphere of academic disciplines, translations of canonical Latin texts entailed a general re-Latinization and, as a consequence, a process of convergence of the Romance languages. The technical languages of trade and artisanry were highly fragmented so that their special vocabulary was used and understood only in limited geographical areas.

In the Age of Enlightenment, the growing prestige of experts, on the one hand, and philosophical considerations about the optimization of language(s), on the other hand, led to increasing harmonization efforts on national and supranational levels. Organizations were founded with the purpose of creating and standardizing terminologies for various kinds of subjects (technical products, medicine, etc.).

Special languages, far from being homogeneous varieties, are differentiated vertically. Linguists use to distinguish between three levels of communication: specialists inter se (e.g., physician—physician), specialist—skilled worker (physician—nurse), and specialist—layman (physician—patient). Studying how technical terms seep into common language and what changes they undergo during this process is a great challenge for linguists.


  • Applied Linguistics
  • Historical Linguistics
  • Sociolinguistics

1. The Question of How to Name Domain-Specific Languages

The constantly growing interest of linguists in the communication between experts made it necessary to find adequate names for the linguistic subsystems used by specialists.

In German, the transparent compound Fachsprache was coined already in the late 19th century in order to designate this class of linguistic varieties. The North Germanic languages calqued the German term (Swedish fackspråk, Norwegian fagspråg, Danish fagsprog). In English, various expressions such as special language or language for special/specific purposes were created; it should be clear, however, that languages for specific purposes are not languages in the conventional sense (see, for more detailed explanation, the article “Language of Medicine in the Romance Languages” in this encyclopedia, in press). In didactic contexts the noun language is often replaced by the name of the language in question, and the complex terms Language/English for specific purposes are often reduced to the acronyms LSP/ESP.

The Romance languages were even more creative in proposing terms. With reference to Italian, Cortelazzo (1988, p. 246) lists more than half a dozen expressions: lingua speciale, linguaggio speciale, linguaggio settoriale, linguaggio tecnico, tecnoletto, sottocodice, and microlingua. Until recent times, French and Spanish authors preferred wordings like Fr. la langue des orfèvres or le vocabulaire de la chimie, Sp. el lenguaje / el vocabulario médico, and so on, but there are many other ways to refer to this kind of varieties. It took the Romance languages some decades to diminish the great number of synonyms. In the early 21st century, two types prevail: On the one hand, there is the phrase-type Fr. langue/langage de spécialité, (Sp. lengua(je) de especialidad, Cat. llengua(tge) d’especialitat, Port. linguagem especializada, Rum. limbaj specializat); on the other hand, there is the international neoclassical compound Fr. technolecte (Sp. tecnolecto, etc.), which presents, in all languages, the advantage to allow the derivation of an adjective (Fr. technolectal).

2. How Languages for Specific Purposes Came Into Being

It is generally agreed that the development of languages for specific purposes is, like many other phenomena, a product of a division of labor. Although this concept was introduced as late as 1776 (by the Scottish economist Adam Smith [1776/1976], in An Inquiry Into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations), the idea that communication within professions or occupations of all kinds is characterized by particular linguistic features is already present, in a way, in the writings of earlier scholars.

So, for instance, the great Italian poet and thinker Dante Alighieri (1265–1321) offered a far-sighted and, from a linguistic point of view, original interpretation of the Confusion of Tongues at The Tower of Babel (Genesis 11:1–9). In his rhetorical essay De vulgari eloquentia (ca. 1304), he embroidered the biblical narrative:

Almost the whole of the human race had collaborated in this work of evil. Some gave orders, some drew up designs; some built walls, some measured them with plumb-lines, some smeared mortar on them with trowels; some were intent on breaking stones, some on carrying them by sea, some by land; and other groups still were engaged in other activities – until they were all struck by a great blow from heaven. Previously all of them had spoken one and the same language while carrying out their tasks; but now they were forced to leave off their labours, never to return to the same occupation, because they had been split up into groups speaking different languages. Only among those who were engaged in a particular activity did their language remain unchanged; so, for instance, there was one for all the architects, one for the carriers of stones, one for all the stone-breakers, and so on for all the different operations. As many as were the types of work involved in the enterprise, so many were the languages by which the human race was fragmented.

(Dante, ca. 1304/1996, Book 1, Pt. IV)

It seems natural that specialization generates languages for specific purposes. From a sociolinguistic perspective, the use of special languages has often been criticized as a language barrier. Since the 1980s, however, most linguists have tended to primarily emphasize the importance of technolectal varieties in the light of communicative precision and economy, on the one hand, and with respect to the status of poly-functional communicative systems, on the other hand. A historical approach will shed light on these aspects.

3. The Weight of Languages for Specific Purposes

In his reputed monograph on modern French, the German linguist Bodo Müller assessed the impact that different kinds of language varieties had on the evolution of the French language. It comes as no surprise that during the Middle Ages dialects were the predominant varieties because there were still no standardized vernaculars. The first centuries of the so-called modern times, that is, the period from the Renaissance to the Age of Enlightenment, were marked by the formation of sociolects. From the 19th century up to the present it is, according to Müller (1975, p. 148), indisputably the languages for specific purposes that have shaped the character of today’s French.

This periodization applies, more or less, to other European languages like English or German. As far as the major Romance languages are concerned, French to some extent acts as a role model from the 17th to the middle of the 20th century. While slight chronological shifts and delays have occurred with respect to the leading culture, there is no doubt that all modern Romance languages have been subject to the determining influence of special languages.

Modern speech communities need and claim vehicles allowing them to speak and write about all aspects of life. The linguistic means required to be able to do so have to be created by competent speakers (experts, linguists/terminologists, etc.) and accepted by the relevant groups of users. This process is called ausbau—a term coined by the German scholar Heinz Kloss (1904–1987) and adopted also by English-speaking linguists. In an article written in English, Kloss (1967, p. 29) himself defined Ausbausprache as “language by development” (in contrast to Abstandsprache, “language by distance”).

A fully developed ausbau language is, of course, standardized and covers all areas of communication in a speech community, including political, administrative, ecclesiastical, medical, technical, and scientific domains.

When studying ausbau languages from a historical point of view, one can observe that they typically undergo various phases. The first one is generally the use as a vehicle of (popular) poetry and of translations or adaptations of didactic/religious texts. Kloss points out, however,

that in our age it is not so much by means of poetry and fiction that a language is reshaped (and perhaps salvaged) but by means of non-narrative prose. It need not be – certainly not from the outset – scholarly literature of a high calibre, but at the very least popular prose […] seems indispensable. Achievements in the realm of information, not of imagination, lend lasting prestige in our age to standard languages old and new. Three levels of non-narrative prose (np) have to be distinguished, to wit:

Popular np (roughly corresponding to primary school level): primers, community development, devotional and/or political booklets, etc.

Sophisticated np (roughly corresponding to secondary school level): literary criticism, summaries of essential findings of science, etc.

Learned np (roughly corresponding to higher education): intricate presentation of research problems, procedures, results, original research on group-oriented problems, other original research work.

(Kloss, 1967, pp. 33–34)

Considered from this perspective, we easily understand why Occitan and Catalan—two tongues that enjoyed great prestige as literary languages in the Middle Ages and were then reduced to “unstandardized oral languages” (classification in Deumert, 2000, p. 384) due to political developments—suffered such different fates in the 20th century. Occitan, although distinguished by a Nobel Prize in literature in 1904 (Frederi Mistral), was prevented by the French language policy from becoming a “mature modern standard language” (Deumert, 2000, p. 385), whereas Catalan intellectuals encouraged the production of original (fictional as well as specialized) texts and fostered translations of prestigious works of all kinds. Later, after the repression of Catalan during the Franco Era, Catalan linguists even took in parts the lead on the Iberian Peninsula in the field of (theoretical as well as practical) terminology (see, e.g., the reference work by Cabré, 1992).

4. Blurred Boundaries

The distinction between fictional and non-fictional texts (crucial in the model of Heinz Kloss) is a rather modern one. Until the 18th century the line separating these two categories was not as clear-cut and natural as it seems to 21st century readers. Thus, we may not wonder that words belonging to the sphere of a special field of erudition appeared in what we consider literary texts. To give an example: The French adjective étymologique (having the meaning the corresponding word family had in Latin antiquity) is documented for the first time in an Old French epic poem, centuries before it was adopted by Renaissance scholars interested in the history of French words. In encyclopedic works like Brunetto Latini’s Old French Livre du Trésor, the didactic objective may be more dominant than the literary intention, but in the versified Italian version Il Tesoretto the literary ambition is evident. The most comprehensive medieval encyclopedia is without any doubt Dante’s Divine Comedy. However, we should also keep in mind that later there were aesthetic doctrines that propagated the use of technicisms, be it for the sake of adornment (e.g., the French Rhétoriqueurs of the 15th and 16th centuries) or for reasons of factual accuracy (e.g., the founder of the naturalist movement Emile Zola and his followers in France and elsewhere).

Another boundary that was once considered relevant in the branch of linguistics concerned with special languages has been softened in recent times although it still persists, not without good reason, in language didactics (and especially in the translation studies curricula). Contemporary linguists are skeptical about the feasibility and the meaningfulness of distinguishing between general interest texts and technical texts. They prefer the notion of a scale on which texts of different degrees of technicality are positioned (see Kalverkämper, 1990).

A third distinction that proves to be problematic in many cases is the classification of single vocabulary items as common-usage or technolectal words. When comparing dictionaries of the same period it can be observed that some lexicographers mark a certain word with a symbol (such as ♪ for musical term or § for legal term) while others do not because they hold that the word under consideration should be known by every educated native speaker. It also occurs that words of common usage are terminologized and take a new specialized meaning (e.g., Fr. treillis ‘lattice’ in mathematics, It. Io / Fr. moi / Sp. yo ‘ego’ < German Ich in psychoanalysis, Fr. quincaillerie ‘hardware’ in computer science).

It is evident, however, that the status of words can change on a diachronic level. Technical terms become obsolete when the objects they designate are replaced by innovations; they fall into oblivion or survive as archaisms, while others are preserved only in idioms or in onomastic elements (family- or place names, etc.). On the other hand, highly specialized technicisms can become part of the basic vocabulary. Words like center, problem, and modern (that exist in corresponding form in all Romance languages) were Latinisms confined to the texts of scholars in the late Middle Ages, whereas in the 20th century they have become part of the competence of preschool children (see Stefenelli, 1981, for many similar lexical shifts in French).

5. Languages in Competition

In this section will be discussed the permanent rivalry between languages used for the dissemination of expert knowledge. The Middle Ages were characterized by the predominant position of Latin. From the 16th century onward, national languages (especially Italian and French) took the place of the former lingua franca in various branches of scholarship. Today, English is the hegemonic international means of communication in nearly all academic disciplines.

5.1 The Middle Ages

In the medieval period, most major Romance languages emancipated themselves from the predominance of Latin in many domains. (Rumanian, belonging to the Byzantine orbit and lacking written testimonies until the 16th century, is not considered in this article). The fields of higher education and scholarship, however, had a strong Latin tradition that had its roots in the education program of the classical antiquity known as septem artes liberales (seven liberal arts—liberal meaning “worthy of free persons”). The seven arts were divided into two sections: grammar, rhetoric, and dialectics/logic, forming the so-called trivium; arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and (theory of) music, making up the quadrivium. When the European universities established a four faculties system, the artes became the faculty of philosophy, which encompassed the propaedeutic disciplines (see today’s academic titles Bachelor/Master of Arts).

Taking into consideration the international origin of the students as well as the prestige of Latin, the universities remained monolingual institutions. As a consequence, hardly any scholar wrote a work in his vernacular.

In parallel with the seven liberal arts a group of practice-oriented—and less esteemed—skills or occupations (also seven, for the sake of numerical symmetry) was established. They were named artes mechanicae (mechanical arts). They were not based on Latin reference works and included activities such as agriculture, hunting, trade, cooking, and so on; in some inventories, navigation or (practical) medicine were comprised at the expense of other items.

As the mechanical arts had no Latin background, the texts dealing with subjects of these branches were mostly written in vernacular languages. Consequently, many words are documented for the first time in those texts, which contributed to the ausbau of the respective languages and laid the foundation for an expanding vernacular tradition of technical texts in these fields, thus constituting an antithesis to the decline of the belles-lettres in the late Middle Ages.

It seems to be a flagrant contradiction to what was said in the preceding paragraphs to point out that the history of the French language started—in contrast to most other languages whose earliest testimonies generally were isolated words, glosses, fragments of charms, or proverbs—with a text of great historical and legal significance known as the Oaths of Strasburg. The mutual pledges pronounced in 842 by two grandsons of Charlemagne (in Old French and in Old High German) are preserved in a Latin context and were probably based on a previously drafted Latin version—facts explaining why they were handed down to posterity and why they show a relatively complex syntax and legal phraseology in the vernaculars. The first document in the history of the French language already anticipates the constellations in which one might meet elements of special languages. As there are hardly any original scholarly or scientific texts, it was primarily in translations and vulgarizing adaptations of Latin works that technical words or phrases were used.

The first systematic efforts in France to make scholarship accessible to people without knowledge of Latin were undertaken by the translators patronized by France’s King Charles V (called The Wise, 1364–1380). The most prominent member of the team, Bishop Nicole Oresme, repeatedly complained in dedicatory prefaces of the poverty of the target language. He did not hesitate to introduce hundreds of Latinisms into French because he was motivated by the ambitious program of his sovereign to make French fit for communication in every possible domain. The scholars of the following centuries profited largely from this initiative (see Autrand, 1994, pp. 722–726, 732–736).

In France, the Carolingian Reform (8th/9th century) put an end to the diglossia, with Latin being the prestigious variety and French the vernacular confined to oral communication. In Italy the diglossic situation continued to exist until the 12th century. It is highly probable that lawyers had to learn to translate Latin texts into the spoken varieties. As soon as the different forms of volgare (there still was no awareness of a common Italian language) were used for written texts, numerous translations (called volgarizzamenti) of literary as well as of technical texts began to circulate (see Guthmüller, 1989). In the city-states of Northern Italy, a studious bourgeoisie eager to play a political role asked for didactic works dealing with rhetoric and legal matters in their native language.

On the Iberian Peninsula, the situation was rather different. The Arab conquest fostered contacts between the Muslim and Jewish populations and the occidental world. The cultural superiority of the invaders broke the monopoly of Latin. In the 13th century, Arab texts were no longer translated only into Latin, but also into Castilian. The variety that later was to become Spanish can boast of a large corpus of translations of scientific texts (primarily from Arabic). Soon there were also composed original Castilian texts dealing with medical, astronomical/astrological (e.g., Libro del Saber de Astronomía), mineralogical (Lapidario), and historical (Primera crónica general) subjects, most of them inspired by King Alfonso X (The Wise, 1252–1284).

Catalan owes its status as an early elaborated language to the beatified Franciscan friar and Majorcan polymath Ramon Llull (ca. 1232–ca. 1315, anglicized Raymond Lully) who composed most of his literary texts and wrote various important scientific works (about philosophical, theological, mathematical, and statistical issues) in his native tongue. His ideas influenced philosophers like Giordano Bruno (1548–1600) and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646–1716). The intellectuals of the subsequent centuries did not follow Llull’s example and turned to Spanish. Consequently, the tradition of Catalan as an ausbau language was confined to medicine and law for several centuries.

5.2 The Renaissance and the 17th Century

The period marked by the Renaissance brought a turning point in the question of the “dignity” of languages. In Italy, the cradle of the movement, elite humanists like Leonardo Bruni (ca. 1369–1444) pleaded for the use of Ciceronian Latin and condemned the “corrupted” Latin of the clergy and the lawyers. However, many artists and intellectuals desiring to disseminate their ideas refused to adopt the purists’ ideology and published their works in their native tongue. Thus, from the 15th century onward, Italy has an impressive diversity of original philosophical, political, mathematical, scientific, and so on, publications and works about language and art in Italian (see Olschki, 1919, 1922, 1927). The culmination of this development may be seen in Galileo Galilei’s insistence on the use of Italian although astronomers from all over Europe asked for a Latin version.

Despite the fact that Spanish had a longer tradition as medium of scientific knowledge than did other Romance languages, it did not manage to gain the status of a supranational vehicle of specialized communication. In the siglo de oro (Golden Age), the principal subjects discussed in Spanish technical texts were the (Spanish) language (Antonio de Nebrija having published his famous Gramática de la lengua castellana in 1492), religious questions, philosophy, and history. Thanks to the expeditions of Spanish seafarers, much geographic, ethnological, botanical, and zoological knowledge was accumulated (the same fact applies to Portuguese). There was a certain interest in astronomy (Chabás, 2001) and in medical issues (Eckkrammer, 2016; Laín Martínez & Ruiz Otín, 2001). The new findings were disseminated by translations (in many cases into Latin).

In France, the reception of Italian humanism began later than in Spain or in German-speaking countries. Nevertheless, scholars like Oresme had paved the way with their translations for the use of French in domains of erudition and science.

The strongest bastions of Latin were disciplines like theology and medicine. The reformer Jean Calvin (1509–1564), however, wanting to address not only learned people, translated himself his programmatic text from Latin into French (Institution de la religion chrétienne, 1541), thus demonstrating that it was possible to write about theological subjects in elegant French syntax. Ambroise Paré (1510–1590), barber-surgeon to four French kings and brilliant practitioner, published his works in his native tongue, much to the displeasure of the dean of the faculty of medicine of the Sorbonne who wanted to prohibit the circulation of his books.

Most of the French humanists composed their works, depending on the subject and the target readers, in either Latin or French (or in both languages, sometimes translating their texts themselves). In the 17th century, the publication of scholarly and scientific works in French became common practice. René Descartes (1596–1650) still followed the example of the 16th century scholars, Blaise Pascal (1623–1662) abandoned the Latin language completely. The foundation of French periodicals dedicated to the dissemination of findings and innovations in all fields of knowledge (Journal des Sçavans, 1665) or specialized in a discipline (Journal de médecine, 1679) not only marks the acceptance of French as a vehicle of academic communication in France; some scientists from other countries decided to publish works in the only modern language of prestige: so, for instance, the Dutch physicist Christiaan Huygens (1629–1695) or the German polymath Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646–1716). French also became more and more the pivotal language in various areas, transmitting vocabulary borrowed from English or German to other Romance languages.

5.3 From the Age of Enlightenment to the 21st Century

The period from the 18th century up to the present was characterized by a rapid ramification of disciplines and a corresponding diversification of languages for specific purposes. As national languages took the place of the lingua franca Latin, technolects had to be created by the different speech communities (for means and methods of creating new terms, see Section 6). The wish and need to communicate with peers in other countries led sometimes to the predominance of the languages spoken by the most recognized experts of the discipline. In the 19th century and until the first decades of the 20th century, German was an important language in the humanities and some scientific disciplines (especially chemistry). French was the language of politics and diplomacy until the end of World War I, while English held supremacy in international trade (Rainer, 2017, pp. 32–34).

In the course of the 20th century English became hegemonial in nearly all academic disciplines (Haarmann, 2008). National languages still play a role for publications dealing with country-specific topics (e.g., Italian history, French philology, Spanish architecture, and Portuguese law).

For a few decades now, a number of outstanding European universities have taught various scientific disciplines exclusively in English. Thus, even English reference works no longer need to be translated into other languages. The branches affected by this development will survive only in popularizing texts.

This threatens to be the fate of medicine. Like many technolects, medical language is not homogeneous but exists on various levels of technicality. The highly specialized variety used in the research environment and in scientific publications has become a domain of English. Even the major Romance languages have lost ground under the pressure of globalization. In hospitals, however, the communication between doctors and nurses generally has to take place in the national language. This means the technical vocabulary required for an unequivocal exchange of information has to be available. At a third level, doctors or nurses have to speak with patients and are supposed to avoid the use of technical terms that would not be familiar to a medical layperson.

Apart from the academic technolects, there are languages for specific purposes that so far have evaded the influence of globalization. In the field of agriculture, for example, people sometimes manage to stick to their local traditions in technical as well as linguistic respects. So, for example, the vocabulary of French winegrowers varies from region to region (see Taverdet & Straka, 1977) although the EU imposes norms that efface some of the differences that still existed half a century ago.

6. Linguistic Resources From a Historical Point of View

When linguists began to analyse specialized languages, their attention focused almost exclusively on vocabulary. Today, however, we know that technolects present special characteristics in all linguistic subsystems. In this section, we will cast a glance at terminologies, syntactic aspects and text structures.

6.1 Vocabulary/Terminologies

The history of modern languages is marked, among other things, by the question of how to manage the growth (often felt to be uncontrolled) of terms from special languages. In most Romance-language–speaking countries Academies watch over the development of the national languages and publish dictionaries (Accademia della Crusca in Italy, founded in 1583; Académie Française, founded in 1635; Real Academia Española, founded in 1713). Especially the French Academy has, from the outset, adopted a defensive attitude toward technical vocabulary, be it words belonging to the sphere of mechanical arts or neologisms introduced together with new scientific or technological innovations (see the detailed analysis of the prefaces to the nine editions of the Dictionnaire de l’Académie française with special regard to languages for specific purposes in Mayer, 2013, pp. 47–55).

The prefaces to the latest Italian and Spanish Academy dictionaries show a more welcoming attitude toward the technolectal entries, reflecting the tolerant approach of the respective speech communities; see, for example, the (anonymous) author of the preamble to the Diccionario de la lengua española (Real Academia Española, 1992, p. VII), who renders thanks to the work of the Real Academia de Ciencias Exactas, Físicas y Naturales and its admirable Vocabulario científico y técnico that had inspired, according to the prefacer, many articles of their own lexicographic undertaking.

The division into liberal and mechanical arts had an impact on the lexical enrichment of the languages for specific purposes. In disciplines without a Latin tradition new terms were primarily created with the help of native vocabulary. In medieval Italian, for instance, diseases were specified by indicating the affected part of the body (mal del fianco ‘colic’) or the symptom (male della pietra ‘renal calculi’); others were euphemistically associated with the name of the “competent” saint (male di San Lazzaro ‘leprosy’; male di San Giovanni ‘epilepsy’; see Giovanardi, 2006, p. 2197). Craftsmen gave motivated metaphorical names to (parts of) their tools (Fr. pied-de-biche ‘crowbar’; dent de scie ‘sawtooth’).

Things are rather different, however, when it comes to the liberal arts and scientific disciplines. In the Middle Ages, translators often adapted Latin terms to the phonological and morphological structures of the target languages. A striking effect of the activity of translators was the re-Latinization of the Romance languages between the 14th and the 16th centuries. As there was a canonical corpus of Latin texts that underwent translation, the same concepts were introduced in Latinized form into most Romance languages (the favorite authors of specialized texts being historians like Julius Caesar, Flavius Josephus, Sallustius, Lucan, Valerius Maximus; experts in warfare like Vegetius; theologians such as Saint Augustin or Pope Gregory I; the philosopher Boethius who was considered a Christian scholar, etc.). As a consequence, members of the Romance language family became more similar to one another than they were before (Albrecht, 1995). Romanian, being part of the Byzantine and later the Ottoman culture, underwent the process of Latinization under the influence of Italian and French from 1780 onward (Oprea, 2006, pp. 2190–2193).

Greek and Latin continue to play an important role in special language vocabulary, but the handling of elements borrowed from ancient languages has changed. One can observe a shift from simple loanwords to more complex forms. Whereas purist literary Latin hardly admitted compounds, Greek and late Latin do. Latinized Greek compounds like bibliotheca were integrated into the Romance languages (mostly via translations) at an early time. The practice of assembling combining forms (which in Romance linguistics have different names) was very popular with scholars adhering to the Latin language. A neologism like bibliographia, created by early modern scholars, was introduced into most European languages. The most productive way to form new terms, however, has become the technique of compounding such elements in any modern language without drawing on Latin models (with respect to French, see Kocourek, 1991, pp. 127–129). The French word bibliométrie of course never existed, neither in Greek nor in Latin, but it has the advantage of being fairly transparent.

The importance attached to these elements is reflected in contemporary lexicographical practice. Although they do not have the status of words, they usually have their own entries. An educated speaker of a modern language is expected to know dozens, if not hundreds of combining forms and to be able to analyze neoclassical compounds correctly. Another asset of classical combining forms is their internationality. A compound such as bibliométrie (coined by the Belgian Paul Otlet in 1934) can be incorporated into any other European language (Engl. bibliometrics, It. bibliometria, Germ. Bibliometrie, etc.). Consequently, it is often almost impossible for etymologists to determine the language in which a word of this type was used for the first time (many people dealing with bibliometrics believe the word was introduced by Alan Pritchard in 1969, and it is not unrealistic to think it was created independently by two persons in two different languages at different times).

Most modern Romance technolects, irrespective of the discipline, have in common a considerable number of linguistic features. The vocabulary consists to a large percentage of internationalisms. In many cases, we can observe a phenomenon known as etymological dissociation. Frequently, (relational) adjectives are not derived from the native noun but formed on the basis of a (semantically) corresponding Latin or Greek word (e.g., Fr. nordseptentrional; argentmonétaire), so that sometimes only the derivations can be considered elements belonging to a special language.

The vocabulary of modern languages for special purposes is not only composed of native words and loan elements from the ancient languages. Some nations held a hegemonic position in some disciplines for certain periods and exported, together with findings or products, the words designating them. Italian supremacy in classical music in the 17th and 18th centuries is reflected in the specialized vocabulary (genres, tempo indications, playing techniques, etc.) until the 21st century. The prestige of French cuisine manifests itself in the names of dishes and in a great number of verbs for kitchen operations (Fr. blanchir > Sp. blanquear, Engl. blanch; Fr. flamber > Sp. flambear, Engl. flame; Fr. gratiner > Sp. gratinar, Engl. cook au gratin). During the 19th century, Germany led the world in the pursuit of classical studies and historical philology. Over the last one and a half centuries, English, thanks to the economic power and technical predominance of the United States, reduced rival languages in most fields to insignificance on an international level and created terms that were integrated into other languages, mostly either as borrowings in their original English form or as translated elements (often as calques, e.g., Engl. space shuttle > Fr. navette spatiale). Many French organizations, and above all the Académie Française, have fought against the invasion of Anglicisms. In France, each ministry has a committee for terminology, whose task is primarily to coin French words for English terms. The words created by the committees are published in the Journal officiel; if their use is declared obligatory (and not merely highly recommended), infractions in official texts are prosecuted.

In Spanish-speaking areas, attitudes toward anglicisms in special languages are not identical in all countries. European Spanish tends to purism, whereas American Spanish is more influenced by English because of the economic supremacy of the United States (see examples in Haensch, 1981, p. 146; reforestación vs. repoblación forestal, Engl. reforestation; chequera vs. talonario, Engl. checkbook). Italian is much more tolerant of foreign elements and especially receptive of anglicisms (see It. computer vs. Fr. ordinateur; It. hardware/software vs. Fr. matériel/logiciel). But it would be an error to believe that all new technolectal terms in the Romance languages are of English/American origin. In disciplines such as geography or geology, numerous internationalisms from many different (and sometimes rather remote) languages are to be found (e.g., Fr. azimuth, fjord, polje, steppe, taiga, tsunami, etc.; see Pöckl, 2011).

Mineralogy is a special case because many of its objects are designated by combining the surname of the explorer or the name of the place where the mineral was found with the international suffix -it(a/e). Thus, the bases are anthro- and toponyms from all kinds of languages (see Tatje, 1995, esp. pp. 148–152). In spite of the recommendation made by organizations elaborating terminologies, namely to not use names as constituents of terms, various disciplines do not adhere to this principle. While in former times proper names did not play a role in the creation of terms, since about 1800 there has been a tendency to associate the name of the author/creator/explorer/inventor with the object/product to be designated. This is why one finds so many (derivations of) anthroponyms in biological, physical, medical, or sports terminology.

The major tasks of terminologists are to elaborate definitions and suggest terms that meet certain criteria. One of the principles already formulated by terminologists avant la lettre is the absence of synonyms. The authors of the famous French Encyclopedia, which was intended to be an inventory of the terms of all “sciences, arts et métiers,” criticized the fact that the same tool (e.g., the hammer) of masons, cobblers, or joiners had different names. But also in our times the phenomenon of synonymy is a frequent occurrence. When data processing became popular, several variants arose. In Spanish, for instance, four different expressions were in circulation: elaboración de datos, tratamiento de datos, proceso de datos, procesamiento de datos (Haensch, 1981, p. 145). Meanwhile, the last one superseded almost completely the former synonyms; proceso de datos can be found now and then, the two others have fallen into disuse.

In some scientific disciplines, efforts at standardization go back to the 18th century. The Swede Carolus Linnaeus established a Latin nomenclature in biology, the French Guyton de Morveau and Lavoisier created a system of names for chemical elements and compounds. More and more, scientists felt the need to standardize units of measurement, products and their names and symbols. At the beginning of the 19th century, the Swedish chemist Jacob Berzelius introduced abbreviations for the (Latin) names of the elements and created the modern system of chemical formula notation.

In a first step, initiatives were taken on a national level, but in many cases international harmonization was pursued. Today, the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) elaborates criteria for terminological standards that should be respected by the providers of databases and cooperates with national organizations, for example

AFNOR = Association française de normalisation

UNI = Ente Nazionale Italiano de Unificazione

TERMCAT = Centre de terminologia (català)

TERMIP = Associação de Terminologia Portuguesa

ASRO = Asociaţia de Standardizare din România

AENOR = Asociación Española de Normalización y Certificación

HISPANOTERM = Centro de Terminología Científica y Técnica del Español (association of organizations of Spanish-speaking countries)

It is interesting to observe the attitudes of different disciplines toward the standardization of terminologies. Most humanities do without standardized terms (there are only a few domains with stable terminologies going back to antiquity, e.g., rhetoric, metrics). Mathematicians prefer terminologizing words taken from everyday language (Fr. anneau—Engl. ring; Fr. droite—Engl. straight line). In medical circles, the use of Greco-Latin terms is common practice (with English loanwords becoming ever more frequent). Experts in computer science tend to use only English terms.

Plurinational research groups usually do not communicate in languages other than the lingua franca of science; the question whether English is—and should be—the “new Latin” is discussed passionately by linguists, scientists, and politicians.

6.2 Syntactic Aspects

The history of the Romance languages shows that only a small minority of Latin conjunctions have survived (Lat. et, quod). Whereas in literary texts of the early periods main clauses largely prevailed, authors of technical texts needed linguistic instruments that would enable them to express temporal, causal, adversative, conditional, concessive, and so on, relations and to link principal and subordinate clauses. In this way, the Romance languages that were used as a medium of written technical communication developed new systems of conjunctions allowing the formulation of complex chains of reasoning.

One of the qualities of technical texts is semantic accuracy; another one is economy of linguistic means. In order to reduce the growing complexity of syntactic constructions, authors of technical texts began to replace subordinate clauses with adverbial phrases, for example, La révolution industrielle a pu se développer rapidement parce que les entrepreneurs se sont enrichis > La révolution a pu se développer grâce à l’enrichissement des entrepreneurs (Kaehlbrandt, 1989, p. 60) or by constructions using a present or perfect participle: Un type de marché qui répond à cinq conditions > un type de marché répondant à cinq conditions (Kaehlbrandt, 1989, p. 88). This tendency, demonstrated by Kaehlbrandt with economics texts from the last two centuries, can be considered a general phenomenon of specialized communication. Hypotactic constructions are substituted by paratactic ones, but the noun phrases become increasingly complex at the semantic as well as the syntactic level. One of the techniques employed to condense information is to use relational adjectives instead of prepositional attributes (e.g., Sp. profesores de la universidad > profesores universitarios). Another one consists of forming neoclassical compounds at the expense of subordinate clauses (Fr. animal qui mange des plantes > [noun + adj.] animal herbivore / phytophage > [noun] herbivore/phytophage). Thus, the noun phrase is charged with information while the verb tends to become semantically empty. This development is the result of the tendency of storing technical information in nouns, which explains why most technical texts have recourse to the so-called nominal style.

6.3 Texts

Although the conventional structure of a text type is a more or less authoritative guideline for the author of a concrete text and a helpful aid for the reader when decoding the message, there are not many studies that analyze the architecture of technical texts from a diachronic perspective. Most linguists pay more attention to modifications of texts of everyday life such as instructions for use or obituary notices.

A remarkable pioneering work published some decades ago (Krefeld, 1985) demonstrates how an innovative jurisprudence in the context of the French Revolution originated a completely new form of sentences. It consists of one single clause with a precisely fixed order of syntactic elements: Subject (court, judge)—Adverbial phrases (legal principles)—Verb—Direct object (defendant) —Prepositional phrase (legal decisions). This structure has had a considerable impact on the way legal texts are formulated today in France and in other countries where French jurisprudence was adopted. Italian decrees, for instance, have exactly the same structure as in France. Also in South Tyrol, both the German and the Ladin speech communities have to follow the Italian example in bi- or tri-lingual synoptic publications or announcements.

Table 1. Italian Decree


Visto l’art. 87 della Costituzione;

Visto l’art. 107, primo comma, del decreto […]

Sentita la Commissione paritetica per le norme di attuazione […]

Vista la deliberazione del Consiglio dei Ministri […]

Sulla proposta del Presidente del Consiglio dei Ministri […]


Il seguente decreto:

Table 2. Italian and Ladin Announcement


Vista la necessità […]

Considerato che […]

Ritenuto […]

Sentita la Giunta comunale […]



Il divieto di sosta permanente per le caravan […]


Udù […]

Tení cont che […]

Cunstatà […]

Ratà […]

Audida […]

Ududa la lege […]


[…] iel pruibí de parché

(Adapted from Pöckl, 1995, pp. 309–311).

The second half of the 20th century is characterized by a strong convergence in various domains. Many text types were standardized by institutions of the European Union. For instance, the package inserts accompanying medication, originally loaded with medical terminology and obviously addressed to doctors and not to consumers, have become appropriate patient instruction leaflets with a uniform structure and a less technical language (see Eckkrammer, 1999, with reference to Italian and Portuguese examples).

In spite of the differences existing in scientific cultures both on a disciplinary level (see the dichotomy sciences vs. humanities alleged by Snow, 1959/2001) as well as on the level of national traditions (see the geography of intellectual styles set forth by Galtung, 1981), North American academic institutions were successful in imposing a universal organizational model for scientific writing known as the IMRaD structure (Introduction, Method[s], Results, and Discussion). For some decades now, articles have been generally preceded by a new text type called a summary or abstract. For the sake of international visibility, this text is generally written in English, even if the article itself is published in a Romance language.

7. Conclusion

Languages for specific purposes are a natural product of the division of labor. The Romance languages have various synonyms to designate these varieties that came to linguists’ attention only several decades ago. In our modern world, the prestige of a language depends to a large extent on its fitness for technical communication in the broadest sense.

The history of the Romance languages is strongly marked by their emancipation from Latin. Nevertheless, the classical languages have always been the most important adstratum for the vocabulary of academic disciplines. In the course of the second half of the 20th century, English has become an influential rival. With the majority of modern languages for specific purposes now constituting a reservoir of autochthonous, (neo)classical and English components, enriched by particles from other (sometimes exotic) languages. Standardization of terminologies and text types fostered by globalization processes has largely contributed to the convergence of modern languages, especially in the field of technical communication.

Further Reading

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(Articles in Catalan, Portuguese, and Spanish).

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