The Tension between Definition and Reality in Terminology

By November 17, 2016,
AuthorPius ten Hacken
TitleThe Tension between Definition and Reality in Terminology
AbstractWhereas natural language concepts are based on prototypes, classical terminological definitions (CTDs) are based on necessary and sufficient conditions. The sociocognitive approach to terminology rejects both the possibility and the desirability of CTDs. In this paper, I argue that CTDs are needed for certain types of term, but not for others.
In a first step, I distinguish two overlapping classes of expressions, based on two different criteria for termhood. Specialized vocabulary is the set of items whose use is restricted to specialized communication. Specialization is a gradual property, so that the boundaries of this class are vague. TERMS in the narrow sense have a concept with a clearcut boundary. In scientific and legal contexts, clearcut boundaries are necessary because classification is important. Only for TERMS in this narrow sense do we need CTDs.
Some of the problems raised for CTDs can be solved straightforwardly by restricting their domain to TERMS. Discussions about the best definition, e.g. for governing category in Chomskyan linguistics, indicate a search for the best concept rather than a prototype nature. In cases such as significant in statistics, the CTD is logically independent of the prototype concept associated with the word significant in general language. In such cases, finding CTDs does not pose insuperable problems.
More difficult problems arise when scientific concepts interact with our intuition about classification and with technological advances. The discussion of species in biology, compound in linguistics, and planet in astronomy demonstrates how these problems arise and how they can be addressed without recourse to prototype-based concepts. TERMS in the narrow sense may be unnatural and their definition not straightforward, but they are crucial in scientific communication and depend on CTDs.
SessionLexicography for Specialised Languages – Terminology and Terminography
author = {Pius ten Hacken},
title = {The Tension between Definition and Reality in Terminology},
pages = {915-927},
booktitle = {Proceedings of the 14th EURALEX International Congress},
year = {2010},
month = {jul},
date = {6-10},
address = {Leeuwarden/Ljouwert, The Netherlands},
editor = {Anne Dykstra and Tanneke Schoonheim},
publisher = {Fryske Akademy},
isbn = {978-90-6273-850-3},