What is Terminology?

To put it simply, Terminology is the discipline concerned with understanding and managing terminologies. Over the years, Terminology has developed theories and methods that are distinguishable from those of its most related discipline, lexicology. Terminology deals with concepts and their designations, whereas lexicology deals with words and their meanings. Terminology produces conceptually-based resources, usually in the form of a database, whereas lexicology produces dictionaries. These two diametrically-opposed perspectives require equally distinct methodologies.

Terminology Nuances

The word “terminology” is inherently ambiguous – it can refer to an academic discipline (related to lexicology and linguistics), a profession occupied by a “terminologist”, a set of theories and methodologies (such as the General Theory of Terminology), and finally, a set of terms, such as in “legal terminology” or “medical terminology.”

In this Web site, Terminology, with an upper case “T”, refers to the field – theories, methodologies, profession, and so forth. Without the capital T, it refers to a set of terms or to the general idea of a terminology as a kind of language resource.

While what distinguishes a “term” from other lexical units (words, expressions, idioms, etc.) continues to be the subject of considerable debate, a “term” is generally understood to be a “lexical unit” belonging to a “Language for Special Purposes” (LSP). LSPs are, themselves, understood to constitute the language used in specific subject fields. Thus terms, and terminologies, are typically considered to be subject-field-specific lexical units, such as in the various fields of science, technology, humanities, commerce, and so forth.

With the growing need to manage terminologies for communication purposes in the private and public sectors, the concept of subject field as a key property of LSPs can be extended to the domains in which governments and commercial enterprises are actively engaged. For example, terminologists in the software industry work with both Microsoft terminology as the operating platform and company-specific application terminology. Research in Motion, the Canadian company that produces the Blackberry, requires unique terminology on interfaces with minuscule space allotments in multiple languages. One can imagine the specialized terminology of Bombardier, or of the Canadian banking industry!

The legal profession in Canada has to deal with two parallel systems: Civil and Common Law in two languages.  On the other hand, terminologists working at the Translation Bureau of the Government of Canada have to deal with a wide range of subject fields, from taxation and health care to natural resources, in Canada's two official languages, while welcoming and supporting the linguistic needs of new immigrants and our First Nations. These significant challenges led to the development of Termium, one of the largest terminology databases in the world, as well as a number of “spin-off” technologies to assist terminologists.

Canada: A leader in Terminology Standards

Canada has long been recognized as a leader in matters relating to language, including translation and interpretation, lexicology and terminology, and official language policy development such as language planning and second language education. Canada hosts some of the most respected and established language “institutions”, from university programs to terminology databases. Tens of thousands of young Canadians have experienced personal growth through government-sponsored second language immersion programs that promote linguistic and cultural diversity.

It comes as no surprise then that Canadian experts in language have actively contributed to international standards for terminology, translation, and interpretation. Over 35 years ago, the Canadian Advisory Committee (CAC) was established to sit on Technical Committee 37 of the International Organization for Standardization (ISO TC37). The mandate of ISO TC 37 is to standardize principles, methods and applications relating to Terminology and other language and content resources in the contexts of multilingual communication and cultural diversity.

The CAC operates under the umbrella of the Standards Council of Canada (SCC). Comprised of nearly 40 experts, including many AILIA members, the CAC has consistently been one of the most active national delegations in ISO TC37, its members frequently providing extensive comments on draft standards, which has earned them great respect among other national delegations.

CAC members bring back to their respective work environments valuable knowledge and experience about language standards. For example, CAC members who are university professors may integrate modules on standards in their course curricula. Other members apply standards in their work with industry, to drive competitiveness of Canadian companies. Several members work at the Government of Canada Translation Bureau, where they can leverage standards to benefit government translation, interpretation, and terminology services. Others have taken an active interest on standards in natural language processing, including annotation schemes, XML markup languages, and data models – the purview of SC4. Staying abreast of these advanced technical areas is important for research and innovation in language technologies in Canada.

Terminology initiatives support Canada's objectives and priorities

Through theOfficial Languages Act of Canada and the multitude of related programs and initiatives designed to fulfill its requirements (ranging from Royal Commissions to bilingual school boards), the Government of Canada has a mandate to equally support Canada’s two official languages. 

The CAC’s work on TC37 supports the government’s official languages mandate through Objective 4.1 of the Canadian Standards Strategy (CSS), which states that the Standards Council of Canada (SCC), shall: “Identify opportunities for the application of standards and accreditation solutions in areas that support government priorities.” The SCC’s mandate is to promote efficient and effective standardization in Canada, as well as to serve the interests of Canada's industries in the development of international standards. In light of this, a Canadian contribution is essential in ensuring that international terminology, translation, interpretation, and related technical standards benefit from the input of the Canadian language industry which is recognized world-wide.   

In 2008, members of the CAC contributed to the National Standard of Canada for Translation Services, published by the Canadian General Standards Board (CGSB), an AILIA initiative. This standard defines a level of quality of service which is essential for the Canadian translation industry to compete on the world stage.

Canada's international reputation and sphere of influence in Terminology

As a bilingual country, Canada has developed a leadership position in the language industry world-wide and is considered a thought leader in the field of terminology management and translation. Several of our universities are internationally renowned for offering top-quality education in these fields. Université Laval, for instance, was the first university in the world to offer a post-graduate degree in Terminology. Canadian scholars such as Marie-Claude L'Homme and Jean Delisle have developed new theories and methodologies in the fields of translation and terminology, and the long list of respected publications by Canadians have helped raise Canada's profile in the global language industry.

Our various policies and programs put into effect to support our two official languages have gained respect and recognition world-wide. For instance, the national terminology database, TERMIUM®, as well as the Québec provincial terminology database, Le Grand Dictionnaire Terminologique (GDT), and Onterm in Ontario, showcase Canada's superior position in the field of terminology database development. Having a long history (in the case of TERMIUM®, going back more than 30 years), these databases position Canada as an innovator and are often used as models by other countries wishing to implement similar programs.

In 2010, Canada's leadership role in Terminology received further recognition when TC37 appointed a Canadian to the position of International Chair for a period of six years.  Asia in general and China in particular, are facing significant challenges relating to communication to support their growing economies. Terminology is a key component in solutions to those challenges. Several years ago, the People's Republic of China assumed the Secretariat of TC37, taking over from the Austrian Standards Institute which had held the position for decades. This gesture demonstrates China’s growing recognition of the importance of terminology to its national interest. Through its regional networks, China is helping to disseminate information about language standards throughout Asia. Such standards are helping to bolster economic trade by facilitating cross-border communications.

The standardization body of Columbia, ICONTEC, is proposing a project to develop a terminology database to serve all of Latin America (through COPANT – the Pan American Standards Commission), and is looking to Canadian experts for guidance and support. Such partnerships with developing countries like Columbia, with which, coincidentally, Canada has just signed a Free Trade agreement, align with Objective 1.5 of the Canadian Standards Strategy (CSS), to “enhance developing countries' participation in international standardization activities as part of our national trade and development priorities.”

TC37 also has a close relationship with the South African Bureau of Standards (SABS), and TC37’s annual meeting will even be held in South Africa in 2013.  SABS has a mirror committee to TC37 that promotes terminology development in South Africa to help preserve its eleven official languages. And in Eastern Europe, TC37 standards are already being used in the framework of the EuroTermBank, a federated system of national termbases.

Canada published a comprehensive report describing international standards, guidelines, and resources that are highly relevant to the language industry. The report was commissioned by the Language Technologies Research Centre (LTRC) to act upon AILIA’s recommendations, which were documented in its Language Technology Roadmaps. The latest version of this report was produced in 2007; it is available at the following Web site: http://www.crtl.ca/publications_LTRC.


ISO TC37 is divided into four sub-committees, each with its own Secretariat and Chair:

  1. Principles and methods
  2. Terminographical and lexicographical working methods
  3. Systems to manage terminology, knowledge and content
  4. Language resource management

Canada has held the Secretariat for SC2 for many years (specifically, the Terminology Standardization Directorate, Translation Bureau, Public Works and Government Services). Among the many significant projects completed by SC2 under Canada’s administration, the ISO 639 series on Language Codes is one of the most well-known. These language codes are used in virtually every software application and operating system ever produced. Without them, computers would not be able to function, much less support the thousands of different languages currently available to computer users world-wide. And today, the support of a language in computer environments is virtually essential to the very survival of that language.

Terminologists working for ONTERM at the Ontario Government Translation Services drafted one of TC37’s most important standards: ISO 704 – Terminology work – Principles and Methods. This standard is the theoretical cornerstone of virtually all other TC37 standards and is a “must have” for all terminologists.  While Canada played a key role in the development of this standard, all ISO standards reflect the consensus of ISO members which represent nations world-wide.  In this respect, Canada often plays a mediating role negotiating consensus between nations that may have conflicting interests.

In its project to create standards for interpreting, SC2 used as a core document the Canadian National Standard Guide for Community Interpreting Services (NSGCIS), an AILIA initiative in partnership with three other national organizations. 

Over the course of its history, TC37 has been responsible for nearly 60 standards (including those currently in development). Topics extend beyond terminology to lexicology, translation, interpretation, language policies, natural language processing, annotation schemes, markup languages, data modelling, computer applications, ontologies, and so forth.

For more information about TC37, visit the following Web site:


Networking opportunities

The Joint Committee on Terminology in Canada (JCTC) is a multi-sector partnership whose mission is to promote the profession of terminologist in Canada and to increase the importance of terminology in university teaching programs. The JCTC maintains an online directory of terminologists in Canada. For more information:


In the professional networking application Linked-In, there is a group specifically for Canadian terminologists.  For more information:




Terminology Activity Report 2015-2016 presented to INFOTERM    Visit Infoterm at http://www.infoterm.info/