On the need for bottom-up language-specific terminology development

Peoples of several languages intellectualise their vocabulary so as to maintain their own language as medium of instruction (or: LoLT, language of teaching and learning), to conduct scientific discussions among peers and, in some cases, still, publish research in their own language. Some languages I know of who do this are French, Spanish, German, and Italian; e.g., the English ‘set’ is conjunto (Sp.) and insieme (It.), and the Dutch for ‘garbage collection’ (in computing) is geheugensanering. I found out the hard way last month that my Italian scientific vocabulary was better than my Dutch one, never really having practiced the latter in my field of specialisation and I noticed that over the years that I have been globetrotting, quite a few Anglicisms in Dutch had been replaced with Dutch words and some were there for a while already (as excuse: I studied a different discipline in the Netherlands). How do these new words come about? There are many ways of word creation, and then it depends on the country or language region how it gets incorporated in the language. For instance, French uses a top-down approach with the Académie Française and Spain has the Real Academia Española. The Netherlands has De Nederlandse Taalunie that isn’t as autocratic, it seems; for instance, to follow suit with the French mot dièse for the twitter ‘hashtag’, there was some consultation and online voting (sound file) to come up with an agreeable Dutch term for hashtag. But how does that happen elsewhere?

We found out that there is a mode of practice for language-specific terminology development that happens in small ‘workshops’ of some 13-15 people, constituting mainly of terminologists and linguists, and 1-3 subject matter experts. There may be a consultative event with stakeholders, who are not necessarily with subject matter experts. Shocking. The sheer arrogance of the former, who ‘magically’ grasp the concepts that typically take a while to understand when it comes to science, but they supposedly nevertheless understand it well enough to come up with a meaningful local-language word. But maybe, you say, I’m too arrogant in thinking subject matter experts, such as myself, can come up with decent local-language terms. Maybe that’s partially true, but what may be more problematic, is that only a few subject matter experts are involved, so there is an over-reliance on those mere few. Maybe, you say, that’s not a problem. We put that to the test for a computing and computer literacy terminology development for isiZulu, and found out it was: it depends on who you ask what comes out of the term harvesting and term preference. And then asking just a few people is a problem for a term’s uptake. (The students involved in the experiments did not even know there was a computer literacy term list from the South African Department of Arts and Culture, published in 2005, and boo-ed away several of the terms.)

The way we tested it, was with three experiments. The first experiment was an experts-only workshop, with ‘experts’ being 4th-year computer science students who have isiZulu as home language, as there were no isiZulu-speaking MSc and PhD students, nor colleagues, in CS at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, where we did the experiment. The second experiment was an isiZulu-localised survey among undergraduate CS students to collect terms, where we hoped to see a difference between a survey where they were given the entity with an English name and the entity as a picture. The third experiment was a survey where computer literacy students (1st-year science students) could vote for terms for which there was more than one isiZulu term proposed. The details of the set-up and the results have been published recently in the Alternation open-access journal article “Limitations of Regular Terminology Development Practices: The Case of isiZulu Computing Terminology”, in the special issue on “Re-envisioning African Higher Education: Alternative Paradigms, Emerging Trends and New Directions”, edited by Rubby Dhunpath, Nyna Amin and Thabo Msibi. It describes which isiZulu terms from where are affected, ranging from a higher incidence of ‘zulufying’ English terms in aforementioned list by the South African Department of Arts and Culture cf. the proposals by the experiments’ participants, and, e.g., expert consensus for inqolobane for database, versus a preference for imininingo egciniwe by the computer literacy students (see paper for more cases). Further, when all respondents across the survey are aggregated and go for majority voting, the proposed terms by the experts are snowed under. The latter is particularly troublesome in a country where computing is a designated critical skill (or: there aren’t nearly enough of them).

A byproduct of the experiments was that we have collected the, to date, longest list of isiZulu computing terms, which have gone through a standardisation process in the meantime. The latter is mainly thanks to the tireless efforts of Khumbulani Mngadi of the ULPDO of UKZN, and the two expert CS honours students who volunteered in the process, Sibonelo Dlamini and Tanita Singano.

Our approach was already less exclusionary cf. the aforementioned traditional/standard way, but it also shows that broader participation is needed both to collect and to choose terms; or, in the words of the special issue editors [2]: a “democratization of the terminology development process” that “transcends the insularity and purism which characterises traditional laboratory approaches to development”. We are still working on-and-off to achieve this with crowdsourcing, and maybe we should start thinking of crowdfunding that crowdsourcing effort to speed up the whole thing and complete the commuterm project.

As a last note: in case you are interested in other contributions to “re-envisioning African higher education”: scan through the main page online, read the editorial [2] for main outcomes of each of the papers, and/or read the papers, on topics as diverse as postgrad supervision in isiZulu, teaching sexual and gender diversity to pre-service teachers, maths education, IKS in HE, and much more.

References

[1] Keet, C.M., Barbour, G. Limitations of Regular Terminology Development practices: the case of the isiZulu Computing Terminology. Alternation, 2014, 12: 13-48.

[2] Dhunpath, R., Amin, N. Msibi, T. Editorial: Re-envisioning African and Higher Education: Alternative Paradigms, Emerging Trends and New Directions. Alternation, 2014, 12: 1-12.

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