Term planning for Irish – and other languages

Úna Bhreathnach

Term planning is the way in which terms develop or are developed, are made available and are put into use in a language community. When, in 2005, I became editorial manager of a new project to develop a National Terminology Database for Irish, Focal.ie1 (www.focal.ie), I developed a practical interest in the way terminology work is planned (or, often, just allowed to develop) for a language. The importance of addressing all aspects of terminology planning – and not just the provision of lists of terms, in the hope that they will be accepted and used – became especially clear to me. It cannot be assumed that, without strategic thought and planning, terminology will be developed and accepted into use in a way which is beneficial and which contributes strategically to the development of a language.

It also became clear to me that there was surprisingly little published research on this subject, and certainly no go-to manual for the new editor of a terminology project. Most of the resources on which terminologists rely are internal working documents, not easily accessible to the external researcher. Further, many terminology policies are not explicitly formulated, much less written down. This is problematic as it indicates limited sharing of expertise (Budin 2001). It appears that relatively few sets of highly developed guidelines for term planning are made available publicly – those that are available are often, like Suonuuti (2001) or Bowman et al. (1997), extremely short.

In the case of the Irish language in particular, a language facing both extensive and rapid domain loss in traditional usage and a paradoxical parallel domain gain in official usage, terminology planning needed discussion and consideration. Although the terminology situation for Irish has many strengths, there are also significant problems, such as with the timely provision of terms, with strategic planning and coordination, and with consistency in terminology, as well as with the dissemination and use of terms. I felt that research into a best practice model for term planning, although not specifically directed at the Irish situation, might be a useful contribution to the debate on these issues.

In my thesis, I developed a general model for term planning which could be adapted to suit many language situations. A standardised model for term planning has potential value in several ways. Although the situations are different, the objectives of term planning organisations are generally similar, as are most of the working methods. Each organisation has to go through the same process of trial and error with regard to all the basic aspects of terminology. A ready-made model of what has worked well in other cases might be useful for fledgling organisations. It could also be useful as a reference point for more established organisations, as a way to identify and justify improvements, to attract funding and to evaluate processes.

This article gives a brief outline of the PhD research I carried out on terminology planning for Irish, Swedish and Catalan. It sets out some interesting results, which might be of interest to other terminologists.

Terminology and the Irish language

Irish is unusual among lesser-used languages in that many of its daily users are not native speakers. Since the foundation of the State in 1922, generations of Irish people have learned Irish (mainly through the education system) but few live in Irish-speaking areas. Some thousands of daily speakers use Irish in a variety of high-level domains, principally education, media, public administration and law. The Official Languages Act (2005) requires the stationery, signage, advertisements and publications of some 650 public bodies to be made available in Irish or in English and Irish. The Irish language was granted official language status in the European Union in 2005 after a public campaign; this status came into effect on January 1, 2007 (although the amount of translation done is limited by derogation). Translation is now one of the major language-related industries; the bulk of translation work is commissioned to comply with legislative requirements. As a result of this situation, there is a strong need for in vitro term creation and dissemination, and a large number of professional language users rely heavily on resources such as Focal.


In order to investigate the gaps in the term planning literature and to develop a model, I carried out a detailed investigation in 2009–2010 of practice in three term planning situations: TERMCAT (the term planning organisation for Catalan), Terminologicentrum TNC (the term planning organisation for Swedish) and the Irish-language term planning organisations, principally the Terminology Committee (Foras na Gaeilge) and Fiontar, Dublin City University. This research was carried out through a series of 26 in-depth interviews with key actors, which were then coded, analysed and compiled into reports. A model for term planning was then proposed, consisting of eight stages: preparation/planning, research, standardisation, dissemination, implantation, evaluation, modernisation/maintenance and training.

A word of warning, however: the model (illustrated in Figure 1) is based on a limited data set. No claims can therefore be made about its universal usefulness. Assumptions are made for the purposes of the model about levels of financing, resources, staff, user and staff education and the state of development of the language itself, which are, of course, not valid in all term planning situations. There are considerable differences between the three cases studied from a sociolinguistic perspective. In all three cases, however, the languages are well developed and fully codified with well-established grammars, orthography and lexicons.


Figure 1: Aspects of term planning

Terms in use: implantation

A sociolinguistic approach is taken here and this implies a focus on the social use of terms, the view of language for special purposes and language for general purposes as a continuum rather than two separate categories, and the emphasis on de-terminologisation and popularisation as important factors in term use and diffusion. These are all highly relevant to many language situations, in which subject specialists may not create or use terms themselves, terms are often borrowed unchanged from English and other languages, and terminology is needed for ‘popularisation’ activities such as translation, journalism and education. If terms are to be ‘liked, learned and used’ (Fishman 1991), and if domain gain is to take place, then the social and linguistic situation must be carefully studied.

Because term planning is approached from a language planning point of view, term implantation (getting terms into use) is considered the critical factor and measure of success. Examination of the literature and of the cases themselves shows that implantation is a passive stage, however, and not something the term planning organisation can actively ‘do’, although actions taken by the term planning organisation do influence likely term implantation. Influencing factors include the active participation by representatives of the target audience in the research and decision-making processes; the quality of the terms themselves, including conciseness, absence of competing terms, derivative form capability and compliance with the rules of the language; and the timely provision of terms in easily accessible formats.

Less easily controlled factors could include acceptance by the media, which is in turn influenced by their involvement in term creation and dissemination; and public attitude to the language and to the discussion of specialised subjects in that language, which may be influenced by the awareness-raising work of the term-planning organisation. It seems clear, therefore, that implantation is affected by the planning, research, dissemination (publication and marketing) and training aspects of term planning work, as well as by the quality of the overall strategic planning. Implantation, if carefully evaluated, is a good measure of the term planning organisation’s work as a whole, and it is therefore vital that it is assessed.

A few interesting findings

The case research corroborated the literature in some instances; other aspects repeatedly discussed in the literature appear less important in the cases. Interviewees in the cases acknowledged taking a pragmatic, case-based approach to the implementation of ISO standards, for example, and much terminology work – because it was done on an ad hoc basis, or because the projects were too big – did not suit the ISO approach. Although terminology work should, it was agreed, be based on standardised principles and methods, and based on scientific theory, this was not always the case in practice.

The most interesting finding from the case research, however, was the importance of aspects of term planning which are hardly mentioned in the literature. This is particularly so with methods of dissemination, in the sense both of publication, and of marketing and awareness-raising about term resources. Although these are essential for term implantation, they are hardly discussed in the literature. (Similarly, there is little discussion in the literature of ad hoc term research, although this is just as important as project-based research in certain instances.)

Dissemination covers a broad field in terminology, including at least the following aspects: publication of term resources; publication of information about terminology; drawing the attention of users to resources; and creating debate about, interest in, and appreciation of terminology work.

All this work is vital if term resources are to be used and implanted. The term planning process is more effective, the more people are involved and interested in it; in fact, participation in the research process may be one of the best ways of guaranteeing term use. As with all language matters, a sense of ownership and involvement is important. Getting more language users and specialists involved is also useful for the terminologist, as it means a broader spread of information sources. It is also a way of bridging the gap between in vivo and in vitro term creation.

There is a particular need for close coordination with the media as an important user group. As well as being consumers of terminology, journalistic choices largely determine what terms language users will encounter, and, as a consequence, what terms will be implanted. They are the main mediators between term creators and end users. This is particularly the case for terms linked to current events. The media will have particular needs – and speed of response to ad hoc requests is very important. An example of media contact is TERMCAT’s Antena de Terminologia, which is a distribution list comprising a broad membership of the media, used to spread information about new terms but also to gather information about in vivo term use and terminology needs.


Term planning is a difficult process and there are many influencing factors; the eight-stage model developed in my research (and shown in Figure 1) illustrates the complexity of the task and the way in which the stages interact. Term implantation is the main measure of success, and this can be influenced by the term planners, although this influence is limited by outside factors. In the Irish case, considerable effort is now given to developing sophisticated, user-friendly term resources and tools, and making them as visible as possible to target users. We hope that this will have benefits for term use, not just in translation but among the language community at large.

1 Foras na Gaeilge is the statutory entity primarily responsible for term planning for Irish, and it appoints the national expert committee for term planning, An Coiste Téarmaíochta, the Terminology Committee. Since 2004, Foras na Gaeilge has supported research contracts with Fiontar, the Irish-medium unit within Dublin City University, to carry out terminology work on its behalf. This work has included the creation, development and management of Focal.ie. Focal.ie is the major source for terminology for Irish, with more than 160,000 term records and up to 1 million searches per month.


About the author:
Úna Bhreathnach is editorial manager of several Irish-language terminology and digital humanities projects in Fiontar, Dublin City University, including the National Terminology Database for Irish, focal.ie, and the Placenames Database of Ireland, logainm.ie, as well as term research for the EU IATE database and a new dictionary of the Arts. Her PhD thesis,
A Best-Practice Model for Term Planning, was awarded the the International Award for Outstanding Achievement in Theoretical/Fundamental Research in the Field of Terminology at the EAFT summit in October 2012.