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LGP vs LSP - The Language of Medicine: Vocabulary and Terminology

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The goal of this work is to create something that will be of value to nursing students, nursing instructors, ESL and ESP students and instructors, and other English language learners interested in studying English for the healthcare professions. Indeed, among the desired outcomes of this work there are the need to encourage a professional dialogue on this topic, to explore the various communicative modes: written, spoken, heard, and read, of hospital English.



Language for General Purposes


Language for Specific Purposes

The boundary between LGP and LSP is not clearly drawn. Many attempts have been made to name criteria for distinguishing LSP from LGP. The basic definition of LSP is a form of any given language used by individuals engaged in a common activity. From this two fundamental criteria for distinguishing LSP are derived:

a) its use is restricted to a social group involved with specific activities;

b) its having a specific terminology relating the objects and concepts of the activity in question. [1]

It is notably on the basis of these two criteria that the language of  medicine is unequivocally characterised as an LSP.

LSPs are each characterised by a special vocabulary or terminology, that is, by a set of lexical items that are unique to, or whose usage is unique to, the LSP domain in question. LSP users make up new expressions or redefine existing ones to meet their special vocabulary needs. Indeed, language is related to knowledge-experience and it is divided into disciplines or subjects. LSP is often thought of as "the means of expression of highly qualified subject specialists like engineers, physicians, lawyers, etc." [2]

The frontier between LGP and LSPs is permeable, so that, in theory, nothing prohibits a linguistic form from existing in more than one zone. For example, "colic" occurs simultaneously in two zones: in the LSP zone of the medical field, referring to a single concept; and in the LGP zone, having several senses.

With the passage of time, there may even be a certain amount of change in the meaning of words, a semantic shift. There are at least two types of shifts that have been identified in historical semantics:

I. specialization, in which the meaning of a word narrows over the years (LGP to LSP); for example, mouse which has developed a specialized meaning in computing; and

II. generalization, in which the meaning and reference of a word widen over the years (LSP to LGP); for example, the originally specialized term neurotic is now used to designate any excessively anxious person [3].

Firstly, all LSPs are regarded as elements of general language and, therefore, make use of the general-language system. Figure n.2 illustrates this concept using the Diagram of Wenn.

Figure n.2

The second theory is diametrically opposed to the first. LGP is seen as a subset of LSP since all general-language expressions are found in special language which also includes all the LSP expressions characterizing the different specialized segments of LSP:

Figure n.3

Thirdly, LGP and LSP are considered equal, yet distinct, since they are used in completely different communication situations, with LSP restricted to experts communicating within their field of knowledge:  

Figure n.4

Fourthly, the existence of LGP as a phenomenon in its own right is dismissal completely, since all language usage is considered specific to a certain situation. This implies that every language variety is an LSP; for example a medical book, a cycling magazine and a law textbook represent different LSPs.

Special languages are subsets of the set of language as a whole. Among these subsets is also general language. Every single LSP can be said to "intersect with general language, with which it not only shares features but also maintains a constant exchange of units and conventions." [4] Further, special languages also intersect with each other.

Figure 5 visualises these interchanges within the language system as a whole.

Figure n.5 - The subsets of special languages and general language in the set of language as a whole  (adopted from Cabré 1999:66)

However, a fifth and more realistic approach is based on the assumed existence of an LGP which consists of basic language structures and elements including words [5], understood or used by the majority of native speakers in a number of situations. LSP uses part of general language, such as grammatical constructions and some general-language words. However, in addition, LSP uses technical terms. The intersection (INT) between LGP and LSP is then made up of the structures and elements occurring in both LGP and LSP [6] (figure 6):

Figure n.6

It is obvious from the above that there is little consensus on the relationship of LGP and LSPs. What also emerges from these definitions is:

a) that LSP is not a monolithic block;

b) that LSP is a "variety of language," one type of "special language"; and

c) that LSP is LGP-based.

Not only are there a number of LSPs, but these LSPs are one variety of what are called "special languages" or "sublanguages".

It is nevertheless fundamental to remember that the boundaries among the varieties of special languages are not sharp: the special languages form a system that leads to the homogeneity, but that is at the same time open, centre of interchange among the technicalities of the different specialized areas (infra-sectoral phenomenon.


LGP and LSP have a number of elements in common on several linguistic levels: morphology [7], syntax, discourse and lexis. With respect to the formation of words, there do not appear to be any clear, definitive criteria for distinguishing between LGP and LSPs, although it may be argued that LSPs do in fact use a more limited morphology than LGP.

LSPs and LGP are also similar in that their discourses are essentially based on the same morphological and syntactic systems. Obviously, there are different types of discourse, such as medical discourse, journalistic discourse, legal discourse, technical discourse, administrative discourse, etc., each of which is divisible into sub-types. For example, administrative discourse consists of business letters, minutes of meetings, annual reports, job descriptions, etc. Each type or sub-type of discourse involves its own choice of lexical items, phraseology, themes, and rules of composition. In other words, discourse consists of an entire generic system that allows the user to identify a text as belonging to a certain type of discourse. The borders of the different types of discourse are not impenetrable. There are "migrations " of rhetorical features from one genre to another. They are adapted to the target discourse and its a set of norms.

As a result of the similarities, indeed the overlapping, between the various types of discourses, LSPs and LGP share another element: Lexical items. For example, the lexicon of special subjects includes "general language words used in all disciplines without distinction" [8] (note, observe, demonstrate. prove, etc.) as well as "general language words appropriate to a particular discipline" [9] (stir, shake. boil, freeze in chemistry).

Despite these similarities, however, there are also a number of tendencies observed in LSP and LGP discourses that may help to differentiate them. On the morphological level, LSPs may, for example, use certain derivations more frequently than LGP [10]. In medical terminology, for instance, suffixes such as -algia, -iasis, -itis, -oma, -osis, which are not common in LGP, are added to the name of the organ or affected part of the body to indicate the causes of diseases. On the syntactic level, LSPs seem to experience a slightly more restricted syntax than LGP [11]. For example, the frequency of structures such as exclamations and interjections are minimal, indeed rare, in LSPs. [12]

As regards syntax, terminologists have observed a high frequency of impersonal constructions such as verbs with inanimate subjects, passives (or their correlates such as the reflexive verbs), as well as a tendency toward nominal forms serving the aims of syntactical compression and of conceptual consolidation. Moreover, LSPs seem to experience a slightly more restricted syntax than LGP. [13]

Another major difference between LGP and LSP lies in figurative expression. LSP shares with LGP the tendency to describe and name things by metaphor, but it differs by its relative lack of idiomatic, phrases. Thus, modern medicine, for example, may describe a structure metaphorically as granular or reticular, or name a part metaphorically, e.g., hammer, anvil, oval window, but it has no phrases in which constituent words have no actual referents in the context, such as rip someone to shreds (which involves neither ripping nor the production of shreds).

Figure 7 illustrates that LSPs consist of features, which, although similar to LGP, differ from LGP by degree:

Figure n.7 - A model of linguistic features (adopted from Sager et al. 1980:9)  

The authors’ description of this model reads as follows:

“The X axis would represent categories such as report, handbook, contract, deposition, according to their distance from general language forms.

The Y axis would give sentence and phrase structures as they occur in special language.

The Z axis would indicate increasing specialization of lexical items” [14].

Elements of language on the pragmatic level and semantic level may help to illustrate the difference between LGP and LSPs.

The advantage of this model is that it allows a gradual classification of LSP according to linguistic features. The approach taken in this thesis is situated along the YZ axis, thus investigating the different lexical and syntactic features of LSP and general language. The goal of analysing these aspects is to clarify the distinction between terms and non-terms for Medical English purposes.

The pragmatic approach to distinguishing LSPs from LGP, which is user-oriented, requires exploration of the situations under which individuals use language, and more particularly LSPs :      

Figure 8 [15]:

X axis exemplifies the various areas or fields of knowledge and activity which can  have LSPs;

Y axis exemplifies areas of use which can be established for LSPs; and

Z axis exemplifies physical areas of distribution of LSP usage.

In those fields of knowledge (X axis) and settings (Y axis) in which LSPs are used, Sager et al. (1980: 5) identify special types of text units which may differentiate LSPs from LGP in that LSPs develop particular forms of language units deriving from different forms of speech acts. They claim, for example, that medical reports, wills and testaments, market surveys or invoices are special formats and units of text associated with particular subjects like medicine, law, economics and commerce, respectively [16].

Special text units on the pragmatic level are characterized by specific semantic features manifested through the lexicon. but also by the frequency and type of "special designation" they contain. Sager et al. provide the following examples [17]:

A. patents and contracts must contain fully terminologized designations and must define all terms which do not have an acknowledged designation and definition recorded in an authoritative schedule to which reference can be made;

B. production memoranda or discussions contain many shortened designations, ad hoc abbreviations or popular synonyms;

C. essays and reports on new developments contain many tentative terms together with established terms;

D. some special languages do not have a popular set of designations (legal language);

E. subjects, like crafts of hobbies, may require neither an authoritative fixation of terminology  nor the varieties of designation of engineering, for instance.

The syntactic approach to distinguishing LSPs from LGP must be guided by pragmatic and semantic criteria. [18] For example, the frequency of structures such as exclamations and interjections are minimal, indeed rare, in LSPs [19].

The range of designations necessary for an LSP is determined by the diversity of text forms required in any special language community [20].


In this section, I explain the basic notions of language for special purposes (LSP) and terminology, and explain the LSP view of term translation. LSP is distinct from other kinds of special use of language. Slang, for example, is a sociolect; it is not limited to people sharing the same activity. Jargon is a slightly derogatory term for LSP connoting opaqueness to non initiates. It also denotes informal usage within LSP, e.g., Eternal Care Unit, involuntary in Western medicine, or terms that are superfluous or obscure, e.g., ethanolism, pseudopseudohypoparathyroidism, and normochromia. LSP is not separate from LGP; it is an integral part of it. It draws on the grammar and lexicon of the LGP, even though it possesses a distinct terminology and may favour certain constructions. Conversely, it can also feed the LGP with new words and expressions.

Register, a term often used in recent linguistic and stylistic research, is defined as a consistent variability of language conditioned by its use in a given social or professional context or other field, or in discussions of a certain theme. The idea of a register as a characteristic configuration of functional choices on various levels of language is close to the concepts of sublanguage or genre, i.e. a class of utterances. The professional communicative register has to be precise, exact and coincided and the lexical units have to be unumbiguous unlike the common language that doesn’t make reference to the concepts or to the objects in a univocal way. This opposes, nevertheless, with the evidence that the scientific disciplines are not unified and that in the reality of the written and oral texts, there are different denominations of the same concept, according to the communicative context in which it is applied, with the consequent loss of the monosemic character of the terms when they are inserted in a context. 

Picht and Draskau [21] raise the question as to whether it would be more accurate to speak of LSP or LSPs. They prefer to refer to a "variety" of LSP, since, for them, LSP varieties from various areas of specialism have many shared characteristics [22].

Hoffman has presented a horizontal classification of LSPs, as illustrated in the following diagram ( Figure 9):

Figure 9 - General Language (Total Language):




e.g. philosophy






e.g. electronics



In order to examine the increasing "precision of language" in specialized areas of communication, Hoffmann proposes that a vertical classification may also be established for each sublanguage. Generally speaking, the vertical levels could be named A, B, C, D, E and commented on, for example, as follows [23]:

A = highest level of abstraction

B = very high level of abstraction

C = high level of abstraction

D = low level of abstraction

E = very low level of abstraction

Hoffmann’s description brings out two aspects of LSPs:

i) each LSP needs to be marked off from other LSPs; and

ii) each LSP consists in itself of several layers [24].

Sager et al. [25] interpret Hoffmann’s vertical levels (or text levels) of LSP as follows:

i) the language of theoretical basic sciences;

ii) the language of experimental and technical sciences;

iii) the language of applied sciences and technology;

iv) the language of material production; and

v) the language of consumption.

Hoffmann explains the development of such a variety of LSPs. According to him, there is a direct correlation between productivity and the economic situation of a society and the development of language, which is typically evident in vocabulary as new concepts and newly discovered or created objects must be named [26].

The formation of an LSP can be ascribed to labour division and specialization: as instruments and processes in production are developed and improved, labour division and specialization are accelerated. The more specialized a society becomes, the more distinct the LSP will be. Specialization can be traced to very early periods when hunting and farming were the main occupations. It increased with the growth of production and the formation of trades.

The industrial revolution of the eighteenth century marked a rapid development leading to industry and substantial progress in science and technology [27]. Effectively, each division of labour and specialization  constitutes an LSP.


A broad definition of terminology can be found in dictionaries of literary terms. Terminology, we are told, is a set of terms used in a given scientific discipline or a branch of technology, in philosophy, law, etc., which includes both its theoretical concepts as well as its generally accepted vocabulary. Terminology is the core of any discipline and establishes within its discourse a high-precision zone: it covers all the definable meanings that are expressed in the language of that discipline and are understood in the same way by all its practitioners.

Studies on the vocabulary of subject fields such as medicine, chemistry, mathematics zoology and botany started in ancient times. But the first attempts at establishing terminology as an independent linguistic discipline were made in the first half of the 20th century, as the early era of globalisation put more emphasis on the necessity of communication among different countries. During these early stages, the efforts in the field of terminology were motivated by the necessity of standardization, particularly in the technical and scientific fields. In the first half of the 20th century there were three major orientations in terminology: the schools of Prague, of Russia, and of Vienna [28]. But a more recent influence in terminology work comes from the Canadian community. The Canadian interest in terminology is motivated by the decision to make French a parallel official language to English [29].

In terminology theory, the way in which the meaning is structured follows a different interpretation from the one presented in the traditional semantic triangle of C.K. Ogden and I.A. Richards in the 1920s. The semantic triangle claims that meaning is essentially a threefold relationship between linguistic forms (symbol), concepts (thought of reference), and referents (objects identified by means of word or expression) The dashed base line indicates that symbol and referent are not related [30]. Figure 10 reproduces the concept triangle which shows the necessary constituents of any concept.

Figure n.10 - Ogden and Richards’ semantic triangle

It illustrate that there is no relevant relation between the symbol and the referent, that they are not directly connected. They did not mean to illustrate linguistic phenomena like polysemy (i.e. one expression form can refer to more than one concept form) and synonymy (i.e. one content form can be represented by two expression forms). In terminology, however, it is very important to identify these two types of relationships between words in order to achieve context independency of words. Re-expressed as an equation based on the concept triangle, the terminological definition becomes: C = B of A.

Special terminology is considered the main characteristic of LSPs, indeed, terminology is not simply a set of words; it is a system of words and groups of words linked in a specific manner. Terms of an LSP are hierarchically organized in conceptual networks.

The following model by Picht and Draskau [31] shows the relationship between LSPs and terminology: it illustrates that a large portion of LSP comprises special lexis or terminology :

Figure n.11

Hoffmann brings out three important aspects of the terminologies of LSPs [32]:

1. The terminology of a[n] LSP is part of a vocabulary of certain areas of productive human activity.

2. The terminology of a[n] LSP forms within the lexicon of a language a particular layer.

3. The terminology of a[n] LSP is more easily manipulated than the rest of the vocabulary. It owes its existence in part to a conscious language creating process.

The terminological definition has a precise role to play in the creation and use of any language for special purpose: it delineates a concept either to the extent that it can be understood, or to the extent of the use of its designation in discourse.

When it explains or informs, a definition has a cognitive/descriptive function. When it specifies a recommended use, it has a prescriptive standardizing function. Of course, where there has been a considerable amount of knowledge transfer and linguistic borrowing so that two conceptual fields show a great similarity, definition is essential.

Terminologists describe the concepts of any one discipline in three ways:

1. by definition,

2. by their relationship to other concepts-as expressed by the conceptual structure and realised in linguistic forms-and

3. by the linguistic forms themselves, the terms, phrases or expressions chosen for their realisation in any one language.

Terms are not as arbitrary as words: they are created by a consensus of experts or by imposed standardization, and they belong to systems both more complex and simpler than that of the general lexicon.

[1] H. Picht and J. Draskau, Terminology: An Introduction, London, University of Surrey England, 1985, pp.1-12;

[2] Juan C. Sager, D. Dungworth and P. McDonald, English Special Languages. Principles and Practices in science and technology, Wiesbaden, Oscar Brandstetter Verlag, 1980, p. 4-72.

[3] T. McArthur, The Oxford Companion to the English Language, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1992, p. 913.

[4] M. Teresa Cabré, Terminology: theory, methods and applications, John Benjamins: Amsterdam/Philadelphia. 1999, p. 64.

[5] These elements are covered in elementary grammars and learners’ dictionaries.

[6] Logically, it would therefore be conversely true that technical and specialized terms occur in LGP.

[7] As well as the morphological level, Picht and Draskau (1985: 8) indicate a morphemic/graphemic level. For the purposes of this thesis, 1 shall consider the morphemic and morphological levels to be equivalent, and shall treat them as one level, referring to it as the morphological level.

[8] H. Picht, and J. Draskau, Terminology: An Introduction,  ibidem, p.242

[9] H. Picht, and J. Draskau, Terminology: An Introduction,  ibidem,  p.242

[10] H. Picht, and J. Draskau, Terminology: An Introduction,  ibidem, p.8

[11] Juan C. Sager et al., English Special Languages. Principles and Practices in science and technology, ibidem, p.40

[12] H. Picht, and J. Draskau, Terminology: An Introduction, ibidem, p.8

[13] Juan C.Sager et al., English Special Languages. Principles and Practices in science and technology, ibidem, p.40

[14] Juan C. Sager et al., English Special Languages. Principles and Practices in science and technology, ibidem, 1980 , p.9

[15] Juan C. Sager et al., English Special Languages. Principles and Practices in science and technology, ibidem, 1980, p.7

[16] Juan C. Sager et al., English Special Languages. Principles and Practices in science and technology, ibidem, p. 5

[17] Juan C. Sager et al. English Special Languages. Principles and Practices in science and technology, ibidem, p. 232

[18] Juan C. Sager et al., English Special Languages. Principles and Practices in science and technology, ibidem, p. 9

[19] H. Picht, and J. Draskau, Terminology: An Introduction, ibidem , p. 8

[20] Juan C. Sager et al., English Special Language. Principles and Practices in science and technology, ibidem , p. 232

[21] Picht and Draskau, Terminology: An Introduction, ibidem , p. 1

[22] Picht and Draskau, Terminology: An Introduction, ibidem , p. 5. For clarity and concision, I have used the singular form: LSP, to refer to all LSPs taken collectively.

[23] R. Alber-Dewolf, "Compte rendu de Hoffman L. Languages for Special Purposes as a Means of Communication: An lntroducntion", ibidem,  p.21-22

[24] Alber-Dewolf, "Compte rendu de Hoffman L. Languages for Special Purposes as a Means of Communication: An lntroducntion", ibidem , p. 22

[25] Juan C. Sager et al., English Special Languages. Principles and Practices in science and technology, ibidem, p. 183

[26] Alber-Dewolf, "Compte rendu de Hoffman L., Languages for Special Purposes as a Means of Communication: An lntroducntion", ibidem , p. 6

[27] Alber-Dewolf, "Compte rendu de Hoffman L., Languages for Special Purposes as a Means of Communication: An lntroducntion",ibidem , p. 6

[28] The Prague school of linguistics is almost exclusively concerned with the structural and functional description of special languages. The Russian school is based on works of D. S. Lotte and S. A. Caplygin who stressed the need for standardization of concepts in a multilingual society. The Vienna school (also called ’Western school’) is based on the work "Allgemeine Terminologielehre" by Eugen Wüster, one of the founders of modern terminology theory. In his work Wüster treated themes like concept formation, conceptual systems, term formation, and term definition. All of these methods are adopted in today’s terminology work.

[29] Juan C. Sager, A Practical Course in Terminology Processing, ibidem , p.212.

[30] David Crystal, A dictionary of linguistics and phonetics. 4th edition, Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1997, p. 345.

[31] Picht and Draskau, Terminology: An Introduction, ibidem, p.22

[32] R. Alber-Dewolf, "Compte rendu de Hoffman L., Languages for Special Purposes as a Means of Communication: An lntroducntion", ibidem, p. 31

Published in August 2018.

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