Creation of Terminology Database for EU Law Terminology

Maja Lončar


A common language is a necessary prerequisite for effective communication. Considering the fact that most specialised knowledge has been documented and published on natural languages, proper terminology is a necessary prerequisite for the effective transfer of knowledge. Roche (2012) writes that “terminology as a scientific discipline is crucial if we consider that its primary aim is to understand the world, describe the objects that populate it and find the right words to talk about them”. As such, terminology plays a major role in ensuring legal certainty. There is no doubt that terminology databases are the best places to store detailed descriptions of legal terminology. Currently, there are two terminological databases where European Union legal terminology is publicly available in the Croatian language: IATE (a European Union multilingual terminology database of European Union) and Struna (a Croatian terminology database). However, data necessary to describe legal concepts is often placed in the general fields within terminological entries, which remain unstructured. Legal concepts have a specific life cycle and specific data categories, and special types of concept relations are needed to describe them. During the thought process, concepts are created first, and it is only after they are created that an object can come into existence (for some legal concepts, objects do not exist at all). This is why the relationship between concepts and objects in law is truly unique. Even though traditional terminological theory often neglects the diachronic aspect and approaches concepts synchronically, it is necessary to include the diachronic paradigm in the description of legal concepts. This aspect must be formalised not only through the use of specific categories for certain concepts, but also in relations among concepts.

The idiosyncrasies of European Union law are primarily related to its multilingualism (in contrast to other legal disciplines). Therefore, equivalents (designations in different languages) are not as problematic in the legal terminology of the European Union as they are in other legal disciplines, since they must function in a coordinated manner in all 24 official languages of the European Union, unlike synonyms (designations in a single language), which often refer to two different concepts from two parallel, but different legal systems: European and national.

Terminology, sign models, and legal concepts

Since the very outset of terminology theory, the semiotic triangle has remained the only widely accepted sign model. Although some authors have proposed some different models, none of them has made a greater impact. By accepting this model, we implicitly accept the definition of the concept created by the abstraction of the properties of objects, neglecting completely the fact that concepts can arise as constructions, therefore preceding the objects they refer to. Legal concepts are a typical example of this type of concept, as most legal concepts are formed by construction (the formation of new ideas) rather than the abstraction of observed objects. Myking (1997) observes that the model of the semiotic triangle does not work in the direction of the language or thoughts to the referent, and is not in accordance with theoretical approaches that allow for the possibility that referents can be created in language, a situation identified by Brækhus (cited in Mattila 2006) through the example of law in 1956 (“if the legislator, in a new law, describes a legal phenomenon otherwise than in an earlier law, then the legal reality changes: law only exists in human language”), and presented by Dahlberg in 1978 in her concept theory.

Considering the characteristics of legal concepts, in addition to the usual paradigm implied by the semiotic triangle,
object(s) → concept → designations
we can conclude that they follow a different paradigm of formation:
concept → designation (→ object)
in which concepts precede objects (which do not even need to appear).

More recent terminology theories that have emerged as a critique of the general theory of terminology do not deal with definitions of basic terminology concepts. We believe that, in the theoretical reflection of terminology, one should not give up on the concept (or the element that corresponds to it, whatever one wishes to call it) because that would abolish terminology as a science, rendering it a mere terminographic practice.

We might not need to give up on the semiotic triangle as a sign model in terminology, but we must not take for granted what that triangle (perhaps unnecessarily) entails: the existence of objects as a necessary prerequisite for the formation of concepts. In considerations of basic terminology concepts, terminology theory must include the fact that, in certain subject fields such as law, concepts occur before objects, and only the acceptance of these legal concepts creates a new legal reality that never existed before. The fact (or knowledge) that legal concepts are formed by construction not only affects legal theory and terminological theory, but also terminographic practice in the processing of legal terminology.

Database Model for EU Law Terminology

The development of the database model (in this case, for European Union legal terminology) consists of two steps (according to ISO standard 16642:2003): in the first step, the data category of specific terminology fields are selected (Data Category Selection) and described. The required data categories should be chosen from ISOcat (i.e. an ISO norm that is publicly available as a database in which data categories for terminographic description are listed). In addition to the ISOcat data categories, several new data categories necessary for the structured description of specific legal concepts need to be introduced.

Data necessary for the description of legal concepts is often placed in the general fields within a terminological entry, which remain unstructured. Legal concepts have a specific life cycle and specific data categories, and special types of concept relations are needed to describe them.

Characteristics that occur at concept level in this specific subject field are primarily related to the definition. The definition as a data category for the description of concepts has a particularly important function in terminology work (which often depends on its overall quality and efficiency). It has long been recognised that the nature of legal concepts makes legal definitions a special category of definition that cannot fit into traditional definition formats. New types of definitions that are specific for legal terminology need to be introduced: “obsolete” definition, “current” definition, “future” definition.

At concept relation level, some new types of relations relevant to the subject field of European Union law (other than the usual, such as generic and hierarchical) should be introduced into a terminological database to adequately represent existing relationships. The importance of diachrony must be formalised not only as a specific category for an individual concept, but also in terms of relations among different concepts. This is why the new category of “obsolete concept” needs to be introduced to indicate relationships between existing and deprecated or replaced concepts.

In the second step of model development, selected data categories must be represented in XML format.


It is indisputable that terminology databases are the best medium for the description of legal terminology. The fact that legal concepts originate from construction (not only abstraction) has implications not only for legal and terminological theory, but also for terminographic practice. This is why terminology databases dealing with legal terminology should be adapted to the specific needs of that particular subject field.


About the author:
Maja Lončar is Postgraduate Researcher at the Institute of Croatian Language and Linguistics in Zagreb. She has worked as an ECQA certified terminologist on several Croatian Special Field Terminology projects including Croatian Terms for Concepts of EU Law. She is a President of the Technical Committee 37 "Terminology" of the Croatian Standards Institute since 2015. Her PhD thesis, Terminological Database Model for EU Law Terminology, was awarded the International Award for Applied Terminology Research and Development at the EAFT summit in October 2016.

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