Coining Scientific Terminology in African Languages

Just as languages are constantly evolving, adopting loanwords or developing phonological shifts, the scientific landscape is also constantly shifting, with new discoveries and developments being made every day. 

When you speak English, which is widely recognized as the international language of science, scientific advancements and linguistic evolution are often quite closely interconnected: for example, the words “artificial” and “intelligence” have been separately in the English lexicon for centuries, but it wasn’t until 1956 that the term “artificial intelligence” was coined. And even then, the concept of “artificial intelligence” has taken on several different connotations in the nearly seven decades that have passed since it was first used — it’s gone from being a somewhat distant, futuristic concept to something that is nearly inescapable in our day-to-day lives.


Speakers of other languages haven’t been quite so fortunate. English speakers have had the commonly used word “dinosaur” since the 1840’s — isiZulu speakers, on the other hand, do not have a native word for the same concept. Many other scientific concepts are similarly murky territory in isiZulu and other African languages. 

As a result, speakers of these languages have an additional hurdle when it comes to being fully integrated into the global scientific community and taking advantage of scientific advancements. However, the researchers and translators at Decolonise Science have recently made headway on a project that seeks to develop original scientific terminology for several African languages that have been neglected by the scientific community. 

“The ability of science being discussed in local indigenous languages not only has the ability to reach more people who do not speak English as a first language, it also has the ability to integrate the facts and methods of science into cultures that have been denied it in the past,” reads the project’s webpage.

Decolonise Science will translate 180 different scientific papers into six African languages spoken across several regions throughout the continent: isiZulu, Sotho, Luganda, Amharic, Hausa, and Yoruba. The project will employ individuals to translate papers on all sorts of topics, such as technology, mathematics, and the life sciences — however, the translation process for these papers differs from traditional translation, as the translators will also have to create a systematic and standardized set of terminology for such terms that do not exist in each individual language.

According to a report from Nature, the project is not just a translation project, but also a “terminology-creating exercise.” Translators will flag terms that do not have native-language equivalents for other specialists — linguists and scientific communications experts — to devise a set of new words and terms, based on the native morphology and lexicon (rather than merely introducing an English loanword with the target language’s phonology) that can be used in the target language. Once the papers have been translated, the researchers at Decolonise Science hope to develop an online glossary of scientific terminology for scientists conducting work in these languages to access freely.

Andrew Warner
Andrew Warner is a writer from Sacramento. He received his B.A. in linguistics and English from UCLA and is currently working toward an M.A. in applied linguistics at Columbia University. His writing has been published in Language Magazine, Sactown Magazine, and The Takeout.

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