Vol. 8. No. 1 R-10 June 2004
Return to Table of Contents Return to Main Page

Specialized Discourse. Linguistic Features and Changing Conventions

Maurizio Gotti (2003)
Bern: Peter Lang
Pp. 351
ISBN 3-03910-027-0 (paper)

Whenever native and non-native speakers "employ English in a restricted range of social and thematic areas" (Gramley & Pätzold, 1992, p. 246), they use it in order to communicate (specialized) information straightforwardly. The main concern and the major difficulty of linguists who try to describe 'Special Englishes' is that of comparing them to 'General English' and to draw the attention to the differences between the two, which arise at all the levels of language. Lots of work has been done in this direction. Maurizio Gotti's book represents one of the latest attempts to shed light on this topic in a comprehensive way.

As the title clearly states, the focal point of Gotti's volume is English specialized discourse (SD) in its synchronic and diachronic dimensions, to which he devotes respectively the first and the second part of the book. The author's decision to take up the task of writing a volume on this topic stems from the inconsistency of most of the volumes in circulation, where disagreement exists on the very notion of 'specialized discourse'.

The 15 chapters of the book, where an interpretative (vs. purely descriptive), quantitative (vs. traditionally qualitative) approach is adopted, all aim at reviewing the most outstanding (lexical, morpho-syntactical, textual and pragmatic) features of SD--with special regard to its distinctive traits in English--in order to shed light on its specificity and on its diversification as compared to general language. In Gotti's work, as well as in traditional literature, distinctly different frequencies between specialized and general language in the use of lexicon and syntactic structure is constantly being pointed out as a central issue (cf. Sager, Dungworth & McDonald, 1980; Robinson, 1989; Scarpa, 2001; Serianni, 2003), and it is cared about in each section of the book.

The starting stage is that of Defining the Notion of 'Specialized Discourse' (chap. 1), whose autonomy and diversity from general language was initially studied by the Prague school in the 20s-30s. The choice of terminology is considered central by the author, who contrasts the numerous misleading labels generally employed ('restricted code', 'special language', 'microlanguage', 'jargon') to that of 'specialized discourse', which takes account of the more creative and expressive function of this language subsystem. SD does not in fact represent a sociolinguistic variety but an actual language enclosing a mixture of combined more or less specific features coexisting in a quantitatively different degree as compared to general language. The most striking and marked trait of SD is the lexicon with all its specific features--which for this reason is very difficult when it comes to translating it adequately. [-1-]

Gotti devotes the whole second chapter of the book to the description of the Lexical Features of Specialized Discourse. As Sager et al. put it, "the lexicon of special languages is their most obvious distinguishing characteristic" (1980: 230), which prescinds from the frequency issue much more related to syntax. A large number of specialized lexical items is used exclusively in specialized fields (see also Serianni, 2003) for the sake of precision. In SD the fact that in a given context only one meaning is allowed is referred to as monoreferentiality; the perfect biunique word-meaning link guarantees conciseness, semantic uniqueness and highly specific occurrences of lexical items, thus reducing ambiguity to the minimum. Besides being monoreferential, words, which are information carriers, have only a denotative function and lack any kind of emotional and connotative meaning. They immediately point to one concept--a trait that takes the name of referential precision--and are transparent: the surface form, be it a word or an affix, immediately identifies a concept, which frees specialized language from ambiguity and polysemy. Conciseness, which is another central issue to SD, is assured by linguistic devices such as zero derivation, the merging of two (monosyllabic) lexemes in one term, juxtaposition, specialisation of words drawn from general language, use of acronyms and abbreviations. Though exactitude, simplicity and clarity, objectivity, abstractness, generalisation, density of information, brevity, emotional neutrality, unambiguousness, impersonality and logical consistency (p. 29) are essential criteria, Gotti singles out counterexamples in SD. For instance, the high level of conservatism (i.e., the permanence of classical linguistic traits) still existing especially in legal writing and business language is nowadays rejected by some specialists calling for a clearer interpretative comprehension; on the other hand, the survival of archaic forms is preferred by others as a tool that allows specialists to retain power over ordinary citizens. Cases of ambiguity, imprecision and semantic instability have also been detected, especially in moral disciplines (economics, and non-exact sciences) and at times also in legal language, where the violation of the conciseness principle finds its most outstanding instance: redundancy and constant repetitions make legal language verbose and complex. The lexical level is the most widely studied in the field if SD and its translation in a foreign language is regarded by some authors as a very delicate issue requiring adequate competence in mastering both the source and the target language and the specialized topic at stake (Cortese, 1996; Scarpa, 2001).

After a long and detailed survey of the lexical traits of SD, Gotti introduces the reader to its syntactic features (chap. 3). He states that SD shares the same syntactic rules of general language, but it is different from that in the frequency of use: rules considered unknown in general language are simply used less commonly. Such a quantitative distinction in the syntactic (and in the lexical) dimension between general language and SD makes the latter's features typical and distinctive. Conciseness does not characterise only the lexical level of specialized language: also syntactic structures are extremely compact in SD. Conciseness is usually achieved through the omission of phrasal elements such as articles, prepositions, etc., particularly common in legal writing and in instruction sheets; by avoiding relative clauses and subordination in favour of dense, long, nominal groups and coordination; by complex premodification and nominalisation, which are pervasive in SD and help giving more objectiveness and precision. The lexical density thus obtained often derives from the elaboration of a complex syntax. Therefore, SD is characterised by elementary surface structures and very simple syntax vs. complex and long premodified noun phrases, which leads to a far longer sentence length (cf. Brekke, 1989, pp. 255-259) than in general language, especially in the case of English legal writing. The pragmatic function of verb tenses, mode and voice makes their choice in SD essential. Due to most of the SD texts' communicative purpose, the present indicative tense seems the most widespread especially in scientific texts (where, though, the use of other tenses is regulated by the degree of generality of what is being reported) whereas imperatives are typical of technical handbooks. The considerable use of passives in English SD--although not common in all specialized text types--assures a high degree of depersonalisation of the discourse, which allows the foregrounding of facts, events, results and experiments in spite of the author. These, and other features of SD syntax, can be easily observed by the reader who is always provided with examples and schemes. [-2-]

Chapter 4 is devoted to the Textual Features that distinguish specialized texts, many of which, again, also belong to general language but are used less extensively. The most striking exception is anaphoric reference. Anaphor, one of the most common devices to establish textual cohesion, is usually replaced by lexical repetition, a preference that stems from the need to avoid any ambiguity, particularly in legal writing, where the excess of repetitions is at times unjustified and too redundant (see those cases where an anaphoric referential element is followed by the lexical item it refers to). Also the juxtaposition of conjunctions plus their longer and more pragmatically transparent paraphrase is a textual feature of SD that violates the often called for criterion of conciseness in favour of total transparency. In general terms, textual features in SD directly depend on the text genre, which establishes word order and Theme-Rheme patterns; the argumentative models; the distribution of information within the text; the textual organization of oral interactions (see doctor-patient or courtroom interactions, where steady speech act patterns have been identified). In other words, each textual genre follows a clearly codified, widely accepted pattern depending on the standard methodological framework of the discipline in question and on the purposes of the text, as in the case of the executive summary, abstract, letters, contracts, etc. Surely, in any case emotive language is to be avoided as this dimension is not appropriate in scientific matters.

Even though historical studies on technical and scientific English are very scanty, the historical dimension is important and taken into account here. Therefore, after a synchronic review of the most outstanding traits of SD, the author focuses on the diachronic dimension (cf. also Gläzer, 1995, pp. 188-197), dealing with The Development of Specialized Discourse in the 17th Century (chap. 5), that is when the need to use English (rather than Latin and other languages) for specialized texts started to be felt. In fact, that was the period of new discoveries and experiments, of new approaches to science, which called for a language suitable for expressing accurately the new phenomena described and the concepts identified. After Galileo established the diversity between specialized and general language, others started to realise that the latter was deficient and too ambiguous to account for the new reality and the new discoveries. New terms were needed, as the English language was inadequate. Gradual amelioration followed this need and the lexis of scientific English started to be enriched either by borrowing words from Latin and by giving new, specialized and monoreferential meanings to existing English words. The new use of old words did not create any problem, but Greek and Latin loans were felt as difficult to decode, to pronounce and to remember. This led to a certain degree of language opaqueness, opposed to the transparency assured by word formation through compounding: the juxtaposition of well-known monosyllabic words resulted in a concise word where meaning could be easily recognised (e.g.: saywhat = definition). Conciseness and lack of emotive language was necessary also at a syntactic level: specialists avoided unnecessary details and shunned metaphors or figurative speech, which were obstacles to a clear and concise expression. A concise, transparent, simple style was soon accepted and codified by the Royal Academy. Soon, the defining syntactic features of SD started to emerge: long sentences; lengthy noun phrases; preference for nouns and nominalisation strategies strictly connected to the loss of verbal value and the consequent prevailing copular function of verbs; omission of subordinate clauses and also the tendency towards depersonalisation.

As clearly explained in chapter 6 (Specialized Terms in 'Hard Word' Dictionaries), it was during the 16th and the 17th centuries that English writers started to feel the urge for new words which could enable them to carry out the translation of foreign texts in various fields of knowledge. This need led to enlarge the English vocabulary through the coining of new words and borrowing. Newly-coined words soon started to create comprehension problems, as they were often misunderstood and thus used incorrectly. Opaque neologisms and difficult foreign loans were labelled as 'inkhorn terms' (Gläzer, 1995; Potter, 1963 in Gläzer, 1995); contemporary but not necessarily foreign words considered difficult for common readers to understand fell under the label of 'hard words'. Dedicated dictionaries with an encyclopaedic purpose appeared in order to help both the less-educated and non-specialist readers. A tradition of hard word dictionaries was soon established. Gotti recalls Cawdrey's volume and examines in detail John Bullokar's work (1616), which, at the time, represented an invaluable tool for interpreting obscure vocabulary. [-3-]

Indeed, translations contributed to the expansion of the English vocabulary in various ways. In chapter 7 Gotti takes into consideration Thomas Salusbury's work--even though it is not the most influential in the development of English scientific language--focusing on the Lexical Choices in a Galilean Translation. After a few notes on the author and the text, he concentrates on Salusbury's translation from Italian into English, highlighting that, despite its faithfulness in form, it resulted in a very natural and fluent English style. As for the lexical choices of specialized terms, he recalls the similarity of the strategies employed in the Italian source version and in the English translated version: Galileo invented and introduced new terms in Italian predominantly by means of specialisation processes. Salusbury did the same, by preserving both the original figurative language, when present, and its clarity. Chapter 8, Specialized Neologisms in Boyle's Text, looks at some words first recorded in the OED (The Oxford English Dictionary) in quotations taken from texts by Robert Boyle. The chapter contains a very detailed survey. It starts focusing on the origin of neologisms--words coined in the 17th century, not necessarily by Boyle--which originated from linguistic processes as compounding, conversion, borrowing, alterations and a high frequency in affixation. Attention is drawn to Boyle's metalinguistic comments and modes of defining words, which include exemplifications, full paraphrases, providing antonyms and concise synonyms. As Gotti points out, "[a]s normal in the process of language evolution, several of the words coined in the 17th century have become rare or obsolete. This has happened also to some of the scientific terms in our corpus, which have been supplanted by more recent technical terms" (p. 224). Nevertheless, most of the new words reported by Boyle in his work and examined throughout this chapter have remained in use, which makes his contribution a vital one in the development of English specialized vocabulary.

A very significant contribution to The Origins of the Experimental Essay is represented by chapter 9, in which the reader can work out how and why this new expository genre arose in the Early Modern English period: the traditional essay, suitable for literary genres, was not appropriate for scientific purposes, which were based on the description of experiments and aimed to reflect the new approach to the observation of natural phenomena and the new research methods stemming from the emphasis given to experimental activities and to the need to popularise results. Even though the dialogue and the treatise had always represented appropriate tools for spreading results, the essay needed to be adapted to this new function. The experimental essay developed and evolved from the need for a short but informative and precise composition, allowing for immediacy of communication and fulfilling a descriptive rather than argumentative purpose. Its main features, still surviving today in most scientific texts, were brevity of form but entirety of content; richness in data and details but lack of redundancy. Because of its informative (and promotional) goal, this new genre lacked assertiveness: the information reported did not need to be given an explanation. The style was deliberately simple, essential and plain; it avoided any rhetorical device or cryptic and obscure language, which could have been associated with obscurity of thought. Objectivity, honesty and caution in reporting events were considered marks of professional correctness and reliability, thus were widely used. As Gläzer (1995, pp. 189-191) points out, Bacon's essays are very representative of this new genre, in that in many of them the utility principle prevails over decorative and aesthetic ideas. Because of its features which made it appropriate for its purposes, the experimental essay increased its circulation in the 17th century and it is still surviving nowadays. [-4-]

Chapter 10, Malthus and the Definition of Economic Terms, examines the work of the British economist Malthus, who in the 17th century first recognized the terminological confusion already existing in a still young discipline of economics. This situation led him to outline some principles that should bring terminological clarity in the field. A definitional process was carried out with the consciousness that it strictly depends on the discipline's methodology. The principle in question aimed at guiding specialists on how to use terms and limit their ambiguity, and on how to avoid any kind of confusion. Despite the many faults of the work 'Definitions in Political Economy' (1827) due to Malthus' incapability of understanding that words' semantic traits can be many and can continuously evolve and change, it had a twofold merit: that of pointing out the requirements for successful terminological definitions in political economics, and that of drawing attention to questions which are of essential interest both in economics and in linguistics. Another interesting point related to the language of economics is represented by Rhetoric and the Language of Economics (chap. 11), which analyses McCloskey's rhetorical approach and its consequences. As it has previously been mentioned, rhetorical devices tend to be shunned in SD as they make it less specialized and more general-like. Besides, they are inappropriate because they make discourse emotive. McCloskey's ideas were different: rhetoric devices were thought to be means for making the author's attitude clear, thus being as important as contents. McCloskey's position was very much criticized, although he drew attention to the relevance of rhetoric patterns in texts and to the importance of the awareness of the author who uses them. McCloskey attaches special importance to rhetoric devices because he thinks that they can make any argumentation more convincing and also because they are often used unconsciously by many authors who criticise their employment in the language of economics.

Chapter 12 focuses on a completely different branch of SD as it deals with The Formation of the Lexis of Computer Science. It in fact represents a very recent subject which has developed its own set of specialized terminology. The whole chapter is a thorough survey of technical words in this newly born branch of science. Due to a deliberate choice, it focuses on the specialized lexicon of computer science disregarding the other existing levels of language. According to the author, specialisation and internal borrowing (i.e., from English rather than from other foreign languages) have been particularly productive in this field of SD. Other dynamic devices include the creation of words by neology, analogy (e.g.: software < hardware), similes and compounds. Acronyms and abbreviations are distinctive of this branch of SD--and of medical language (see Serianni, 2003)--where also affixation and analogical derivation (e.g.: off-line reader < on-line reader) are prolific. Apart from the complete autonomy in the coining of new words, what distinguishes the language of computer science from general language is only a difference in the frequency of use of certain words, which is a common discriminating feature that allows us to draw a line between SD and general language.

Chapter 13 gives a concise outline of SEASPEAK: A Special Language, a code used for marine communication. Though very simple and pidgin-like at the beginning, SEASKPEAK, which generated from general language and has now its own set of phonetic, lexical and syntactic rules and conventions, soon started to improve in precision due to the need to be learned with no difficulty and to communicate in a short span of time a great amount of delicate and serious information.

The last chapter accounts for The Language of Popularisation and puts forward the main traits that differentiate it from specialized texts. Target and purpose shape the language of popularisation, which is addressed to non-specialist readers, be them students in need to get secondary culture through pedagogic texts, or a wider public with no specialised knowledge yet interested in specialized topics. As for textual features, popularising texts are here compared with translations: both, in fact, change the form but not the content of the original work. Redrafting is a key word when talking of popularisation, which, in order to meet the informative (rather than innovative) purpose and the needs of its audience, presents a set of textual features and expressive strategies such as a low number of technical words, a high degree of subjectivity and approximation, usage of critical remarks, facilitating devices. Amongst those, one of the most frequent techniques is that of juxtaposing specialized terms and their periphrasis, thus resembling the structure of a monolingual dictionary.

Gotti's volume is very detailed in each chapter and offers a clear overview of specialized discourse both from a synchronic and a diachronic perspective--which is one of the best features of the volume. It has the merit of efficiently emphasising the quantitative dimension of lexical, syntactic and textual features that makes them peculiar traits of SD, even though general language shares exactly the same features, but uses them less frequently. The book is accessible also to non-specialists and is a useful guide and reference book either in general terms and for what concerns the English SD. Thanks to the pattern of the book, the readers themselves can induce general rules by analysing the wide range of examples that are provided. Excerpts can be exploited didactically for those who have to teach SD. The bibliographical repertoire is rich and shows the most outstanding works in this field of linguistics. An interesting English-Italian contrastive analysis of SD features can be carried out by comparing Gotti's work with that of Serianni (2003); Cortese (1996) and Scarpa (2001) can help to draw attention to the translational dimension of specialized discourse.


Brekke, M. (1989). The Bergen English for Science and Technology (BEST) corpus: a pilot study, In C. Laurén & M. Nordman (Eds.) Special Language (pp 253-264). Clevedon: Multilingual Matters,.

Cortese, G. (1996). Tradurre i linguaggi settoriali. Torino: Edizioni Libreria Cortina.

Gläser, R. (1995). Linguistic Features and Genre Profiles of Scientific English. Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang.

Gramley, S., & Pätzold, K.-M., (1992). A Survey of Modern English. London/New York: Routledge.

Robinson, P.C, (1989). An overview of English for specific purposes, In H. Coleman (Ed.) Working with Language: a Multidisciplinary Consideration of Language Use in Work Contexts (pp. 395-427). Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

Sager, J.C., Dungworth, D., & McDonald, P.F. (1980). English Special Languages. Wiesbaden: Brandstetter.

Scarpa, F. (2001). La traduzione specializzta. Milano: Hoepli.

Serianni, L. (2003). Italiani scritti. Il Mulino, Bologna.

Elisa Perego
University of Pavia

© Copyright rests with authors. Please cite TESL-EJ appropriately.

Editor's Note:

Dashed numbers in square brackets indicate the end of each page for purposes of citation..
Return to Table of Contents Return to Top Return to Main Page