Medical language

Understanding medical terminology requires an understanding of how medical terms were first coined and how they are used today. This is extremely important for medical translators, as no matter how specialized we are; we are bound to come across terms that are new to us. Knowing how medical terms are formed gives us clues to search for meaning and even to adequately translate new terms.

Medical language is the scientific language used to refer to the human body, its processes and related conditions. This article refers specifically to the language of Western medicine.

The History of the language of Western medicine begins with an era of medical Greek. It then goes through an era of medical Latin, an era of national medical languages, finally arriving at the medical English used internationally today.

The Greek era began with Hippocrates, arguably the father of Western medicine, and his writings. Then as Romans dominated the ancient world, those writings were translated into Latin, but retained certain Greek terms and traditions. For example, an enduring Greek tradition was naming anatomical structures based on their similarity with objects. For instance, the anatomical structure on human ears, currently known as the Eustachian tube, was name tuba (trumpet), and the pigmented structure in the middle of the three layers that make up the eye was named uvea (grape). In short, medical Latin was essentially Latin with a number of imported Greek terms.

Later, when Latin was no longer widely spoken across the Western world, medical terminology was gradually translated into national languages. Again, not all terms were translated and national medical languages were essentially the original languages with Greek and Latin terms imported from the previous era. In this process, most national medical languages were and still are only used nationally, but a few of these languages became internationally used, particularly English.

It is noteworthy that when translated from Latin, each group of languages followed a particular pattern, which is useful to know when translating into or from a particular national medical language. For example, Romance or Latin languages (Portuguese, Spanish, French, Italian and Romanian), which are a group of languages derived from vulgar Latin, naturalized the terms following the particular rules of each language. For example, the Latin term musculus soleus is translated as músculo sóleo (Portuguese and Spanish), muscle soléaire (French), muscolo soleo (Italian) and muschi solear (Romanian). The English language also follows this pattern of naturalization; however, its grammar rules differ in that the adjective precedes the noun, so musculus soleus translates as soleus muscle.

Most national medical languages have also slightly naturalized or maintained several Greek terms, such as catarrh (downflow), diarrhoea (throughflow) and dyspnoea (bad breathing). In addition to these and many other terms, the Greek language is more flexible than Latin in allowing the creation of new composite words, such as ophthalmoscopy, so Greek roots are more often used nowadays to name new scientific discoveries and medical concepts.

As the world became more connected, the global sharing of scientific knowledge became more frequent and speedier. Scientists and physicians naturally gravitated towards a single language that would enable them easy access and sharing of breakthroughs and knowledge. That marked the start of the era of medical English as the single chosen language for international communication.

Naturally, medical English became compulsory knowledge for physicians and scientists worldwide who wish to remain current and knowledgeable; however, the general population in non-English speaking countries, and often in English-speaking countries, does not speak medical English. Therefore, national medical languages remain alive and in use, and there is a certain “simplified” or “layman” version of each national medical language that is used to communicate with the general public.

A medical translator must understand these variants of his/her source and target languages, learn how old terms have been originally translated and how new terms are coined and, more importantly, must be fluent in medical English. The bulk of medical knowledge is publicly available in English, so regardless of a translator’s language pair, being fluent in medical English means having access to a wealth of resources and reference materials that are essential, particularly when translating innovations and recent discoveries. Medical developments occur on a daily basis and most scientists and doctors, albeit fluent in medical English, are not translators. So, much of the knowledge produced even in non-English speaking countries, becomes firstly available in English or is partially translated with several English words in between. A medical translator must have access to this knowledge to be able to understand breakthroughs and convey them properly in one language or another. Proficiency in a particular language pair alone does not mean fluency in medical language.

Our next post will be on medical English and how medical terms are coined in English using Latin and Greek root words, prefixes and suffixes.



Wulff H.R. J R Soc Med. 2004 April; 97(4): 187–188. Accessed on Dec 11, 2013.

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