How specialized (or popularized)? Terminological density as a clue to text specialization in the domain of food safety


Terminological density is often mentioned as one of the main lexical features that distinguish specialized forms of communication and their popularized counterpart, i.e. discourse conveying specialized knowledge to an audience of non-specialist readers. The underlying idea is that texts addressed to experts feature a high number of terms that are expected to be understood within the target discourse community, while in popularized texts, vocabulary is chiefly drawn from the general language, and hence density of terms is lower. Though intuitively appealing, the idea that terminological density can provide quantitative evidence as to the degree of specialization or popularization of texts has seldom been investigated empirically. Taking the domain of food safety as a case in point, the aim of this article is twofold. First, it aims to assess the extent to which terminological density reflects the distinction between more specialized and more popularized texts. To do so, it describes a method to operationalize and measure terminological density building on replicable corpus-based procedures and freely available tools for vocabulary profiling. Second, in a more descriptive perspective, it aims to relate quantitative findings to qualitative observations on the discursive strategies adopted in the popularized genres under consideration to target different audiences. The texts analyzed consist of scientific opinions addressed to experts published by the European Food Safety Authority, as well as their popularized versions (factsheets, Frequently Asked Questions and news), also produced by the Authority to disseminate knowledge to the wider public. Results provide evidence that terminological density as operationalized here not only reflects the difference between specialized and popularized texts, but can also point to more subtle differences related to popularized texts’ varied audiences and discursive strategies.

DOI Code: 10.1285/i22390359v29p17

Keywords: specialized corpora; popularization; terminological density; vocabulary profiling


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