Student creates ‘mini dictionary’ of scientific terms in Welsh

Agreeing on standard translations for technical terms is a crucial tool in developing teaching and research

July 18, 2020
Welsh language signs
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A PhD student is streamlining the scientific vocabulary of the Welsh language while working on possible therapies for treating devastating neurodegenerative diseases.

Bedwyr Ab Ion Thomas did his secondary education in Welsh and speaks mainly Welsh with family and friends, although he did his first degree in chemistry at the University of Oxford. When he decided to pursue a doctorate about prion diseases, such as mad cow disease, at Cardiff University’s Medicines Discovery Institute, he opted to use the medium of Welsh.

“It really shouldn’t be an issue if I want to study or work in my mother tongue in my own country,” he told Times Higher Education. “As part of a live, thriving language, it’s completely natural to want to study any groundbreaking subject.”

But breaking new ground in any academic or scientific field, Mr Thomas went on, often “requires coining new terms”. He was, therefore, “compiling a list of words I either haven’t come across in Welsh scientific literature or that pose issues in terms of definition”.

Words such as “candidate” and “residue” were easy to translate into Welsh, but there was no standard equivalent when they were used in the particular context of drug discovery. Nor was there a standard form for technical terms such as the “binding pocket” in a protein that drugs attach to.

A further problem, Mr Thomas explained, was “words that stem from Greek or Latin, names of chemical reactions, molecules and compounds, where there is no consistent spelling in Welsh scientific literature”.

Such inconsistencies, he suggested, “emphasise the need for scientific terms in Welsh to be standardised to avoid confusion”. This has prompted him to create “a mini dictionary” that was likely to contain about a hundred entries by the end of his PhD, including a completely new word for “residue” in the sense of part of a protein or amino acid.

“In order to ensure that they are added to dictionaries and to the Welsh language”, Mr Thomas was planning to submit his list of words to the Canolfan Bedwyr Centre for Welsh Language Services, Research and Technology at Bangor University, which “standardises new terms and also has a website where Welsh-language academics submit new words or suggestions”.

Much of the scientific literature Mr Thomas draws on is inevitably in English, even if translated from German or Japanese, and he acknowledged that Welsh-language PhDs had hitherto “focused primarily on the arts and humanities”, notably in areas of history, literature or interview-based sociology where the primary (and sometimes secondary) source material is in Welsh. Yet he very much saw himself as part of a growing trend.

This was confirmed by Dylan Phillips, senior academic manager at the Coleg Cymraeg Cenedlaethol, which was set up in 2011 to “support Welsh-language higher education provision in a strategic manner across Welsh universities”.

“Sixty out of the 150 PhDs sponsored by the Coleg over the past decade have been in the sciences,” he said. “Nurturing and supporting talented students such as Bedwyr through their PhD studies is a way of developing expertise in these subjects while at the same time creating the next generation of Welsh-medium lecturers and researchers.”

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