How English became the language of science
Sept. 21, 2019
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How English became the language of science
These days, pretty much everyone who works in science research is proficient in English. This is, of course, unfair to those scientists who grew up in places where it is not their native language because they are forced to learn a second language in order to read the literature and spread their own ideas. Fortunately, it is a little easier to read and write technical material because one does not have to deal with the pitfalls of metaphors and idioms and colloquialisms, as one might have in other areas. In science, one usually eschews flowery language in favor of directness and the crucial technical terms are usually unambiguous in meaning. In my own career, I have met many scientists from all over the world with whom it was difficult to have general conversations but with whom one could communicate on science quite easily.
But the near-universality of English in science is a relatively new phenomenon and Michael D. Gordin, a professor of contemporary history, traces how that state of affairs came to be .
[C]ontemporary science is monoglot : everyone uses English almost to the exclusion of other languages. A century ago, the majority of researchers in Western science knew at least some English, but they also read, wrote and spoke in French and German, and sometimes in other ‘minor’ languages, such as the newly emergent Russian or the rapidly fading Italian. …
Often, scientists or humanists assume that English science replaced monoglot German, preceded by French and then by Latin in a ribbon that unfurls back to the dawn of Western science, which they understand to have been conducted in monoglot Greek. Understanding the history of science as a chain of monolingual transfers has a certain superficial appeal, but it isn’t true. Never was.
To paint with a very broad brush, we can observe two basic linguistic regimes in Western science: the polyglot and the monoglot. The latter is quite new, emerging just in the 1920s and vanquishing the centuries-old multilingual regime only in the 1970s. Science speaks English, but the first generation who grew up within that monoglot system are still alive.
He says that the early dominance of Latin as the language of learning was unusual.
Aside from the rare oddball with overzealous parents (Montaigne claimed to be one), no one learned Latin as a first language and few used it orally. Latin was for written scholarship, but everyone who used it – such as Erasmus of Rotterdam – deployed it alongside other languages that they used to communicate with servants, family members and patrons. Latin was a vehicular language, used to bridge linguistic communities, and it was understood as more or less neutral. It excluded on class lines, to be sure, since it demanded more education, but it crossed confessional and political divides easily: Protestants used it frequently (often more elegantly than Catholics), and it was even imported as late as the 18th century into Orthodox Russia as the scholarly language of the newly established St Petersburg Academy of Sciences.
Perhaps most importantly, since Latin was no specific nation’s native tongue, and scholars all across European and Arabic societies could make equal use of it, no one ‘owned’ the language. For these reasons, Latin became a fitting vehicle for claims about universal nature. But everyone in this conversation was polyglot, choosing the language to suit the audience. When writing to international chemists, Swedes used Latin; when conversing with mining engineers, they opted for Swedish.
I’ve long been fascinated by language and how it evolves. This article on its evolution in science was enjoyable and well worth reading completely.
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