How English has become the language of science

Michael D Gordin is a historian at Princeton University and explains how English has become the language of modern science:

how did science come to speak only english

……. contemporary 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. ….. 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. ….

In the 15th century in western Europe, natural philosophy and natural history – the two domains of learning that would, by the 19th century, come to be known as ‘science’ – were both fundamentally polyglot enterprises. This is the case despite the fact that the language of learning in the High Middle Ages and the Renaissance was Latin.

But Latin had been preceded by Greek and Arabic.

The translation of works in canonical natural philosophy from Arabic into Latin helped birth the revival of learning in the West. Learning, learned people knew, was a multilingual enterprise. …..

This system started to break down in the 17th century, in the midst of, and as an essential part of, what was once dubbed ‘the scientific revolution’. Galileo Galilei published his discovery of the moons of Jupiter in the Latin Sidereus Nuncius of 1610, but his later major works were in Italian. As he aimed for a more local audience for patronage and support, he switched languages. Newton’s Principia (1687) appeared in Latin, but his Opticks of 1704 was English (Latin translation 1706). ….


Something obviously changed. We now live in the Esperantists’ dreamworld, but the universal language of natural science is English, a language that is the native tongue of some very powerful nation states and as a consequence not at all neutral. What happened to the polyglot system of science? It broke. More accurately, it was broken. When the Great War erupted in summer 1914 between the Central Powers (principally, Germany and Austria-Hungary) and the Triple Entente (Britain, France, Russia), among the first casualties were the ideals of beneficent internationalism. German scientists joined other intellectuals in extolling Germany’s war aims. French and British scientists took note.

After the war, the International Research Council, formed under the aegis of the victorious Entente – now including the US but excluding Russia, which had descended into the maelstrom of the Bolshevik Revolution – initiated a boycott of scientists from the Central Powers. New international institutions for science were erected in the early 1920s locking out the defeated Germanophone scientists. This exclusion lit a long-delay fuse that, in the coming decades, would contribute to the death of German as a leading scientific language. Three languages had, for part of Europe, diminished to two. Germans responded to their predicament by reinvigorating their commitment to their native language. The multilingual system was beginning to crack, but it was the Americans who would shatter it. .


Read the entire article.

A monoglot system in a polyglot world may seem unsustainable and Gordin argues that even without the Anglophone nations, inertia would keep English in its pre-eminent position for science.

it takes a lot of energy to maintain a monoglot system on such a scale, with enormous resources poured into language training and translation in non-Anglophone countries. And, second, if the Anglophone nations were to vanish tomorrow, English would still be a significant language of science, simply because of the vast inertia of what already exists.

But I suspect it is not just a simple matter of monoglot versus polyglot. Using India as an example of a polyglot nation, one of the most important unifying factors is that at second language level, India is actually monoglot and the language is an “Indian” English. The internet age has I think led to the world – at second language level – being monoglot – and that language is an internet English which is still evolving and very rapidly at that.

Esperanto failed because it never reached a critical mass of users. Dialects appear because a critical mass of practitioners of a particular usage exists. What is correct grammar and correct spelling and even correct meaning lags, and doesn’t lead, usage. Languages evolve and change as users and usage changes – not because of edicts from the keepers of language. If the French want French to survive for ever, they need to ensure that the number of users expands (with whatever changes that may bring), rather than preventing the assimilation of anglicisms. A “protected”, “correct” language with an ever decreasing number of users will become extinct. Changes appear in spite of the inertia and resistance of the language keepers. And languages die when change stops and users decline and usage withers. Demographics trumps any “goodness” of language.

This new, still-changing, 140-character-focused, English will be with us for a long time yet – and not just in science.

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