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Scientific Babel: Why English Rules

by Tom Thompson

Today the world's scientific community is resolutely monoglot, using exclusively English. But this wasn't always the case.

Of course scientists always have made themselves understood, or at least mostly. Going back to the glory days of Rome, Latin was the main language of medieval and Renaissance scholarship. But language history is always messy. And the dominant language of scholarship in antiquity down to the final sack of Rome was not Latin but Hellenistic Greek. In the centuries before that, more natural history was done in Arabic than in either classical language. In fact, the translation of all kinds of work from Arabic to Latin helped give birth to the revival of learning in the West.

Latin became a vehicular language, used to bridge linguistic communities. And it was understood as more or less neutral. But everyone in this conversation was polyglot, choosing the language to suit the audience. This duality started to break down in the 17th century, in the midst of what was once dubbed 'the scientific revolution.' Across Europe, scholars began to use a mélange of tongues, and translations into Latin and French flourished to enable communication. So by the end of the 18th century, works in chemistry, physics, physiology and botany appeared increasingly in English, French, German, but also in Italian, Dutch, Swedish, Danish, and other languages. By the mid-19th century, however, the scientific languages began to compress to English, French, and German, each occupying roughly equal proportions of total production.

Three languages was a burden. No question about that. And there were advocates of only one language, but national and linguistic chauvinism kept getting in the way. Constructed languages such as Volapük, Ido, and Esperanto (or Idiom Neutral, Latino sine fexione and Interlingua) feature in this era not as bizarre curiosities but as topics of serious debate. In Absolute English, Princeton University scholar Michael Gordin recreates the drama of possible shared constructed languages. His analysis is fascinating, and witty, and reveals more than the linguistic sideshow that is often portrayed in the writing on constructed languages.

All of these efforts crashed with the two world wars with the first casualties being the ideals of beneficent internationalism. After World War I, new international institutions for science were erected locking out the Germanphone scientists. In the U.S., more than half of the states restricted the use of German in public spaces. Following World War II, scientists from the rising American empire were never expected to acquire much competence in foreign languages. The willingness of much of the world to accede to this new monolingual regime also played a role.

English's importance in the early development of modern technology has cemented its global importance. Standard QWERTY keyboards are designed for the Roman alphabet. Easily more than fifty percent of online content in the world is in English. As a consequence, the scientific vocabularies of many languages have failed to keep pace with new developments and discoveries.

About the writer

Tom Thompson writes frequently on foreign language topics. He lives in Washington, D.C.

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