'Scientific Babel'

Author discusses his new book on science before and after the dominance of English as a global language.

May 22, 2015

Many scientists today take it for granted that the research papers they want to read are available in English. But the dominance of English in scientific communication wasn't always so certain. Scientific Babel: How Science Was Done Before and After Global English (University of Chicago Press) explores the evolution of science and language. The author is Michael Gordin, the Rosengarten Professor of Modern and Contemporary History at Princeton University. Via email he responded to questions about the new book.

Q: Why did languages such as Latin and German, which were once associated with science, decline as a means of scientific communication?

A: The two cases are rather dissimilar, and the reasons for their relative decline thus diverge. Latin had functioned in Western Europe -- and, by the 18th century, as far east as the Russian Empire -- as a universal language of scholarship since the late Middle Ages, and that status rested upon two important pillars. First, Latin was the language of the Roman Catholic Church, and education and literacy were closely tied to it. Second, the community of those interested in natural philosophy and mathematics was relatively small and broadly dispersed across the continent. Latin served as the obvious medium to communicate with the relevant intellectual group. As Catholicism fragmented in the wake of the Protestant Reformation, and the number of individuals interested in what we would now call science and engineering rose, both of those conditions changed. Many turned to their vernacular languages to communicate with patrons and clients closer to home.

German, on the other hand, was never overwhelming in the way Latin was, and -- according to our best data -- occupied at most 40 percent of scientific literature at its height, just above French and English. Its decline was more deliberate. In the wake of World War I, the French, British and Belgians on the one hand, and the Americans on the other, took action against perceived German supremacy in the sciences and boycotted Germanophone scientists and their language. Within a decade or so, the restrictions were repealed, but the damage was done. Both cases share in common, however, an important feature: the decline was gradual, and often not perceived until the trend seemed irreversible.

Q: How much is the rise of English (or any single language) today related to the Internet and the possibilities of speedy global communication?

A: As far as science is concerned, not that much. The data indicate that the tipping point of the scientific literature into the overwhelming dominance of English began in the 1970s, a time when the Internet was much smaller and largely confined to the United States, and the web was decades away from existence. Scientists from Iberia, Scandinavia, Southern Europe and Latin America, who had originally preferred French or German, began preferentially publishing in English. (East and South Asia had made that transition earlier.) The persistence of English at present, and prognosis about its future position, is a different matter, and the Internet is a significant factor there.

Q: Is it good for science that there is a global language dominating scientific communication?

A: It depends on how you look at it. On the one hand, communication among scientists from different nationalities -- at conferences, at global universities -- is greatly facilitated by there being one agreed-upon language of communication. (There's no intrinsic linguistic reason why such a language has to be English; it happens to have turned out that way historically.) Collaboration has increasingly become a crucial feature of scientific development, and so the advent of a global language is positive. On the other hand, for those who have to learn English as a second (or third, or fifth) language -- an essential requirement of participating in today's science -- the burden can be very high. A student who displays no aptitude in learning this particular language, no matter how gifted in a scientific sense, is almost certainly locked out of educational opportunities, the relevant scientific literature and a career. There are other downsides, too, and how you tally up the total depends a good deal on your own linguistic background.

Q: Is science published in English different from science published in language (other than the issue of language)?

A: No, not in the sense that people usually mean. If you have a requisite nomenclature for chemistry, physics, geology, evolutionary theory -- what have you -- in your language, you can make the same sorts of claims about the natural world. That might sound like a big if, but no language comes with a pre-existent nomenclature. English, French, German, Russian, Japanese and others have built these vocabularies over the centuries, and other languages could as well. At present, most don't (but many tried a century ago).

The sense in which the science is different in different tongues is that findings published in languages other than English is necessarily, in today's conditions, directed at a narrower community of researchers. It is, in this sense, “marked” toward a particular linguistic group in a way that many scientists perceive publications in English, rightly or wrongly, as “unmarked.”

Q: Universities in some countries where English is not the primary language worry that their institutions will lose out in rankings because analysis of citations favors English-language publications. Is this a legitimate fear?

A: Yes, and it is a skewing that one can already see happening. Many countries, especially in Europe and East Asia, have begun teaching in English at higher levels or pushing scientists to publish in English precisely to improve these rankings. Those top-down measures are, however, merely following in steps that the scientists have already taken. Laboratories around the world employ postdocs from all over; English is often the common language in which work is conducted. Scientists want their findings cited and want to engage their relevant peers -- the pressures toward English internal to the scientific community are themselves very powerful.

Q: With China investing much more in science, could Mandarin challenge English as a language for science?

A: I think this is very unlikely in the short or medium term. One assumption behind this question is that it is “normal” for there to be one language dominating international scientific communication; in fact, that's not really happened before (Latin was more local than people often realize), and it has happened very recently. It's certainly possible to imagine a return to a kind of Babel, where a limited number of languages -- say English, Mandarin Chinese and Spanish -- share scientific communication in a way analogous to how English, French and German did earlier, but a replacement of one language by another in a short period of time doesn't correspond with how scientific work is done. One of the reasons Latin lasted through the 18th century as an important, but not the sole, language of scientific communication is that individuals still needed to consult the published literature from a previous generation. The vast bulk of today's scientific literature is in English, and future researchers will continue to need that literature for some time to come. In the longer term, however, anything might happen -- history doesn't provide us with a very good guide there.


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