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Essay/Cultures & Languages

Absolute English

Science once communicated in a polyglot of tongues, but now English rules alone. How did this happen – and at what cost?

Michael D Gordin

Photo by Benjamin Couprie/Wikimedia. Color by Sanna Dullaway

Michael D Gordin

is a historian of modern science at Princeton University in New Jersey. His latest book, Scientific Babel, is due in April 2015.

Brought to you by, an Aeon partner

2,700 words

Edited by Sam Haselby

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If you can read this sentence, you can talk with a scientist. Well, maybe not about the details of her research, but at least you would share a common language. The overwhelming majority of communication in the natural sciences today – physics, chemistry, biology, geology – takes place in English; in print and at conferences, in emails and in Skype-mediated collaborations, confirmable by wandering through the halls of any scientific research facility in Kuala Lumpur or Montevideo or Haifa. Contemporary science is Anglophone.

More significantly, 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.

The past polyglot character of modern science might seem surprising. Surely it is more efficient to have one language? How much time would be lost learning to read and write three languages in order to synthesise benzene derivatives! If everyone uses the same language, there is less friction caused by translation – such as priority disputes over who discovered what first when the results appear in different tongues – and less waste in pedagogy. By this view, contemporary science advances at such a staggering rate precisely because we have focused on ‘the science’ and not on superficialities such as language.

This point is much easier to sustain if the speaker grew up speaking English, but the majority of scientists working today are actually not native English speakers. When you consider the time spent by them on language-learning, the English-language conquest is not more efficient than polyglot science – it is just differently inefficient. There’s still a lot of language‑learning and translation going on, it’s just not happening in the United Kingdom, or Australia, or the United States. The bump under the rug has been moved, not smoothed out.

Yet today’s scientists are utterly surrounded by Anglophonia, and the rapid churn and ferment of scientific research shortens disciplinary memories. Wasn’t science always this way? No, it was not, but only much older scientists recall how it used to be. 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.

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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. To understand how this important change happened, we need to start way back.

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.

This unusual status of Latin does not contradict the polyglot system; on the contrary, it confirms it. As any good Renaissance humanist or scholastic of the Late Middle Ages knew, natural philosophy in Latin enjoyed a history going back to the glory days of Rome. (Cicero and Seneca both wrote significant works in the field.) But those same humanists and scholastics also knew that the dominant language of scholarship in antiquity down to the final sack of Rome was not Latin but Hellenistic Greek. They knew that, in the centuries before them, more natural philosophy was done in Arabic than in either classical language. 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.

Latin became a fitting vehicle for claims about universal nature. But everyone in this conversation was polyglot

So was life. 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.

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).

Across Europe, scholars began to use a mélange of tongues, and translations into Latin and French flourished to enable communication. By the end of the 18th century, works in chemistry, physics, physiology and botany appeared increasingly in English, French and German, but also in Italian, Dutch, Swedish, Danish and other languages. Until the first third of the 19th century, many learned elites still opted for Latin. (The German mathematician Carl Friedrich Gauss kept his scholarly notebooks, at least through the 1810s, in the same language Julius Caesar used for his.) Modern science emerged organically from the polyglot stew of the Renaissance.

Concerns for efficiency as an often unquestioned good, accompanying 19th century European industrialisation, began to change the centuries-old polyglot system. Many languages seemed wasteful; spend all your time learning languages in order to read the latest in natural philosophy, and you’d never do any research. Around 1850, the scientific languages began to compress to English, French and German, each occupying roughly equal proportions of total production (although each science had a different distribution: by the end of the century, German was the front-runner in chemistry).

Modern nationalism swept Europe alongside the flourishing of industrialisation. Across the continent, poets and intellectuals cultivated and often heavily modified vernacular languages to be bearers of 19th century modernity. These guardians of language faced significant challenges in adapting the spoken tongues of the peasantry to the demands of high literature and natural science. The story for the arts is widely known: modern Hungarian, Czech, Italian, Hebrew, Polish and other literatures blossomed in the second half of the century. However, the high valuation for efficiency in the sciences somewhat tamed this incipient Babel, with only Russian breaking through to become a significant (if much smaller) language of scientific publication. Partisans of the ‘minor languages’ constantly complained of exclusion, while speakers of the big three grumbled about having to learn the other two.

Three languages was a burden, no question. There were advocates of only one language for scientific learning, citing precisely the universality and perceived neutrality Latin had enjoyed in earlier centuries. They called for Esperanto. They made cogent arguments, the same arguments you hear for English today. Esperanto even found a few high-profile converts, such as Wilhelm Ostwald, winner of the 1909 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, and Otto Jespersen, the Danish linguist, but they were soon dismissed as utopian dreamers even as their enthusiasms shifted to more extreme artificial-language projects. It was obvious to everyone that science could not exist other than as a polyglot endeavour.

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.

In the Germanophobic frenzy that followed the entry of the US into the war in April 1917, German became criminalised. Iowa, Ohio, Nebraska and others rolled back what was by far the most commonly spoken language besides English in the US (a consequence of massive immigration from central Europe). The proscription of German only grew after Armistice Day. By 1923, more than half of the states in the Union had restricted the use of German in public spaces, over the telegraph and telephone lines, and in children’s education.

That year, the Supreme Court overturned these laws in the landmark case of Meyer v Nebraska, but the damage was done. Foreign-language education was devastated, even for French and Spanish, and a whole generation of Americans, including future scientists, grew up without much exposure to foreign languages. In the mid-1920s, when German and Austrian physicists published about the new quantum mechanics, American physicists were only able to read the German papers because Yankees still traversed the Atlantic for graduate study in Weimar Germany, and had necessarily learned the language.

The gradient of travel soon went the other way. In 1933, Adolf Hitler summarily fired ‘non-Aryan’ and Left-leaning professors, devastating German science. Those Jewish scientists who were lucky enough to emigrate in the 1930s faced a number of challenges. Cornelius Lanczos, one of Albert Einstein’s former assistants, had difficulty publishing in English both because of his topic and because of ‘the well‑known excuse of “bad language”’, even though he had ‘subject[ed] the text to a thorough revision with good friends’. Even Einstein relied on translators and collaborators.

Meanwhile, the German physicist James Franck moved to Chicago and eventually adapted to English, while Max Born settled in Edinburgh, deploying the English he had happily learned in younger days. Many of these figures mentioned their struggle with the new language, much as Japanese Nobelists do today in their autobiographies, remarking on the significance of their first publications in English to establishing their findings and their reputations beyond the archipelago. But that is to get ahead of ourselves – back in the 1930s, Hitler also shut down most visas for foreign students. Restricting access to German universities meant further cutting off the German language, effectively completing the process begun by the Great War.

As the Cold War progressed, publishing in Russian was also interpreted as a clear political statement

After the Second World War, the story increasingly becomes one of demographics and geopolitics. In contrast to the comparatively plurilingual approach of the sprawling British empire during the 19th century, scientists from the rising American empire of the 20th were not expected to acquire competence in foreign languages. The massive bulk of Soviet scientists and engineers that rose up after the war, however, presented the US with a new scientific competitor. In the 1950s and ’60s, with about 25 per cent of world publication, Russian became the second most dominant scientific language, trailing the 60 per cent of English. But by the 1970s the percentage of Russian publications began to drop as scientists worldwide blazed the trail to Anglophonia.

The American inability – or refusal – to learn Russian, let alone other foreign languages, in order to conduct their science, combined with the export of an Americanised science system across the Atlantic to Anglophone and non-Anglophone countries alike, further propelled the Anglicisation of science. The willingness of Europeans, Latin Americans and others to accede to this new monolingual regime also played a role. Since they wanted to be cited by the leaders of the field, the Dutch, Scandinavians and Iberians ceased publishing in French or German and switched to English. Paradoxically, publishing in anything other than English came to be seen as a manifestation of nationalist particularism: no one published in French who was not natively Francophone; mutatis mutandis for German.

As the Cold War progressed, publishing in Russian was also interpreted as a clear political statement. Meanwhile, generations of scientists around the world continued to learn English, but this odd development in the history of science often did not register as deeply political. By the early 1980s, English was occupying well over 80 per cent of world publication in the natural sciences. Now it hovers in the vicinity of 99 per cent.

So what? Maybe the apostles of efficiency have it right, and science is now better for being communicated in one language – the evident successes of recent science might be interpreted in this light. Yet we should also appreciate the costs. In 1869, Dmitri Mendeleev almost lost credit for his development of the periodic table because he had published in Russian not German, and today publishing in a fast-paced field in anything other than English – and in anything other than a leading journal – leads to work being ignored.

French mathematicians often proudly publish in French, where the formalism aids the Anglophones in following the proofs. In heavily experimental sciences with fewer equations, such a luxury is unthinkable. How many promising students are shunted out of a scientific career because they have a hard time with English, and not with multivariable calculus? The problem becomes more severe as the world’s textbook production, even for high schools, shifts to Anglophone: market criteria simply won’t sustain Czech or Swahili microbiology books. Monoglot science comes with a price.

Once established, however, it seems rather stable. It is dangerous to speculate about the future of scientific languages when the present is literally unprecedented. Never before has there been such a monoglot system of scientific communication, let alone one that reaches every corner of the globe with the default being the native language of a military and economic juggernaut.

Two things, however, can be stated with confidence. First, 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. The anchoring effect whereby scientists build on past knowledge supports both yesterday’s polyglot and today’s monoglot regimes.

Just ask your nearest scientist. She’ll understand you.

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