From the October 1927 Fifth Solvay International Conference on Electrons and Photons. Hendrik Lorentz, Leiden University, seated between Madame Curie and Einstein, chaired the conference. Credit: iharsten
How did English become the language of science
【LWBS 2015 04 13 A】(Science/Lynn K. Nyhart) “You are able to read this sentence.” Surely this assertion, which opens Scientific Babel, is self-evident. But as Michael Gordin shows in his sweeping historical account of the languages used by scientists, a profound question lurks just under its surface.
How is it that readers interested in science today—those likely to pick up this book—are virtually all able to read English? One might imagine that the United States has simply reaped the benefits of the British empire's earlier aggressive colonization efforts and used its own more recent dominance to bend the scientific world to “global English.”
But this is not Gordin's take on the story; in fact, he maintains that nothing was inevitable about the outcome. German, French, and English were considered the “big three” scientific languages in the 19th and early 20th centuries. To be sure, even in the late 19th century, more scientific publications appeared in English than in any other language, but the others were close. German even surpassed English and French briefly in the 1910s and 1920s. As Gordin shows, however, the geopolitical consequences of the two World Wars caused the use of German in scientific communications to plummet, further facilitating the rise of English.
For Gordin—an expert on the histories of chemistry, Russian science, and the Cold War—the communication problems faced by Russian scientists in the 19th century were especially poignant. As an example, Gordin offers the story of the chemist Dmitri Mendeleev, whose formulation of the periodicity of the chemical elements was cast into doubt when an assistant substituted the word “phased” for “periodic” in a German translation of his research. Moreover, in an age when important new ideas were often published first in books, publishers were reluctant to risk the expense of translating a book without the support of local scientists. But how were the scientists to know whether to offer their support if they couldn't read the original language? (Language barriers were also an issue for Japanese scientists in the early 20th century, although Gordin laments that linguistic incapacity prevented him from including a detailed discussion of their struggles.)
In the late 19th century, schemes abounded for a new “vehicular” or “auxiliary” language—one that was native to no one and neutral to all, easy to learn and use. Such a language seemed especially fitting for science, because scientific knowledge was itself presumed to be neutral and universal. Thus arose a series of constructed languages. First came Volapük, a language with roots in English and German. Volapük swirled into vogue for a few years in the late 1880s but was quickly succeeded by Esperanto, a language with Romance, Germanic, and Slavic influences. Although Esperanto would become the most successful constructed language (some children of mixed linguistic parentage even learned it as a native language), its use in science was challenged in 1907, in favor of a modified version called Ido. But with the onset of World War I, Ido's most vocal champion, the physical chemist Wilhelm Ostwald, would drop the idea of a neutral universal language in favor of “Weltdeutsch” (World-German), a language that was not at all neutral—nor, in the end, successful.
During the Cold War, Americans and Russians were eager to learn what scientific advances were buried in the opposition's technical literature. Both governments invested heavily in machine translation, a novel solution enabled by the advent of the computer. But machine translation required much coding and testing at the front end, before any actual translations could result. More immediate action was needed. Whereas the Russians ramped up their abstracting from foreign journals to an unprecedented level, the Americans took another approach: direct, cover-to-cover translation of Soviet journals. The story of how the profit-oriented American approach worked (at the expense of the translators) is one of the many gems of this book.
Scientific Babel offers a close-to-the-ground perspective that reveals how short-lived language movements, translation efforts, and publication schemes have interacted with global geopolitics to produce larger historical trends. This emphasis on historical contingencies invites us to reconsider the dominance of English in science today and may ruffle the complacency of those who imagine that it is permanent.
So if you are interested in this, please read Michael Gordin's book:
Scientific Babel: How Science Was Done Before and After Global English