Scientific Babel: The Language of Science from the Fall of Latin to the Rise of English

  • Michael Gordin
Profile/Univ. Chicago Press: 2015. 9780226000299 | ISBN: 978-0-2260-0029-9

A scientific paper published in 1905 gloried in the title Zur Elektrodynamik bewegter Körper. Today, Albert Einstein's 'On the electrodynamics of moving bodies', which introduced the special theory of relativity, would be published in English. English has become the language of almost every leading journal across the natural sciences, whatever its country of origin. Large conferences held in non-anglophone countries, such as those of the European Geosciences Union, often use English. Of the major producers of scientific research, only China and, to a lesser extent, Japan host international conferences in their own languages.

Learning English is essential for modern scientists — but German and French were once more significant. Credit: Owen Franken/Corbis

In 1905, however, some 30% of global scientific literature was in German, with a similar proportion in English, marginally less in French and much less in Russian and Japanese. So reveals US historian Michael Gordin in Scientific Babel, a massive, erudite and engaging study of the role of languages in science based on 15 years of research — and drawing on Gordin's knowledge of French, German, Russian, Esperanto and Latin. The numerous translations are generally his own.

The dominance of English — unpredicted a century ago — is rooted in Germany's defeat in the First World War. For some years afterwards, there was an international boycott of German scientists and attempts were made to curb the use of German by the League of Nations and 22 US states. The advent of the Third Reich in 1933 boosted English as the scientific lingua franca, as did the United States' postwar ascendancy in scientific output and geopolitical power — along with a perception of English as neutral.

Gordin asks, with a touch of irony, whether this English-language “fait accompli” is always good for science. Although he finds that most scientists are in principle inclined to embrace the idea of one language for communicating, the dominance of English can disadvantage non-English speakers. The most creative thinking tends to be done in the language in which a person feels most at home. As Fields Medal winner Laurent Lafforgue noted (in French) in 2005: “it is to the degree that the French mathematical school remains attached to French that it conserves its originality and its force”.

Gordin asks: does history suggest a future alternative? He considers relevant historical episodes in detail. Latin, for example, became the language of European science during the Italian Renaissance, but its use began to decline in the seventeenth century. Thus, Galileo Galilei turned to Italian, and Isaac Newton shifted from Latin for his Principia Mathematica (1687) to English for his Opticks (1704). During the Enlightenment, European libraries collected roughly one-third of their books in Latin, one-third in French and the rest in the local vernacular. Barring taxonomic nomenclature, the use of Latin had died out among leading scientists by the time of Charles Darwin, who wrote in English.

The linguistic complexity in science in the late nineteenth century is demonstrated by the story of the periodic table and its contested origin, which Gordin explored in his 2004 book A Well-Ordered Thing (Basic Books). When the German-language journal Zeitschrift für Chemie mistranslated an 1869 Russian abstract by Dmitri Mendeleev, a vehement priority dispute blew up between Mendeleev and German chemist Lothar Meyer. In a crucial sentence, “The elements ordered according to the magnitude of their atomic weights show a periodic change in properties”, a rushed translator used the German word stufenweise ('phased') instead of periodische ('periodic'); as a result, Meyer claimed precedence for his own research. When Mendeleev objected, Meyer replied: “It seems to me an excessive demand that we German chemists read, besides those articles appearing in the German and Romance languages, also those in the Slavic languages”. He did not mention English.

By the end of the nineteenth century, scientists everywhere were obsessed with a multilingual overload.

By the end of the nineteenth century, scientists everywhere were obsessed with a multilingual information overload — Gordin's scientific babel. The solution seemed to be an auxiliary universal language. Volapük ('Worldspeak') was invented in 1880; the better-known Esperanto arose in 1887, and its offshoot, Ido, arrived in 1907. Gordin sympathetically analyses these artificial languages — taken seriously by leading scientists of the time — through the lens of Ido advocate Wilhelm Ostwald, a Nobel-prizewinning German chemist. In-fighting dissolved the movement, and Ostwald abandoned Ido during the First World War, championing German as an international language.

During the cold war, and especially after the Soviet Union launched Sputnik in 1957, much scientific attention switched to literature in Russian, which by 1970 reached 20% of the global output. In 1961, 85 Soviet journals were being translated into English, with US government funding. Preposterous claims were made for machine translation from Russian into English. Both translation programmes were eventually abandoned in favour of increased Russian-language teaching for US scientists — until the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union sealed the fate of scientific Russian beyond its own borders. A lively Russian-language journals scene still prevails in Russia.

Anglophone dominance is unlikely to change soon, says Gordin. If scientific importance were based on population, Spanish would be a major scientific language; if on geopolitical power, scientists would publish much more in Chinese. In the 1660s and later, philosopher and mathematician Gottfried Leibniz advocated a universal writing system for science independent of any spoken language, similar to mathematical notation. This must stay a dream: intellectual activity demands language. As the polyglot Gordin concludes, “we remain bound to the constraints of history, to the shackles of the words in human languages: untranslatable yet intelligible, frustrating yet infinitely beguiling”.