Absolute English

tags: language, Science

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

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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