February 23, 2020

How Did English Dominate Science?

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.”

Read more

JJ Editor's Picks

"U.S. President Donald Trump thinks he’s suffered more injustice than the alleged witches of Salem, but it could be worse. Pakistan’s former president Pervez Musharaff faced possible impeachment in 2008, leading to his resignation. In the end..."

"The 2000s felt like a decade of looking forward. Wi-Fi went mainstream, phones got smarter, social media connected us, digital tools let us rely less on physical ones. But the 2010s brought a shift. There was still tons of new technology, but..."

"While some women experience pregnancy and childbirth as joyful, natural and fulfilling, others find themselves recoiling in horror at the physical demands of carrying and sustaining a child in their womb, and even more so at the potential..."

"A few months ago, the New York Post’s Steve Cuozzo bemoaned the death of the Manhattan power lunch. Gone were the long, decadent afternoons filled with networking and Negronis: “Suit-and-tie-wearing machers in media and Wall Street gave way to..."

"Economic inequality has moved to the top of the political agenda in many countries, including free-market poster children like the US and the UK. The issue is mobilizing the left and causing headaches on the right, where wealth has long been..."

"If you’re not familiar with the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical Cats — or even if you are — then you probably have many, many questions going into the film adaptation this weekend, especially if you’ve witnessed the widespread bafflement the trailer..."

"Despite his precisely targeted campaign and some unexpected support, the chances of Gideon Saar engineering a surprise defeat of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Dec. 26 primaries for the Likud party leadership are still considered modest.."

"Peter Thiel is Big Tech’s most prominent Trump supporter. He is an unabashed enemy of the free press, having covertly funded a lawsuit that bankrupted Gawker three years ago. He has become one of the most vocal pro-monopoly advocates, taking a..."