After Babel

After Babel March 25, 2015

Scientists are human. They need to communicate with each other. For centuries, science has been an international, now a global, enterprise. How do scientists communicate?

Once, French was, well, the lingua franca, so dominant in the discourses of high culture and science of the late 18th century that even the Prussian Academy spoke French (Michael Gordin, Scientific Babel, 16). Before that, it was Latin; after, for a while, it was German. Now English. Gordin’s forthcoming book traces the history of the rise of Anglophone science, focusing on the discipline of chemistry to maintain some narrative control. 

Attending to the language of science is one way to show that CP Snow’s two cultures have always been entangled. It’s to stress that scientists, like the rest of us, are human (as Steven Shapin has stressed). To attend to the language of scientific inquire is to pay attention to issues “like timing, social status, the labor of bibliographic searching, and cultural miscommunications.” Gordin’s book reveals the “hiccups, backtracks, and rethinkings” that are inevitably part of the drama of any scientific investigation.

Today English stands like a Colossus astride science. One symbolic indicator: Between 1992 and 2011, 45 Nobel prizes were awarded in Chemistry. 19 of the winners were not native English speakers, but only 3 had gone through their entire career without studying or working at an Anglophone institution (303-4). Aspiring scientists around the world know it: To fail to learn English is to be confined to the margins of the scientific world.

How did this happen? Some have suggested that the English language is somehow particularly conducive to science. English does, Gordin admits, have a large scientific vocabulary, but he places more emphasis on political factors: “More powerful than any intrinsic linguistic advantage to English was a definite political backlash against German in the wake of National Socialist brutality” (306). English got a political boost from the other side too, as President Johnson made English-promotion a “major policy” of a number of Federal programs.

It’s unfair. But no more unfair than the dominance of other languages in other ages.

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