The Language of Science

English, the lingua franca of modern world, has definitely done it's share in improving our knowledge of science. But does it also draw a divide and restrict those who do not have access to it? In this post, I'd like to sum up few interesting things that I've come across, on the topic: numerous POVs, a TED talk, a few scientific letters and a couple of articles, a few lessons in history, but mostly my bit of some loud-mouthed thinking as usual.

At the heart of this chain of thought is actually a trivial conversation in my office, where Andrew - who was peering into his laptop otherwise - made a comment on how easy we have it with most research papers being published in English. Me and Stefania chimed in, in agreement. To my knowledge, this group of casual chit-chatters had a cumulative knowledge of at least seven languages: Hindi, Bengali, French, Spanish, Italian, Sanskrit (at least in principle) and of course, English. (But even though we mutually tease each other's accents time and again) I and Stef were, in no doubt, supportive of Andrew's sense of relief in our being able to read most of the relevant research articles in English.

But why is it indeed, that most (all) of the scientific literature we refer to, are actually in English? Why is it that English has been chosen as the prime language of the free-thinking contemporary world?

In the book (and the movie) 'Angels and Demons', Professor Langdon and Vittoria Vetra stumble upon a crucial clue in a Miltonian poem, hidden in Galileo's Diagramma Della Verita and Langdon explains how English was the lingua franca of free thinkers like Newton and Chaucer, as it was too common and vulgar to be used by the clergy to forward their preaching. I believe its rather quite the modern thinking about the language that Dan Brown adopted to use as a deus ex machina to keep Langdon's Harvard credentials in perspective. So, to understand English's dominance in the relevant field, we'd have to take a little trip through history.

English, a Germanic language (in contrast to the Romance languages like French, Spanish and Portuguese), would have been restricted to the British Isles had the mighty empire did not set sail for the far away lands. (But so did the Spanish and the Portuguese, and so we will come to that later). Having had some  first-hand experience with the Indian history, we've been taught that the British came with the sole goal of trade - trade of spice, and maybe some other things. But the expansionists that they were, the moment their trade interfered in the local trade dynamics, they annexed province after province to exact their intentions of keeping their interests safe and above all else. English, as a language had gotten in so deep into the very commercial, administrative and educational vein of the country that long after the British left the south Asian colony, the use of their language persisted. Actually, it rather thrived in an automated elitist practice of self-preservation, and look where I sit now.

And let's not forget how few of the British Islanders having had enough of Arsenal not winning the league and the otherwise-overrated Earl grey (I would like to call the 5th on that one), crossed the Atlantic and settled to form what would grow on to become the First World Order. And to start their own brand of football and take the world at storm with Starbucks.

But then, like I mentioned earlier, the Portuguese and the Spanish had set sail earlier and they had settled to realms farther away than did the British. So evidently, in what is as close as the 19th century, French was the most spoken language internationally - which is why the term for the 'most spoken common language' is still the French phrase lingua franca.

Anyway, as I was saying, English wasn't even the dominant language of science by 1900. It was German (Ach-fuckin'-tung baby!). Latin, before that. (Because Naja naja is not a Bollywood song!) And before Latin, it was perhaps Greek. (Socrates: has anyone ever seen the iris in his eye, btw? All his statues seem to only have creepy hollow eyes!)

Scientists and Philosophers such as Galileo published their work in their native language, which curiously enough, was mostly Latin. Then perhaps as a reaction to the Protestant Reformation that marked a declining influence of the Catholic church in those times, German came to the fore. This was predominantly consistent till the advent of the first great war - the World War I. By the end of the war, most Western European researchers founded scientific unions and organizations where German scientists were simply boycotted because of their political leanings.

Lest you think it was rather bullish of them, German remained banned and criminalized in 23 states of the USA till as recently as 1923 when the law was finally over-turned. So by World War II, a whole generation of American scientists were brought up as Anglo-centric raring-to-go types. At the same time, the cultural and political environment in Germany wasn't very fostering either. By 1933, the German government dismissed a big chunk of the nation's physics, math and biology faculty when they banned Jews and socialists. Great European scientists like Albert Einstein and Jon von Neumann thus, migrated to the USA.

And finally, the World War II was the mega-event, that finally struck the defining hammer on the nail on the coffin that now houses the German influence over science.

Some of the papers I found through PubMed are listed below. Last one, I literally converted them in English to read it's abstract. (Long live the Internet and thus, Net Neutrality).

  • Dinkel, A., Berth, H., Borkenhagen, A., & Brähler, E. (2004). On raising the international dissemination of German research: Does changing publication language to english attract foreign authors to publish in a German basic psychology research journal? Experimental Psychology, 51(4), 319–328. 
  • Falagas, M. E., Fabritsi, E., Chelvatzoglou, F. C., & Rellos, K. (2005). Penetration of the English language in science: the case of a German national interdisciplinary critical care conference. Critical Care, 9(6), 655–656. 
  • Beller, F. K. (2000). Die Zukunft der deutschen Sprache in der Wissenschaft. Gynakol Geburtshilfliche Rundsch, 40(1):50-4.

Having English as the global language for science, with the slow weeding out of a number of other languages in this field, I hereby ask you this: Is it being used as a barrier for innovation and free thinking?

We have seen in the past that the Romance languages were rather the very pioneers of art - and here I emphasize the categorization of science as an art, because it is. Socrates, worked out his science in Greek. Ramanujan did his in Sanskrit, Einstein was terrible in his English - hell, he was in fact dyslexic! Imagine him having to sit through a TOEFL exam (worse still, GRE)! I am willing to bet that he would have failed miserably to get a high grade in those universally accepted tests for English speaking ability. Where, how and when would we have had him then, I wonder. Do you think Ramanujan would've been able to pay for the fees that they charge for you to sit for one of those tests? That's an obvious instance of discrimination against probable geniuses, right there.

Also, speaking of an instance more nearer to home, a Chinese friend of mine had some difficulty in qualifying the English speaking standards that our department had set for the international students. It might seem rather silly for people like me, who come from a predominantly English speaking nation. But you have to understand that the Chinese have a language that has separately designated words for everything - so as to say that they don't call oxygen, oxygen. They don't call a test tube, a test tube. They don't call.. well, you get the flow. Does this mean that English is being rather divisive to those who don't speak it?

Well, personally, I would disagree - but only to a certain extent. I think that of all the other languages used to describe science, English has been the most accommodating. Think of the word 'oxygen'. It was a French word, coined late in the 18th century, that the English simply borrowed. The word 'permafrost'. Russian (because let's face it, it gets really really cold out there), and only borrowed into the English lexicon.

While English is going rather out of it's way to maintain democracy in the choice of words used to describe everyday science, German goes out of it's way to coin it's own words. Imagine using 'sauerstoff' instead of oxygen. More importantly, there isn't any scientific thought involved that went into the coining of this new word. They translated the word quite literally: sauerstoff stands for sour (or acid) substance. And there we were thinking that the shitty Google translate was a modern invention!

Whatever be the case, to sum it all up, I would say that not publishing in English would perhaps take you nowhere in today's academia. It has it's pros and cons, as sure as they are. So where do we draw the line? Guess it's too big a problem for us to control.

P.S. I would love to ramble on about this, but there's a brilliant hooting I hear from right outside my room. I guess I'll go check out the owl responsible for that. She sounds downright gorgeous!


  1. DEVASHISH CHATTERJEEApril 29, 2015 at 10:32 PM

    The English language became a universally accepted language by the passage of time with the expansion of British rule through out the world. With their expansion they also continued to enrich their language with incorporating the words from other languages into their dictionary. Actually English became rich with annexing or rather accepting the words from other languages. We found only in English lots of words with the same meaning but having different usages.

    In my opinion anyone can express well in his own mother tongue. So every one should be free to use his own language which may be as strong as English. Only we require good translation facility which is not a difficult task in computer software age. Don't you agree that many thoughts from lesser known geniuses remain unknown to the world only because those do not see the light of other world and remain confined to a small community using their language but this doesn't mean that they are in no way a great thinkers.

    Your writing is excellent. Your love for the English language is also evident. But your writing remained more as a discussion over a coffee cup. Needs improvement.

  2. I don't think translation can ever get better - some expressions and thought processes are rather specific in different languages, that's why we get expressions that are lost in translation. We definitely need everyone to have equal finesse over both languages, so that expression remains constant for everyone to understand, even though the understanding or the working-it-out part remains up for one's discretion..

  3. DEVASHISH CHATTERJEEMay 1, 2015 at 2:44 PM

    Other languages should also be enriched by incorporating appropriate words from other languages like what English did. Then probably the expressions can become more clear and appropriate. Moreover thought process do not depend upon any language or if actually depends than on one's mother language only.

  4. That's true. But I believe each language has a unique principle of it's own. Some languages are supremacists - like German and Chinese (Mandarin or Cantonese, whatever) for example. They'd rather invent their own lexicon than borrow foreign words. There's nothing good or bad about that practice - the German or Chinese people would rather do very well in interpersonal communication - just the way it is. English is a promiscuous language and that serves good purpose to whoever deals with any kind of global issues.. The Indian languages, as well, are rather promiscuous because of our preference for items that are foreign and otherworldly. Because that still signifies a "better" lifestyle and not for wrong reasons. That's the reason we have a lot of English words in our vocabulary - more than any other language I feel, sometimes! It does well, because Indians generally do better, among the overall population of immigrants in Western countries.. isn't it?