The Language of Science from the Fall of Latin to the Rise of English. London: Profile Books, 2015

Michael D Gordin

This book falls at the intersection of a few of my interests - language, the idea of an auxiliary or neutral meta-language, the history of science in general and academic publishing in particular. I was dimly aware that English had become increasingly important as the language of the natural sciences, but wasn't aware of how total its dominance had become. For the disciplines in question, English is now as universal a language of scholarship across the globe as Latin was across Europe in the Renaissance.

My tolerance for dryness in this kind of book is pretty high, but I was surprised at how engaging and entertaining Gordin's account is. He tells the story in historical order: Latin was gradually replaced by a triumvirate of English, French and German which had stabilised in the nineteenth century but which was destroyed by the wars (hot and cold) of the twentieth. The book is saved from being a chronology by its division into seperate, coherent episodes, each of which illustrates a particular dispute or rivalry across the linguistic boundaries of science. The war between Dmitri Mendeleev and Lothar Meyer for priority in discovering the periodicity of chemical properties of the elements hinged on a mistranslated word from Russian to German; during the Cold War, American paranoia at the advances of Soviet science (and the relative monolingualism of Americans) led to the drastic over-hyping, and eventual collapse, of the first, extremely primitive, generation of machine translation software, and also spurred a boom in cover-to-cover translations of Soviet scientific journals, in a sequence which reads like the background to a Pynchon novel.

The interface between the pioneering machine translators at Georgetown University (using an IBM 701 to render sentences such as "Starch is produced by mechanical methods from potatoes" from a simplified Russian into English) with the structural lingustics of Chomsky, and the structural turn in the human sciences more generally, is really interesting: I had thought that structuralism came first, and was followed by computerised grammar, but Gordin suggests that the traffic was two-way.

There's also a fascinating account of various attempts in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to establish a constructed language - Volapük, Esperanto, Ido, Latino sine inflexione, and so on - as a replacement for Latin. This touches on a theme running through the whole story, which is that no natural or constructed language can automatically "hold" scientific concepts (although the French, naturellement, would disagree) and considerable work had to be done on languages like Russian which came to science relatively late in the game. Intriguingly, the first journal in Esperanto, Internacia scienca revuo, was edited by René de Saussure, a mathematician who was brother to the linguist Ferdinand de Saussure.

It's hard to finish the book without a sense of awe at the amount of effort which is expended by scholars around the world in learning our frankly ridiculous language simply as their first step into the scientific literature, and to wonder if in the future a form of scientific English will survive (as Latin did) while the common language continues to change.


Comments

comments powered by Disqus