MICHAEL GORDIN: A long and unfair history
Professor of modern and contemporary history at Princeton University, New Jersey, and author of Scientific Babel (Univ. Chicago Press, 2015).
There’s nothing about English that makes it intrinsically better for science than any other language. Science could have gone just as far in Chinese or Swahili. But many economic and geopolitical forces made English the dominant language of research, for better or worse.
Having a single global language of science makes the whole endeavour more efficient. There are around 6,000 languages in the world, today. If science were being conducted in all of them, a lot of knowledge would be lost. In the 1700s and 1800s, scientists in Europe often had to learn French, German and Latin to keep up with their fields. We’ve gained a lot by lowering the burden to just one language. But there’s also a lack of fairness. In countries where English isn’t spoken, you shut out everyone but the well-educated. We could be losing some really smart minds.
Over the centuries, scientists worldwide have adapted to using English, but the language has also adapted to science. English has acquired a vocabulary for concepts and processes. When a new field emerges, its terminology piggybacks on the existing vocabulary. In computer science, English terms such as ‘Internet’, ‘software’ and ‘cybernetics’ are now used almost universally. A lot of languages don’t have that history, so they don’t have the infrastructure of scientific vocabulary. If the world decided that Thai or Hindi should be the language of science, we’d have a lot of work to do to create a whole extra terminology.
People often ask me whether another language will someday take the place of English. I doubt it. English is an anomaly. We’ve never before had a single global language, and I don’t think that it will happen again. In the future — perhaps even in this century — science could split into three languages: English, Chinese and another language, such as Spanish, Portuguese or Arabic.
Even if every English-speaking scientist suddenly disappeared, English would still be the dominant language for a long time to come, because so much knowledge is already written in English. It’s here to stay for a while.
When English is not your mother tongue