Science Book A Day Interviews Michael Gordin


Special thanks to Michael Gordin for answering 5 questions about his recently featured book – Scientific Babel: The language of science from the fall of Latin to the rise of English

Michael Gordin is Rosengarten Professor of Modern and Contemporary History at Princeton University, where he specializes in the history of modern science. – From Michael’s Homepage

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#1 – What was the impetus for Scientific Babel?

I suppose if you went all the way back, part of the impetus is personal. My parents are not native speakers of English but raised my brothers and me in that language, specifically because they wanted us to have access to an international language. As I started learning other languages later and realized how difficult it is to function every waking minute not in your native tongue, I came to appreciate the significance of their decision a lot more.

But that’s the distant cause. More proximately, in 2007 I was on sabbatical in Germany at an institute for the history of science. Although the lingua franca of the institute was English, you would routinely hear German, Italian, Chinese, and French in individual conversations in the hallways. We used to have lunch at an institute for molecular biology down the street, and there English was almost exclusive. That experience brought the extent of Anglophonia in science today to the center of my attention — in the United States it is so omnipresent (not just in science), that for a native speaker it was like a fish not noticing water — and when I returned to Princeton I began to think through the courses I taught and research projects I was working on through the lens of language. Scientific Babel emerged out of that rethinking.

#2 – The vagaries of history and war have shaped the languages of science. You refer to a ‘language race’, what did you mean by this?

The term “language race” isn’t actually mine; I drew it from a science-policy maven in the late 1950s. At that moment of the high Cold War, with decolonization and emergent nationalism sweeping large areas of the globe, many intellectuals and policy strategists thought of foreign-language competence as a national asset that would aid in the geopolitical confrontation with the enemy. (You see this phenomenon in both the United States and the Soviet Union, and with very similar rhetoric, too.) The assumption, even at that relatively recent moment, was not toward one language as a lingua franca, but rather that each emergent nation-state would prefer to conduct international business in its own language. I stress this point in the book to underscore that people seriously contemplated alternatives to our current situation not too long ago; the global dominance of English under the auspices of American hegemony was not something everyone saw coming.

#3 – What was it about constructed languages such as Esperanto that made them so attractive, and why did they ultimately fail?

There were two main attractions surrounding these languages at the turn of the 20th century. (The period 1890-1910 was really the great flourishing of optimism around these movements.) The first, and primary, attraction was an issue of fairness. It was axiomatic to many intellectuals and scholars in this period that a single language for communicating scholarly work would be a boon, obviating the need to keep up with literature in English, French, and German (at a minimum). But selecting a single nation’s native language would give its native speakers an enormous advantage — as we indeed see with English today. So the constructed-language enthusiasts thought a “neutral” language would be more just. The second, which follows on the first, was ease of acquisition. After all, one could decide to use Latin, but Latin was (and remains) rather difficult to learn. So constructed languages of this era prioritized regularity and simplicity. I should note that assessments of simplicity are relative to which languages you already know; all of the early ventures I discuss in the book had a strong bias toward Western-European languages.

As for why the projects failed, that’s mostly attributable to the waning of enthusiasm. Without a lot of supporters, a transformation on this scale just isn’t going to happen. The first blow was a resurgence of nationalist euphoria at the outbreak of the Great War in 1914, which dampened the calls for international comity and fairness. The second, and more enduring, was the rise of an alternative solution to the problem of communication: global English. English solves neither the fairness nor ease-of-acquisition demands, but it nonetheless emerged as the de facto resolution.

#4 – In a world where Chinese is becoming an important language for economic purposes, is there any evidence of rising importance of it in science?

Empirically, no. The intuition that such an effect should be happening stems from a demographic assumption: there are more Chinese speakers, so there should be more science written in Chinese. This was, in fact, the assumption behind those who feared losing the “language race” or who stumped for constructed languages. But if the demographic assumption held, Spanish would be a dominant scientific language today, as would Hindi and Arabic. The reason those are not the case has to do with how scientific communication happens. Since the 1970s, the overwhelming majority of the scientific literature is in English, so any scientist needs to be at least familiar with reading English in order to access current developments. At the same time, if you want to be cited and make an impact in your field, you need international scholars to read you. English is the mechanism through which, at present, the scientific community largely achieves this goal. To be sure: Chinese scientists are producing a great deal of research; they tend to publish their results, in the natural sciences at least, in English.

#5 – Are you working on any new books/projects you can tell us about?

I’ve begun research on a book exploring the history of science in Prague, a city that over the centuries hosted individuals as diverse as Albert Einstein, Christian Doppler, and Johannes Kepler. It’s also a city which has a long history of language conflict (between Czech and German), so it continues to explore some of the questions raised in Scientific Babel.

[Image Credit: Frank Wojciechowski, ]

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