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The Language of Science

Jul 26, 2016

English is certainly the language of science in the modern world, with an estimated 98% of all scientific publications being written in the language. But it hasn’t always been that way.

Before the 17th century, scientific publications were mostly written in Latin. For example, in 1687, Sir Isaac Newton wrote his book Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica, which explained his laws of motion and gravity, in the Latin language. At the time education wasn’t accessible to the majority of the population, and so Latin was the language of the elite and intellectual classes. Even the name of ‘gravity’ reflects this, coming from the Latin word ‘gravitas’, which means heavy.

Gradually, more scientists began to publish their works in the vernacular in order to make their ideas accessible to the masses, and Latin lost its status as the scientific lingua franca. But since the primary reason for publishing scientific research was to share ideas and knowledge, there was concern that publishing scientific papers in so many different languages would hinder scientific communication and the understanding of important research being conducted abroad.

By the mid-19th century, there were three primary languages used to promote scientific thought: English, French and German. Professional scientists were expected to be proficient in all three of these languages and to publish exclusively in those languages. By 1900, the dominant language of science was German, and thanks to leading scientists like Einstein, Planck, Heisenberg and others, it remained that way until World War I led to boycotts of German scientists who were often barred from publishing in Western European journals.

Conflicts throughout the 21st century, including both World Wars and the Cold War, transformed the way scientists around the world communicated with each other, and by the mid-1990s English had firmly established itself as the language of science. Nowadays, anyone who wants to share their ideas must publish their work in English. Even many scientific textbooks aimed at students in non-English speaking countries are written in English, and these students are required to have proficient English in order to pursue degrees and eventually careers in the sciences.

This definitely poses problems for scientists and students who do not speak English as their first language. Considering that just 15% of the world’s population speaks English, with just 5% speaking English as their mother-tongue, the fact that the latest scientific discoveries are mostly written about in English can make the whole profession seem inaccessible.

It’s difficult enough to read a scientific paper in a foreign language, but the requirement to write a scientific paper in English can seem an impossible task when it’s not your mother-tongue. It involves explaining complex theories and using nuanced language to ensure the reader thoroughly understands the concept, which requires another skillset entirely.

The fact that English has become the language of science isn’t likely to change any time soon. But having an awareness of the ways in which scientific papers can be made more accessible to those who speak English as a second language can optimize communication and level the playing field to ensure scientists around the world can be heard.

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