Friday, May 29, 2015

Scientific Babel by Michael Gordin review – the hunt for a common language

If you’re a working scientist and you can’t read this sentence, you’re in trouble. English isn’t the only language of modern science, but it’s far and away the most important. “If you are interested in what it would be like to live in a world with one language of communication, a world with no Babel,” writes Michael Gordin, “you should look to the natural scientists. They come from there.” In Scientific Babel, Gordin looks beyond the dominance of English in contemporary scientific discourse to uncover a story of scientific debate that’s characterised by confusion and misapprehension as much as by collaboration and progress.

Scientists have always found ways of making themselves understood to each other. After all, without a bridging of the language gap, Archimedes is just another naked Greek man shouting in his bathroom. Science, of course, has had a shared language before, at least in Europe. Latin was the main language of medieval and Renaissance scholarship, but its empire wasn’t as universal as is often made out. Historians of science and medicine have shown that much of the scientific knowledge of this period had its roots in vernacular languages.

The strangest thing about Latin was that it was, for a time, nearly a universal language of science and yet those engaged in scientific inquiry chose to give it up. Of course, as a language of science, Latin still isn’t dead: it was only in 2012 that the international code of botanical nomenclature allowed descriptions of new plant species to be in other languages. But during the 18th century, European science began gradually to turn away from the idea of a single shared language, leading to the emergence of a “triumvirate” of languages of scientific inquiry – English, French and German.

It’s at this point in the story that Gordin takes something of a shortcut, bypassing the golden years of the triumvirate to bring us to 1850, where his account really begins. To cover the slow decline of Latin and the emergence of three dominant vernaculars demands a book all of its own, but Gordin’s pithy opening chapter (on the rise and fall of Latin) manages to cover a broad swath of ground. In any case, he isn’t trying to write a grand unified history of scientific languages. What he offers instead is something more idiosyncratic, surprising and ultimately more satisfying than any whistlestop tour might be. From the vantage point of languages in which he himself is competent, he offers a polyglot history of scientific endeavour from the middle of the 19th century to the present day.

Scientists in the 19th century recognised that a solution to the polyglot problem would be for everybody to speak the same language. Fine. But which one? National and linguistic chauvinism kept getting in the way: the French wouldn’t speak German, the English wouldn’t speak French, the Germans wouldn’t speak Russian, and so on. Since none of the national vernaculars would do, somebody would have to invent one.

Constructed languages such as Volapük, Ido and Esperanto (or Idiom Neutral, Latino sine flexione andInterlingua) often feature in histories of language as bizarre curiosities or dead ends. What’s masterful in Gordin’s treatment of these painstakingly constructed tongues – and of the vituperative debates that swirled around them – is that he takes them seriously, precisely as did the scientists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In 1904, an Esperanto journal of science was founded, carrying translations of important scientific articles: its sponsors included the celebrated polymath Henri Poincaré and two Nobel laureates. Gordin argues convincingly that by the early 20th century, debates about the prospect of shared constructed languages were of real interest to scientists. His re-creation of these debates is fascinating, witty and never condescending, and proof that these beguiling languages are more than just a sideshow in the history of communication.

The global conflicts of the 20th century had lasting impacts on the scientific community, and also left their mark on the languages its members spoke. After the first world war, German’s status as a scientific language suffered a blow from which it never fully recovered. From being one of the triumvirate of languages central to science, it became an object of suspicion and even of disgust. By 1919, 16 US states had severely restricted the use of German – if you spoke the language in the streets of Findlay, Ohio, you could be fined $25 by the city council. The laws were dropped soon afterwards, but the damage was done, and not just to German: American provision of foreign-language education collapsed, clearing the ground for the panics around Russian-language scientific literature and machine translation that would characterise the cold war period. Gordin charts a cold war “language race”, in which scientists on both sides of the iron curtain strove to keep up with the work being done by their counterparts. The CIA ploughed funds into research on machine translation, while a lucrative private translation industry grew up, turning Russian journals into English so that Anglophone scientists could read about Soviet discoveries a mere six months after they had first appeared in print. English translation of Soviet material opened Russian science up not only to the Americans and the British, but also to a growing international community for whom English was fast becoming the main language of science.

But who cares what language science is in, especially – you or I might ask – when it’s one we speak? In 2001, an editorial in the journal Nature Cell Biology argued (in English): “The use of a universal language for communication in science is unavoidable, and resisting this concept for the sake of cultural difference would seem to be counterproductive.” Maybe language barriers in print aren’t all that important. A chemist might reasonably say that they can follow a paper published in another language pretty easily: once you know what you’re doing, you can get pretty far just by reading the equations. The English used in scientific publications tends to be more standardised and simplified than the language you might hear in the street.

But academic publications make up only one element of scientific discourse, and I was left wanting to hear more about face-to-face communication. How do non-native speakers deal with English as the working language of labs, of conferences, of funding bodies and international collaborations? Gordin recognises that there are questions of power and privilege at play here, but he might have gone further into the language strategies that lie behind the day-to-day work of modern scientific research. Other questions are left hanging, not least the place of Chinese, Hindi, Swahili or even Spanish in the history of science: where are these languages now, and where might we expect them to figure in future?

Gordin’s account doesn’t close the door on the subject: he pulls it wide open and jams a pile of dictionaries against it so we can gawk inside. He has hit on a marvellous idea and executed it with panache and laconic humour. His book is almost never dull, one somewhat plodding chapter on the slow demise of scientific German after the second world war notwithstanding. This reconstruction of nearly two centuries of scientific Babel reminds us that histories of science and discovery are always more than simple tales of great men and women: they are choral, and discordant, and it is only by listening for their many voices that we can begin to get at the reality of the past.

Gallagher, John. 2015. “Scientific Babel by Michael Gordin review – the hunt for a common language”. The Guardian. Posted: April 2, 2015. Available online:

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