Scientific Babel: The Language of Science from the Fall of Latin to the Rise of English, by Michael D. Gordin

Richard Joyner on the dwindling role of German and Russian in the communication of research

April 9, 2015

Germany’s post-war political and economic revival, and its eventual reunification, is one of the great successes of the 20th century. One casualty of that general triumph, however, was the erosion of German’s status as a major language for the publication of scientific research. Michael Gordin’s fascinating but somewhat skewed book shows that this decline had much earlier roots.

As a chemistry undergraduate in the 1960s, and already equipped with a reasonable grasp of French from secondary school, I was required to learn either some German or Russian. I chose the former. My university’s view, common at that time, was that I would need these languages to keep up with developments in my subject. Yet they were only partly right. I read my last paper written in German in about 1976, and my last French one only a few years later. The Soviet Union had little presence in the science of solid surfaces, my chosen field, so I never felt the lack of Russian.

It is easy to see where my tutors were coming from. At the end of the 19th century, most new science was published in English, French or German, with the burden being shared roughly equally. To keep up, never mind get ahead of the game, a scientist needed all three. But the situation was changing rapidly. By 1950, 55 per cent of the literature in science as a whole was written in English and by 1996 the figure was more than 90 per cent.

In its overview, Gordin’s book promises to explain that major shift, with a specific focus on chemistry. Unfortunately, it doesn’t quite do so. The section on the growing dominance of English occupies just four pages – the same space afforded a discussion of the early constructed language Volapük. Apart from two interesting chapters on artificial languages, Scientific Babel focuses instead on two main themes: why Russian never became a major scientific language, and why German failed to dominate science. Gordin is not the first to regret the latter: in 1952, chemist and Nobel laureate Otto Hahn observed: “I have often sadly had to notice…that the retreat of the German language [is]…damaging for the image of Germany in general.”

French suffered the same decline as German, but Scientific Babel largely ignores its fate. Although Adolphe Wurtz is mocked in passing for saying in 1869, “La chimie est une science française”, Gordin affords to French scientists and the French language none of the extensive consideration given to German. This is a frustrating deficiency.

Another significant omission is any discussion of what was happening in the world outside science. In the era that English became dominant in science, it was also becoming a global second language. Scientists are citizens too, and it is reasonable to ask whether what was happening in entertainment, commerce and politics did not exert some influence on scientific practice.

It is easy, of course, to complain about what is absent in any book. What Gordin, a historian of contemporary science, offers is a fascinating if limited insight into the sociology and history of German and Russian chemistry in the first 70 years or so of the 20th century. Within these limitations, Scientific Babel is a thoroughly enjoyable read; written with authority and enthusiasm, it vividly communicates the author’s great love of languages.

Scientific Babel: The Language of Science from the Fall of Latin to the Rise of English

By Michael D. Gordin
Profile, 432pp, £25.00 and £18.99
ISBN 9781781251140 and 1847659583 (e-book)
Published 26 March 2015

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