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Lingua Franca

November 10, 2014

At one time, universities had a language requirement for the Ph.D. degree. Doctoral candidates needed to pass an examination to demonstrate their understanding of a foreign language. My thesis advisor took the French language exam, which was the same for everyone no matter what their profession. He said it was hard, but he passed.

By the time of completion of my degree, such an exam was not required, at least at my university. If the requirement had still been in place, I wonder whether I could have been tested in Latin, the language with which I am most familiar after English.

Latin was the language of most scholarship until a few hundred years ago. Latin, a vestige of the vast Roman Empire, was the universal language for the first seventeen centuries AD. All books were written, actually hand-written until late in the fifteenth century, in Latin, and it was the language of the church. When Johannes Gutenberg published his first book using movable type, that book was a Latin Bible.

The scientific revolution was chronicled in such important Latin texts as De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (1543) by Nicolaus Copernicus, which offered his alternative model to Ptolemy's geocentric system; Sidereus Nuncius (1610), in which Galileo, who was also the first prominent scientist to publish in his native language, reported on his observations with a telescope; and Isaac Newton's Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica (1687). The prolific Swiss mathematician, Leonhard Euler (1707-1783), published in both Latin and French (see figure).

Title portion of Euler's 1783 paper, De proprietatibus triangulorum mechanicis.

Title portion of Euler's 1783 paper, "De proprietatibus triangulorum mechanicis (On the properties of triangles in mechanics)."[1]

(Dartmouth University Euler Archive.)

The 19th century trend was towards using your vernacular for scientific publication, so French, English, and German journals were published, and many scientists published in multiple languages. Charles Darwin published his books, such as the famous On the Origin of Species (1859) in English. Chemistry had always been associated with the German language, and much early physics was published in German, as well. In my student days I frequently consulted a series of reference books called "Strukturbericht," published as a supplement to the German journal, Zeitschrift für Kristallographie.

In the Early part of the 20th century, German was poised to become the principal scientific language, and not merely because your entire scientific paper could be written as a single word. I exaggerate, but such German words as Bremsstrahlung, "braking radiation," contain an entire idea in a single word. Many scientific luminaries of the early 20th century, such as J. Robert Oppenheimer and Linus Pauling, studied in Germany early in their careers.

Linus Pauling, circa 1952, US LoC LC-USZ62-76925

Linus Pauling (1901-1994) in a circa 1954 photograph.

As the recipient of a 1926 Guggenheim Fellowship, Pauling studied under German physicist, Arnold Sommerfeld, in Munich, Germany. He also studied under physicists, Niels Bohr in Copenhagen, and Erwin Schrödinger in Zürich.

(United States Library of Congress, reproduction Number LC-USZ62-76925, via Wikimedia Commons.)

Today, English is the preferred language of science, a lingua franca. As discussed in a forthcoming book, "Scientific Babel,"[2] by Michael Gordin, a professor of the history of science at Princeton University, the rise of English and decline of German as the language of science came about not merely because of the hegemony of American science after World War II, but also because of a backlash against the German politics that resulted in two world wars within a half century.

As a current example of how much English is a part of mainstream science, the Norwegian husband and wife neuroscientists who were awarded this year's Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, Edvard Moser and May-Britt Moser, published their work in English.[4] Gordin writes that the ascendancy of English is essentially the result of the collapse of German as the language of scientific discourse

World War I launched the first wave of German scientific isolation, as Belgian, French and British scientists boycotted German and Austrian scientists. Scientific practice became demarcated into two camps, with the Germans and Austrians in one, and the rest of the scientific world, speaking mostly English and French, in the other. This was also the time when some important international scientific organizations, such as the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry, were founded, and these did their business in English or French.[4]

The United States entered World War I in 1917; and, says Gordin, anti-German hysteria swept the country. Although many in the US spoke German as their first language, in such states as Ohio, Wisconsin and Minnesota, the German language was criminalized in 23 states. Speaking German in public or on the radio, and teaching it to children was criminalized. Such laws were declared unconstitutional by the US Supreme Court in 1923, but the damage had already been done.[4] The result was a generation of scientists who spoke English, only.[4]

Following World War II, the American scientific enterprise dominated the world, and much important research was published in English. The rest of the world needed to learn English to catch up, and they needed to write in English to get noticed. It's, therefore, no surprise that the Norwegian Nobel Prize winners published in English. We shouldn't be surprised that Gordin's book, which runs to 424 scholarly pages, is written in English.[2]

Lobster Man from Mars Movie poster

English has spread through the world largely through the influence of American films and music. More than half the songs on one Internet radio station from the Netherlands (Radio 8 FM) to which I occasionally listen, are in English.

I've never seen "Lobster Man from Mars," but its summary on the Internet Movie Database[6] makes it look interesting.

(Via Wikimedia Commons.)


  1. Leonhard Euler, "De proprietatibus triangulorum mechanicis (On the properties of triangles in mechanics, Eneström Number E536)," Acta Academiae Scientarum Imperialis Petropolitinae 1779, 1783, pp. 126-155.
  2. Michael D. Gordin, "Scientific Babel - How Science Was Done Before and After Global English," To Be Published (April, 2015), University of Chicago Press, 424 pp., ISBN: 978-0226000299. Listed on Amazon.
  3. Michael D. Gordin, "Scientific Babel: The Problem of Minor Languages in the History of Modern Science," 2009 Presentation, Princeton University Web Site (PDF File).
  4. How did English become the language of science? -The World in Words, Nina Porzucki, Producer, Public Radio International, (October 6, 2014).
  5. Podcast of ref. 4.
  6. Lobster Man from Mars (1989, Stanley Sheff, Director) on the Internet Movie Database.

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