Why is English the universal language in science?

 

Okay, raise your hands, colleagues. How do you pronounce the following English words: “bough”, “cough”, “through”, “though”, “thought”? (Yes, “cough” is similar to “thought.” But why?)

Answer: they are all pronounced differently, and only historical linguists understand why.

The further problem is that, if you are not a native English speaker and you go to a conference where English is the dominant language spoken (as it usually is at international meetings), you might feel embarrassed if your colleagues could not understand your pronunciation of these horribly irregular words, or if you conjugated a verb incorrectly.

And consider how we conjugate “to be” in English: I am, you are, he/she/it is, we are, you are, they are. So we’re consistent on plural nouns, but English no longer has a second person singular (“Thou art”), which introduces a further irregularity. And every singular conjugation is different.

Why should this be? Many other Western languages are more sensible. Romance languages – Italian, Spanish, French – are spelled more regularly. Germanic and related languages are too (with some local idioms). When you see a phrase, you know how to pronounce its words even if you don’t understand their meanings. I can’t speak for various languages and dialects found throughout Asia. I can’t even speak for Irish, the language of my ancestors, which seems to me to have about four times as many letters as other languages I know. The extra letters are there to aid pronunciation (I’m told).

Irish is not unique. Like many languages from many continents, it was transliterated into English by non-native speakers. Many such languages never had written versions. And the transliteration was not always accurate. So it was a struggle for native speakers to encounter and eventually correct those transliterations, as well as their translations.

In addition, many Asian, Native American, European, and African languages have coded pronunciation keys and diacritical symbols to express the nuances and meanings of statements in their language. And they are not unusual. The principle is that most languages that have a written version have a general regularity in their pronunciation. But not English, which doesn’t use diacritical marks. Why?

 

The language we know today as English evolved in the British Isles over thousands of years and various foreign occupations and royal dynasties. Many scholarly works detail this fascinating history. But what we are faced with today is a language we call English that is largely a mixture of two great linguistic currents. One is the Germanic languages (primarily what we now call German), and the other is the Romance languages (primarily what we now call French). This blending has happened through the course of over a thousand years.

The consequence of this history is that we have many synonyms for common words and usually two ways to express the simplest verbs. For example, the Latinate (Romance) language gives us “possess,” whereas the Germanic side gives us “have,” which seems simpler and more colloquial. Much of turgid scientific writing proceeds from the use of Latinate verbs when a Germanic verb would do at least as well. But those can sound more informal, so some scientists write as if using the Latinate verb would sound more authoritative. (It doesn’t; usually it only sounds more constipated. To prove this to yourself, take a full day without speaking Germanic verbs in English: so, say “possess” for “have,” “exhibit” for “show,” and so on.)

Another convolution is that English verbs of Germanic origin often require a preposition to connect to their objects. For example, “lead to” is Germanic, whereas “adduce” is Latinate. A further complication is that the prepositions that connect Germanic verbs in English to their subjects are not always the same propositions that Romance languages use for similar verbs. For instance, the English phrase “to think about (or of) him” in French is “penser à lui,” where the proposition “à” usually means “to” rather than “about”. If you said “penser de lui,” it would mean what you think of someone, that is, your opinion of him. The confusions are endless.

 

Why should English be so dominant in scientific publication if it is so confusing? In the 20th Century, as the US grew as a world power, politically and economically, it devoted a great deal of its Federal budget to support of scientific advances, a movement reflected in private industry. As a result, scientific advances in the US and other Anglophonic nations burgeoned, even as they also became a great priority in other nations all over the world, from Germany to Japan. But there was an imbalance in international communication.

Residents of most nations around the world are bilingual (at least). The British Isles are geographically isolated from the rest of Europe, and their language has evolved (substantially) in semi-isolation, influenced by the new words that come through wars, invasions, emigrations, and other factors. The United States have been similarly isolated, but for different reasons. Anglophonic settlers soon gained political dominance in the 1700s, although some pockets of other (mostly European) languages persisted. Canada, to the north, was mostly English-speaking (apart from Quebec), and Mexico to the south had a dominant Spanish-speaking culture (along with many native languages, like Canada), but its influence to the north was geographically limited.

So the USA became a nation dominated by English speaking and English-based customs. Part of this isolation implied that the language facility of most Americans declined through time, as the children of immigrants from other countries lost the ability to speak the language of their parents, and US institutions increasingly trafficked exclusively in English. Unless other languages were taught in school, they were not learned by most students.

The result? A colleague of mine likes to say that “the average American speaks 0.8 languages.”

 

What a shame, then, that English is the dominant language of scientific publications.

The tragedy affects scientists all over the globe who are simply trying to make their ideas clear. And it can be difficult. When the Comptes Rendus series of the Académie des Sciences was reorganized two decades ago, I was asked to be on the board of the journal called Palevol, which comprised paleontology, macroevolution, and some archaeology. At the time, the standard of English in some submissions was not acceptable for publication. We sympathized fully with the difficulty of the language, but we were obliged to uphold linguistic standards for the Académie’s international audience.

At the time, a well-known scientific publishing house produced the journals of the Académie, and they assured us that they would exercise editorial control over submissions. They would even provide a translation service. Imagine my surprise, some months later, to receive a manuscript in thoroughly unacceptable English. We contacted the authors to advise them that they would have to engage a translation service, or have an Anglophonic colleague edit it. They replied that they had indeed engaged a service: it was our publisher’s, and they had been charged the equivalent of 400 Euros to do it.

Needless to say, we got the publisher to refund their money, and we no longer dealt with them in that capacity. At that point we decided that I would read and review every submission to Palevol for the quality of the English before it was published. If there were only some minor corrections to the English, I could make them. If it required more attention, we would return the manuscript to the authors with the proviso that as soon as they could render it acceptably, we would publish it. Over the years, I am happy to say, the quality of the language in the submissions has become nearly impeccable, for which we are most grateful to our international colleagues.

It is possible and even likely that the improvement in the quality of some English submissions is largely due to the use of AI and other automatic translation programs. This is a win-win situation. A translation generated artificially can suggest new and alternative words and expressions, that authors can consider and adopt or reject. And there is always the opportunity to consult native Anglophonic colleagues for advice on how to make ideas clear and precise. We can still lament the hegemony of the highly irregular language we call English, but at least there are mechanisms to get around it. And life is made easier for our international, non-Anglophonic colleagues to publish their research.

 

Kevin Padian
University of California

 

This article is also available in French. It was translated by Vie des sciences’ editorial team.


Credit for cover illustration: English language grunge flag by Nicolas Raymond, 2012 (source). CC-BY 3.0.


OpenEdition vous propose de citer ce billet de la manière suivante :
Kevin Padian (2 juillet 2024). Why is English the universal language in science? Vie des sciences. Consulté le 19 juillet 2024 à l’adresse https://doi.org/10.58079/11sjc


Kevin Padian

Distinguished Professor and Curator Emeritus Department of Integrative Biology and Museum of Paleontology University of California, Berkeley CA 94720

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