Scientific Babel: How Science Was Done Before and After Global English
by Michael D. Gordin
University of Chicago Press, 2015 ($30)
More than 90 percent of scientific publications today are in English, but that was not always the case. Latin was once a near-universal language for scholarship in Western science; then Latin gave way to a “Scientific Babel,” as historian Gordin calls it, where research came to light in a profusion of languages.
From 1880 to 1910 roughly equal numbers of publications appeared in German, French and English, and German overtook English by 1910. Scientists might still be communicating in German had it not been for the fallout from World War I, Gordin argues. His book investigates how English came to be the lingua franca for modern science and what it means that a single language dominates. “Today's situation raises obvious issues of fairness,” Gordin writes, because non-English speakers have the extra burden of needing to learn a foreign language and translate their work to participate in science.