Even then, however, Russian scientists seeking to communicate to a German-language scientific world faced an uphill battle. Not only were they often at the mercy of Russian-German translators when it came to their work receiving a large reception. More than that, appearing in translation before other authors appeared in the original was what counted for credit. The work of Mendeleev, Butlerov, and others secured Russian-language scholarship some credit, but the demands of coping with Scientific Babel were becoming great indeed.
Beyond such spats and more to the point, though, standardization was in the spirit of the time.
As we have seen in other Global History Forum interviews , in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, progressively minded thinkers scientists disproportionate among them were interested in how best to rationalize and standardize many aspects of an increasingly globalized world. Sometimes the impulse was for time standardization; other times, for standardized pronunciation within languages—this was, Gordin notes, the age of Received Pronunciation institutionalization in Great Britain. The world had to be simplified before it got too complicated.
From Scientific Babel to a monoglot world: the rise and fall of scientific languages in the modern period. Out of this conjuncture came attempts at constructed languages—ways to break through the Babel of German, French, English, and Russian that plagued European scientific communication. Take the word jimatel, for example. Even within the Esperanto movement, however, there were concerns over canonicity versus adaptation.
Esperanto, itself the invention of Polish physician and inventor L. Zamenhof , had a number of novel characters and accent signs, arguably making it needlessly complicated.
And when the First World War erupted, many of the impulses that had originally motivated noble attempts to bridge linguistic divides suddenly seemed parochial, if not sinister. Esperanto as movement: Esperantists poured considerable effort into writing poetry and literature in the language, raised first-language speakers among their children, and even designed a non-national flag seen attached to the zeppelin here for the language. Fatefully, however, linguistic nationalism during the First World War also cut the knees out from under scientific German.
Even in the supposedly monolingual United States, the instruction of German was, Gordin demonstrates, surprisingly well-institutionalized across multiple levels of the educational system in pre-World War I America. Not only was there a substantial population of bilingual German-speaking Americans who hailed from the mother country; more than that, career-minded scientists typically spent several post-doctoral years at German universities to ripen up—the opposite of the general pattern today, as Auslandserfahrung experience abroad is coveted even for those seeking to make a career primarily within German universities.
Peripheries of the Scientific Babel
But things changed in the s and s. As post-docs became professors, and professors became university presidents, the funding and sophistication of scientific work in North America improved. Perhaps more importantly, linguistic nationalism and a post-World War I boycott of German scholars and German-language contributions from many international venues until the late s. Granted, German was far from dead.
Support from Sweden home to many scientists who had trained in Germany and, of all places, the Soviet Union also a scientific pariah during the interwar years helped curb a dramatic decline in German publications which still increased during these years , but serious damage had been done. Yet whereas scientific German might have been productively integrated into the international landscape following the end to boycotts, the Nazi dictatorship intervened.
True, Western associations did not boycott German-language publications as after the First World War—many scientists recognized the need to communicate more actively with their German colleagues so as not to leave them isolated. Yet at precisely the same time that American educational and scientific infrastructure was expanding massively, links between the German scientific community and its neighbors were minimal.
Twelve years of isolation had taken their toll. More than that, Germans were themselves a nation divided. Carved into two states, one capitalist and one socialist, Germans would continue to publish actively in their native language, but even after reunification, it would remain clearly secondary to English, even when it came to collaborations between, say, Germans and Czechs or Germans and Russians.
It is to the Russians—or, more precisely, the Soviets—that Gordin returns in the closing chapters of Scientific Babel. If the Russian Empire had been peripheral to international science in the days of Mendeleev, the picture had changed by the s. In the field of chemistry alone, Russian went from constituting 2. By the s, the Soviet Union produced as much literature in chemistry as did the United States, and the figures were not much different for other fields.
Further, the Russian-language material was of high quality. The Soviet Union sponsored top-quality foreign-language scientific journals in German, French, and English, but they had been gradually phased out—the German edition in the late s, the French- and English-language offerings in Even as the multinational Soviet Union sponsored education and national identity in hundreds of Eurasian languages, substantial scientific research by scientists from Vladivostok to Riga, from Tashkent to Baku, took place in Russian.
Scientific Russian was everywhere, and very, very few foreign scientists were competent to read it. After all, in the early twentieth century, faced with heaps of German-language publication, Americans simply … learned German. But much of the necessary infrastructure for language learning in place before World War I had been dismantled.
How to respond? There was no point in training for Dostoevsky, the line of thinking went—Russian syntax was similar enough to English that three hours a week of instruction, over the course of a year, could allow graduate students to read Soviet scientific articles. More successful were two other enterprises, machine translation MT and cover-to-cover translation. In that sense, these programs are merely built upon mountains of cover-to-cover translation, of which more in a moment. Machine translation, in contrast, aimed to crack the actual syntax of language and the way that syntax affects the way individual words are individually parsed.
From , MT at Georgetown boomed, flush with CIA and NSF funding that reached sums typically unheard of outside of nuclear physics laboratories or public health clinics. But machine translation was not the only field to boom thanks to Cold War funding. Amazingly, this cold-blooded business plan worked even before the federal government began funding such projects.
By the mids, Consultants Bureau was translating 34, pages of Russian-English translation a year, without government subsidies. Academic institutions like the American Institute of Physics soon began running cover-to-cover operations themselves, supported by funding from the NSF. The National Science Foundation continued supporting new translation efforts for Soviet journals, and by the early s cover-to-cover was probably the largest translation operation in the history of the world, much less the history of science.
While critical evaluations of MT programs in the mids dealt serious damage to that enterprise, cover-to-cover flourished. Not only was it useful to an American readership, but American cover-to-cover efforts also made it easier for audiences in, say, Nigeria or Pakistan to access Soviet science without reading Russian. Though there was a time when Latin dominated the field, for centuries science has been a polyglot enterprise, conducted in a number of languages whose importance waxed and waned over time—until the rise of English in the twentieth century.
So how did we get from there to here? And what can we reconstruct of the experience of doing science in the polyglot past? With Scientific Babel , Michael D. Gordin resurrects that lost world, in part through an ingenious mechanism: the pages of his highly readable narrative account teem with footnotes—not offering background information, but presenting quoted material in its original language.
One is for the mind, and the other for the heart p These are the forces that push language-choice throughout history. From Latin roots to warring 20th century fragments, the chosen language of science has shifted dramatically over this time. In the final chapter and conclusion, Gordin explains this trend toward Global English and questions its implications. Science is like humans — messy.
Michael Gordin has done just that. Dec 29, Thomas rated it really liked it. Insgesamt ist das Buch leicht lesbar, bisweilen spannend, und durchweg interessant. I'm not a scientist myself, but I work with scientific literature, both in Polish and English. Therefore, "Scientific Babel" was very interesting for me also from a professional point of view.
It was insightful and well-written, and I learned a good deal from it - I've heard of Esperanto, of course, but I didn't know the story behind its creation and all the debates about auxiliary languages in the scientific community.
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Jul 06, Kavi Gupta rated it it was amazing. Great overview of the history of scientific languages, including an interesting section on the relationship between science and constructed languages, which I had only previously known about via Conlag Critic on Youtube.
Book took 5h3m. Jan 01, Diego rated it liked it. The year I lived in Europe, it was a common scene to gather 'round a table with friends from all over the world. There were swiss-german speakers, french speakers, bereber, russian, etc.
Whenever this happened, which was pretty much every day for that year, I got to wonder "why English? This book by Michael Gordin tries to ans The year I lived in Europe, it was a common scene to gather 'round a table with friends from all over the world. This book by Michael Gordin tries to answer the question, and although it's centered around "scientific languages", there's not a real focus on science. The book focuses on historical characters, but also throws a final chapter which questions whether one scientific language is good for science and for English.
Dec 04, Avery rated it really liked it. Whorfianism is discussed as a scientific concern, but not actually analyzed. Also, the focus is on chemistry, and readers should not expect the narrative to paint an at all accurate picture of cross-linguistic relations outside the Gesetzeswissenschaften. However, this is still a fascinating overview of some important topics, including the worldwide and total boycott of German scientists after WW1, and the bizarre Soviet developments that led Stalin to denounce strong Whorfism way back in Despite the highly scientific tone in most of the book, the author consistently characterizes Russian as a language "impossible" to learn and expresses disbelief that Russians are able to learn it.
There are so many things in this book that I didn't know. Latin as a scientific language wasn't popular because of its use by the Catholic Church. Arabic was once poised to become the European scientific language of choice. Esperanto missed its opportunity because its supporters started arguing, with some defecting to Ido. German scientists were banned from inter There are so many things in this book that I didn't know.
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German scientists were banned from international scientific life after the Great War, which caused a crash in the use of German. I could go on for a while. A great read. A fascinating study of the quest for an international scientific language. I was especially impressed with the attention given to Esperanto and Ido even if the author was a bit too dismissive of Esperanto.
Its raises a lot of interesting points, especially about the tendency for native English speakers to assume that everyone speaks English and the barriers non-native English speakers face. Overall, a very interesting read that I couldn't put down. Jun 16, Eva Nebbia rated it it was amazing. A fascinating historical account of the languages in which modern science has been done. Particularly fun chapters on constructed languages and computer translation with scores of footnotes of quoted material in the original language.
Gordin brings the history of science to life in this very human tale of "the tension between identity and communication.
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May 20, Kevin Orrman-Rossiter rated it really liked it. A captivating read, a fascinating subject, and exquisitely written. Rose rated it really liked it Sep 28, Jack Oliver rated it really liked it Aug 28, Fran Harris rated it really liked it Jul 01, Elizabeth Baker rated it it was amazing Dec 17,