Scientific Babel: How Science Was Done Before and After Global English

Scientific Babel: How Science Was Done Before and After Global English

by Michael D. Gordin

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ISBN-13: 9780226000329
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 04/13/2015
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 424
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

Michael D. Gordin is the Rosengarten Professor of Modern and Contemporary History at Princeton University and the author of The Pseudoscience Wars, also published by the University of Chicago Press.

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Scientific Babel

How Science Was Done Before and After Global English

By Michael D. Gordin

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2015 Michael D. Gordin
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-00032-9


The Perfect Past That Almost Was

Nec me animi fallit Graiorum obscura reperta difficile inlustrare Latinis versibus esse, multa novis verbis praesertim cum sit agendum propter egestatem linguae et rerum novitatem [...].


All languages are, in an important sense, imagined. This might sound absurd: you use language every day; I am using it right now to put these words in sequence in order to convey meaning. What's imaginary about that? But I did not say "imaginary." I said "imagined." The things that we refer to as languages—Swahili, Mongolian, Thai, English—are not objects sitting out there in the world, like a peculiar rock or a specific yellow clapboard house. All around us, words flow (spoken, written, gestured), and we use those words to communicate with other people. Sometimes, communication fails. If you don't know Telugu and your neighbor addresses you in it, then mutual intelligibility is zero. If you know Russian and your neighbor knows Ukrainian, then mutual intelligibility can be quite sizable. You are communicating even though you are not speaking the same language. If you both use English, then mutual intelligibility is almost total. Almost, but not quite—and that is the essence of what I mean by "imagined." We each speak our own idiolect, our own storehouses of words put together by our own grammars. When our own specific set of language rules meshes with someone else's, we call that speaking the same language. It is an imagined convergence.

Imagined in precisely the same sense that Holland or Canada is imagined. There are borders to nations, which are sometimes natural barriers (a chain of mountains, a deep river) and sometimes merely conventions, lines drawn by explicit agreement or simply by habit. But on the edge between Canada and Minnesota, it is not obvious which side you are on unless someone with the imprimatur of officialdom tells you: Manitoba. Likewise, on the conceptual border between Dutch and German sits a range of language mixtures, blends that are purged through formal education. What we do—routinely, habitually, necessarily—is draw artificial lines around tongues and designate them as separate. That person is speaking English; this one speaks Welsh. The woman there is speaking English too, she's just from Glasgow. (We imagine that as English.) Languages are no less real for being imagined, and it matters how they are imagined, and by whom. The entity that Chaucer would have called "English" is not the same as Shakespeare's, or Hemingway's, or yours.

"Scientific languages" are either specific forms of a given language that are used in conducting science, or they are the set of distinct languages in which science is done. In either event, we are talking about imagined constructs, and the goal of this book is to trace out the historical variability and specificity of both meanings over time: how they relate to each other, how they diverge, how the set of languages that can participate grows or shrinks. Since this is a history of Western science, we must begin with the most persistent archetype of a scientific language: Latin. Almost every time a person makes an assertion about scientific languages, their imagined yardstick is the native language of a Mediterranean city-state that flourished over two thousand years ago.

Latin has been imagined in two primary ways in the history of Western science from the early modern period (roughly, fifteenth through eighteenth centuries) to the present. Those living in a world surrounded by various learned languages—French, Dutch, German, Italian, and so on—tended to imagine Latin either as a Paradise lost, a moment of universal comity before the descent of Babel, or as an artificial straightjacket that Europe is better off without. Readers of this book, however, do not live in such a multilingual universe; for you, science is performed almost universally in English. The contemporary status of English changes the way we view Latin. If you think that one language for science improves efficiency and understanding, the rejection of Latin appears as a monument to human folly; if you lament the loss of individuality and heterogeneity, then we are back to Paradise lost, but this time our Eden is polyglot. English has sometimes been called a lingua franca—a problematic category named after a complex trading pidgin of the Renaissance Mediterranean—but that is not quite right. English is not a pidgin, it is not low status, and it is not (in its scientific form) variable. English is not today's lingua franca; it is our Latin.

This chapter has a double task. On the one hand, we will follow Latin from ancient Rome (Republic and Empire), exploring its detailed history with the assistance of a learned army that has mapped the ins and outs of this storied tongue. (Among the panoply of scientific languages, none has been more thoroughly and well researched than Latin, and I gratefully acknowledge my debt to these scholars.) We will see that while Latin did function for a period as a universal language of scholarship and natural philosophy—the predecessor to what Anglophones have come to call, since the early nineteenth century, science—it served in this role for a relatively short span of its long history. The dominance of Latin started almost a thousand years after the fall of Rome, and fell into decline (but not extinction) three centuries later. "Scientific Latin" both started later and lived longer than you might expect. Our second story runs alongside this in counterpoint: how people have imagined, lauded, and berated Latin throughout this long history, and especially how they understood the eclipse of universality in scientific communication. This chapter is about the birth of Scientific Babel: not just the origin of the profusion of tongues for research, but the emergence of the idea that multilingual scientific communication was a Babel, a curse afflicted upon the scholarly community. We begin to imagine scientific languages by imagining Latin.

The Roman Language of Science

In our modern Anglophone world, one cannot assume readers know Latin, even a smidgen redolent of the dust of forgotten schoolbooks and diligent turns copying declensions on the blackboard. So our story must begin with a somewhat abstract tour of Latin's linguistic features, enough to understand both the charms its enthusiasts saw in it as well as the torment and frustration that afflicted two millennia of schoolchildren. Chances are, you come across a healthy dose of Latin in your casual readings and meanderings, and you know enough—even if you don't "know Latin"—to identify ipso facto, cogito ergo sum, ecce homo, and carpe diem as Latin, and perhaps even what these phrases mean. It is a language you can imagine without study, for the Western tradition is saturated with it.

Latin is an Indo-European language, sharing a common ancestor with every other major language of science in the modern period with the exception of Japanese. It is a case language, which means that nouns and adjectives indicate their grammatical function in their form (by inflections, exhibited in the case of Latin through suffixes), enabling a much freer word order than we are accustomed to in English (although there are general regularities, such as a preference for the verb at the end of a sentence or clause). Sometimes, a noun is the subject of the sentence, the doer of action: The animal eats the apple. This is the nominative case. Sometimes, it is the direct object of action: The boy eats the animal—the accusative. Other relations are possible, marked off in different Latin cases: genitive (the animal's apple), dative (the boy gives the apple to the animal), and ablative (a hodge-podge of possibilities: the boy walks with the animal; the boy steps away from the animal; the boy rides the animal to the store). Occasionally you even see a vocative (Animal, get over here!). That all seems relatively straightforward, requiring only that you memorize the pattern for five different cases which govern the inflections. Except that there are five separate patterns (called declensions) across which the Latin vocabulary is strewn, with different inflections for the three genders (masculine, feminine, neuter), and for the plurals of each of these. Adjectives agree with nouns in number, gender, and case, but have their own declensions. And then there is the verbal system: four (or five, depending how you count) different categories of regular verbs, each with six basic tenses, completely different endings for the passive voice—English does the passive and many tenses with helping verbs—participles, gerunds, a rich subjunctive mood, and more. There are radically different grammatical forms for reporting the speech of others, depending on whether what you are reporting is a command, a question, or (worst of all) statements. It's fiendishly complicated and entrancingly beautiful, all at once.

It was also spoken, as a matter of course, by senators, slaves, four-year-old children, and village idiots for hundreds of years as the language of one city, and then across the sprawling Roman Empire—encompassing what is today France, parts of Britain (for a while), Spain and Portugal, North Africa, Egypt, much of the Middle East, Turkey, and the Balkans. What strikes the student as an immensely complicated structure was ordinary, everyday language, no more difficult to grasp than the native Anglophone's easy choice of a, the, or nothing to preface nouns. (This is not a trivial matter, as you will easily find if you try to enumerate rules for definite and indefinite articles. Those who do not speak languages with articles, such as Russian, will thank you. Latin is also article-free.) Appreciating Latin's past ordinariness is essential for grasping its position as a language of science in ancient Rome.

Latin started as a local language of the region around the city of Rome on the Italian peninsula, one member of the Italic language family that cohered into a sophisticated and flexible tongue as various dialects from surrounding Latium congregated in the new metropolis. By the end of the first century AD, Latin had eradicated every other native language in Italy, except for Greek, spoken by the descendants of colonists from the Greek city states who populated towns in the south and on the nearby island of Sicily. As the Roman Republic conquered new territories and they were incorporated into an eventual Empire, the language spread. Native Celtic languages were extinguished in Iberia and Gaul, and eventually even the Punic and Berber languages of North Africa were displaced by Latin. "Latin," of course, is imagined. As a lived language, ancient Latin exhibited extensive regional diversity, as you would expect over such a broad geographic area. African Latin was the most distinctive, but all forms had shades of vocabulary and even syntax, variability traceable today in the descendants of Latin's fragmentation, the Romance languages (Catalan, French, Italian, Portuguese, Provençal, Romanian, Sardinian, Spanish, and others). Most of the languages treated in this book cleave doggedly to a written standard, and that is because this is a history of scholars, who like such things. The standard most commonly hoisted for Latin is that of Marcus Tullius Cicero, about whom more in a moment.

First, however, something about the spread of Latin bears a second look: Latin eradicated all the languages of Italy except Greek. Greek was special. Throughout the Eastern Mediterranean, Latin shared space with the language of the Greeks, which functioned as a vehicular language for centuries for everything but official Roman administration. And not just in the East, but in Rome itself. From the height of the Republic until the collapse of the Empire, the Roman elite were bilingual, an indication of the immense admiration the upper classes possessed for the art and learning of the ancient Greek city-states and for the Macedonian conqueror Alexander the Great, who in the fourth century BC spread Greek to Egypt in the South and the borders of Persia in the East. The Emperor Claudius spoke Greek in the Senate to Greek-speaking ambassadors, foreshadowing the philhellenism of EmperorsHadrian, Antoninus Pius, and Marcus Aurelius, and the children of the elite learned Greek from slaves, private tutors, and grand tours to Hellas. Greek was the only foreign language so esteemed.

Greek's privileged status in the East of the Roman Empire represented a particular stage in the history of the longest continuously attested language in the European sphere. It was never seriously threatened as a vehicular language, although we should keep in mind that most of the population of these regions spoke neither Greek nor Latin as a first language (Aramaic, Coptic, and Armenian come to mind, among many other languages, now lost). A particular variant of Greek, called Koine, was essential for administration and learning. Ancient Greek had been a cluster of different dialects, such as the Ionian of Homer or the Attic of Sophocles's Athens, but by the time of Plato and Aristotle Attic had emerged as dominant, and it later evolved into the transregional Koine. This was the language of the Eastern Roman Empire, formalized in 212 AD, and it evolved into the medieval Greek of Byzantium. Although Latin was far from absent in the East, it is no exaggeration to say that the impact of Greek on Latin was substantially greater than the reverse, and became more so after a worsening of relations in the second century symbolized by the Roman sack of Corinth in 146.10 Koine would become the language of early Christianity, but before then it had long served as the language of intellectual intercourse in the late Roman Republic and early Empire.

That meant it was the language of science, too. Greek was the language of philosophical speculation (Aristotle), mathematics (Euclid and Archimedes), astronomy (Ptolemy), and medicine (the ubiquitous Galen, as well as the collection of authors conventionally blended together as "Hippocrates"). That these scholars wrote in Greek is undeniable. It is equally irrefutable that many of these Hellenophone scholars were, in most meaningful senses of the term, Roman. Consider that the first names of both Ptolemy and Galen, second-century authors, was "Claudius," the most Roman of monikers. While Latin speakers would constantly lament the superiority of Greek for natural science—as Lucretius does in the epigraph to this chapter—and composed most of their natural philosophy in Greek, it is simply incorrect to declare, as some have, that "[i]t is a universally recognized fact that imperial Rome was utterly uninterested in pure scientific speculation." Lucretius shows us the origins of the error: Latin was often a language used to popularize Greek work, to take cutting-edge natural philosophy and expose it to a broader, less elite (and therefore not bilingual) Roman audience. Declaring Latin not a language of science excludes popularization from the realm of scientific activity, and (what is worse) denies that "engineering"—at which the Romans excelled—is not an important aspect of natural knowledge.

It also ignores the obstacles to becoming a scientific language. By the time Romans began to speculate about the nature of matter or the motions of the cosmos, writers had been expounding on such topics for centuries in Greek. Scientific languages are not born, they are made, and made with a good deal of effort. We will later see how hard it was to make German or Russian capable of "holding" science, and it is therefore noteworthy that even the iconic scientific language, Latin, faced this same hurdle in the face of Greek. Cicero, paragon of Latin eloquence and masterful reader of Greek learning, saw the conundrum clearly. "I thought to illustrate this [philosophical question about immortality] by writing in Latin, not because philosophy cannot be grasped by the Greek language and through Greek instructors," he noted, "but my judgment has always been that our people have found all things more wisely than the Greeks, or have improved upon those things which they accepted from the Greeks, when they thought it worth the effort."


Excerpted from Scientific Babel by Michael D. Gordin. Copyright © 2015 Michael D. Gordin. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Introduction: Talking Science

Chapter 1: The Perfect Past That Almost Was
Chapter 2: The Table and the Word
Chapter 3: Hydrogen Oxygenovich
Chapter 4: Speaking Utopian
Chapter 5: The Wizards of Ido
Chapter 6: The Linguistic Shadow of the Great War
Chapter 7: Unspeakable
Chapter 8: The Dostoevsky Machine
Chapter 9: All the Russian That’s Fit to Print
Chapter 10: The Fe Curtain
Chapter 11: Anglophonia

Conclusion: Babel Beyond

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