Friday, July 10, 2015

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

Michael D. Gordin, University of Chicago Press, 2015

 Book Review by Allen Barkkume

Scientific Babel: How Science Was Done Before and After Global English does everything you wanted to. Michael Gordon charts the map of scientific language from consolidation of the triumvirate – English, French, German – in the 1850’s, to the forecasted future. Everywhere in between is strung together by multilingual transactions of scientists in pursuit of universal truth and entire populations at the whim of geopolitical dynamics.

Perhaps we should begin with the lamentations of the French linguist Louis Coturat, near the end of the 19th century, as he pits the most sufficiently advanced technology against this ageless, human problem of communication:

“What is the good of telegraphing from one continent to another, or telephoning from one country to another, if the two correspondents do not have a common language in which they can converse?”

And on the plight of the scientist? “To keep themselves acquainted with the special scientific work and studies which interested them, all savants would have to be polyglots; but to become polyglots they would have to abandon every other study, and therefore they would be almost destitute of knowledge of their special subjects.” (p107).

Science must have a means of transporting itself from one scientist to another, and with this, Gordon defines the vehicular language, or the auxiliary language. In opposition, people – both ordinary people and scientists alike – best express their own thoughts in a way that is comfortable and meaningful to them, a natural language. One is for the mind, and the other for the heart (p113). 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.

Language is a very fluid thing, and to tell the history of language requires tremendous orchestration of not only dates, events, and people, but knowledge from other subjects as well. In this book, that subject is Science itself. The body of scientific knowledge is immense, to say the least, but this story centers mostly on Chemistry as the discipline of study. During the most critical period of the monolingual formation that took place within the 20th century, organic chemistry was full-steam-ahead the most popular branch of science at the time. But furthermore, “Chemistry is the science of description, taxonomy, and nomenclature as much as it is about test tubes, pipettes, and Bunsen Burners.” (21).

Chemistry was the most dominant branch of study at the time when the triumvirate of German-English-French was the most common language choice. In fact, Gordin begins his story by retelling the standardization of the Periodic Table of Elements as a nationalist competition between Germany and Russia, with a little bit of translator’s error thrown in. (Gordin later reminds us, via H. Beam Piper’s 1957 sci-fi story Omnilingual – That’s the Periodic Table; It’s the only one there is.)

Russian and Japanese became very important during the second half of the century, and so the subject moves to mathematics and nuclear physics. But by then, machine translation enters the scene and redistributes the priorities of all players. By the 21st century, the global language for scientific communication is Global English.

Not only is the study of language a meta-logic activity in that the language is just as much about speakers and subject matter as it is about the words themselves, but the language of Science?... double meta-(!). Gordin reminds us that "scientific utterances are a kind of ‘meta-language’ that are only partially expressed in any individual tongue but are equally true in all of them." (p11). And Science, as it is presented here, is seen in its true light: A thing that ought to be very clear and forthright is instead obfuscated by the floating lexicon of a multilingual system of communication.

In the search for a universal language of communication to match the universal truth of science, one should immediately ask – why not Latin? And with good reason; Latin was, until Global English, the most universal language in the Western world. Perhaps the most mnemonically useful bit used by Gordin to explain why not Latin is this: “Classical Latin has no present or past participle of the verb ‘to be’, which makes rendering medieval metaphysics rather dicey.” (p34). It seems somewhat counterintuitive, as one scientist notes, since Latin was already dead and no longer subject to change. Nonetheless, Latin was simply no longer usable as an auxiliary language because it was so far removed from living speakers' natural tongues.

The language problem in science has always existed, but it was not until the Chemical Revolution of the mid 1800’s that it became a huge obstacle in the pursuit of knowledge. The introduction of the aromatic ring-structure theory of organic chemistry brought thousands of new compounds. The subsequent fledgling industries of pharmaceuticals and artificial dyestuffs required a consistent nomenclature for these new chemicals. Furthermore, the language of chemistry is a language of formulas, and as such, translation is difficult.

For the duration of the 20th century, Science sought a balance between a language that everyone could both agree upon and understand. Considering the tumult of 20th century geopolitics, consensus in this area was not easily obtained. Language is a symbol of a people, a nation, a way of life. At a time when such things were threatened in their very existence, one can imagine the embedded contention when deciding which language would win.

As a side note, because this isn't expounded too much in the book, Gordin does point out that Chemical nomenclature, despite its multi-lingual origins, did tend towards a convergence of syntax. The lexicon may have differed, but the linguistic formula of science rose above semantics. This is one of the points that makes this book so interesting – science really is a language to itself.

Back to the core of the story. As the standardized International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC) eventually makes clear, Chemical nomenclatures are ultimately artificial. That is to say, they do not grow organically from the mouths of entire populations over generations, but instead flow from the minds of a concentrated few, and from painstakingly organized conferences. And with this, it seems less surprising that whole languages had been constructed from scratch to facilitate communication amongst all parties. Esperanto is the most well known of these constructed languages but it's not the only one, and its life is not as simple nor as ill-fated as one might expect. (There still exist today native speakers of Esperanto.)

As Gordin explains, an entirely artificial language is not as outlandish as it first seems. In fact, he reminds us that “scientific languages have to be quite consciously constructed [because] modern science focuses upon novelty: new objects in the world, new ideas, new theories.” (p81). The discovery of a never-before-known chemical element needs to be named, and anew.

Again, writing a book about the “language” of an ostensible meta-language (Science) is not without its self-reflective humor. This book is laden with correspondence between scientists, and it shouldn't be lost on the reader that so much of this correspondence is itself prefaced by the reasons for the writer’s use of the chosen language of correspondence – “I wanted to write you in Russian, however...,” or concluded with apologies for fumbling with an unfamiliar tongue (p88).

Take also the vociferous and intricate debates over the grammar and lexicon of artificially-created languages, all undertaken itself in a bevy of languages. It's enough to make your head spin, so if that's what you expected when you saw this title, you'll be satisfied.

The story marches onward, although with the advent of computerized machine translation, one would assume the problem solved. However due to the “hype cycle” of new technologies, the promises of mind-machine melding did not fully deliver. That, combined with the debilitating paranoia of the Cold War, forced the dream of computerized super-lingual omniscience to get a reality-check.

Gordin also details the effects of the sheer volume of writing. By the mid 1900’s the scientific publishing industry resorted to compiling “abstract journals” where “each month a hefty tome would arrive at an office in the US, be ripped apart, distributed, translated, edited, stitched back together, and printed, all within 6 months – and this was done for dozens of journals, every month, for decades.” (p258). In the end, Global English didn’t win because it was the best-suited to scientific inquiry and discourse; it just happened to be the natural language of the largest publishing and distribution infrastructure on the planet.

Low and behold, we find ourselves in a new century, and with a new solution to the ageless problem. The last chapter and the conclusion, “Anglophonia” and “Babel Beyond,” can stand by themselves. Granted, the corpus of research planted before this gives the authority under which it is read, but honestly, I would have paid the price of the book for these two chapters, and since I already am, I’ll continue in a rambling fashion.

Why English? Besides the emergent behavior of the scientific publishing industry, Gordin reminds us that “the perception of neutrality has been the engine enabling English omnipresence in international science” (p295). On a side note, he questions why the inconsistency in English spelling isn’t brought up more often as a problem in scientific English – and finishes the thought by suggesting “probably because the lexicon is so circumscribed for each sub-discipline.” (p296). He reminds us that even as late as 1947, there were people anticipating the continuation of the triumvirate. He throws this one at you – “There are more words in English dedicated to the various sciences than for any other function… There are also more scientific words in English that have at least partly Ancient Greek roots than there are words in Ancient Greek.” (p299). And then he sums it up:

English has attained its current position owing to a series of historical transformations that it also in turn shaped, exploiting a perception of neutrality that it gained through being distinctly non-neutral in either its British or American guise. p315

Then he really lets loose. In “Babel Beyond,” he drops an entire short sci-fi story, and then goes on to explain how SETI is an extension of this line of thought resounding in the book – it’s a decision about language (albeit alien language). And in case you were wondering – the language of interstellar discourse? Mathematics, obviously.

This book is a well-documented body of research, but the way it’s been assembled, and the underlying theme are intriguing, stimulating, and current. Science is like humans – messy. It takes a good writer to clean it up just enough to be presentable, but not enough that it’s no longer exciting. Michael Gordin has done just that.

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