Why is English the main language of science?

Antique book with handwritten text

English hasn’t always been the main language of science. Egyptian philosophers and stargazers told stories in hieroglyphs. Aristotle and Plato wrote books in Greek, which were then translated into Arabic by their followers. Then came the Romans – Pliny the Elder and Galen – writing in Latin.

As the centuries passed, language evolved: people were speaking and writing in Latin less often generally, favoring their native languages, like Italian and French. In the 16th and 17th centuries, Galileo published prolifically in Italian, translating his work into Latin to take it to a wider audience.

According to Dr. Michael Gordin, Professor of Modern and Contemporary History at Princeton University, it was never a given that English would dominate science. He said in a radio interview:

“If you look around the world in 1900, and someone told you, ‘Guess what the universal language of science will be in the year 2000?’ You would first of all laugh at them because it was obvious that no one language would be the language of science, but a mixture of French, German and English would be the right answer.”

In his 2015 book Scientific Babel, in which Dr. Gordin explores the history of language and science, he says German was the dominant language in 1900.

“So the story of the 20th century is not so much the rise of English as the serial collapse of German as the up-and-coming language of scientific communication,” he explained.

So it wasn’t until the 20th century – and World War I in particular – that English really started to dominate; the strong US influence on science had a big part to play in this rise, according to Dr. Gordin.

The benefit of a universal language

Before English became dominant, scientific publications were roughly equally split between French, German and English. This posed something of a problem: if scientists weren’t multilingual, they would miss out on others’ discoveries.

With a universal language, researchers know what to expect, and how to find information. They know what language to publish in and how to search for other people’s articles that support their own work. Beyond published research, a universal language also helps make sure everyone has access to information in presentations, guidelines and standards.

But it also gives millions of researchers a challenge: if they’re not native English speakers, they need to learn a new language alongside their scientific studies. English speaking countries no longer dominate science: Brazil, Russia, India and China are fastest growing in terms of the number of research publications they produce, according to Elsevier’s book World of Research.

For thousands of researchers in these countries, writing in English is difficult. With tough acceptance criteria, journal editors and reviewers look at submissions critically, so the language needs to be good. This is a stumbling block for some, but with professional translation and editing support, researchers from anywhere in the world can have an equal chance of getting published in English.

Will the language of science be the same in 100 years? We don’t know that yet. China is outpacing the world in its published research output and, just like the rise in US science did a century ago, this could have a big impact on how we communicate about science.