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posted by martyb on Thursday October 16 2014, @04:23AM   Printer-friendly
from the science-of-language dept.

German was the dominant scientific language in 1900. Today if a scientist is going to coin a new term, it's most likely in English. And if they are going to publish a new discovery, it is most definitely in English. Look no further than the Nobel Prize awarded for physiology and medicine to Norwegian couple May-Britt and Edvard Moser. Their research was written and published in English. How did English come to dominate German in the realm of science? BBC reports that the major shock to the system was World War One, which had two major impacts. According to Princeton University's Rosengarten professor of modern and contemporary history Michael Gordin, it started after World War One when Belgian, French, and British scientists organized a boycott of scientists from Germany and Austria. They were blocked from conferences and weren't able to publish in Western European journals. "Increasingly, you have two scientific communities, one German, which functions in the defeated [Central Powers] of Germany and Austria, and another that functions in Western Europe, which is mostly English and French," says Gordin.

The second effect of World War One took place in the US. Starting in 1917 when the US entered the war, there was a wave of anti-German hysteria that swept the country. In Ohio, Wisconsin and Minnesota there were many, many German speakers. World War One changed all that. "German is criminalized in 23 states. You're not allowed to speak it in public, you're not allowed to use it in the radio, you're not allowed to teach it to a child under the age of 10," says Gordin. The Supreme Court overturned those anti-German laws in 1923, but for years they were the law of the land. What that effectively did, according to Gordin, was decimate foreign language learning in the US resulting in a generation of future scientists who come of age with limited exposure to foreign languages. That was also the moment, according to Gordin, when the American scientific establishment started to take over dominance in the world. "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," concludes Gordin.

 
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  • (Score: 2) by keplr on Thursday October 16 2014, @08:24AM

    by keplr (2104) on Thursday October 16 2014, @08:24AM (#106564) Journal

    The more languages you know, the better. It's been proven to be beneficial in numerous ways. However, you can't deny that society would work better if everyone has at least one common language between them. In the United States, that language is English by shear momentum. If you speak only Spanish, or only Chinese, or only some other language, you are going to be handicapped socially in this country. You likely won't be able to talk to your doctor directly. The legal system is almost entirely in English. Commerce is mostly English. If you speak English AND Spanish, you are a great asset to your community because you can help people who don't know English. If you speak only English you are not helpful in this way, but you're also not suffering those limitations.

    It doesn't matter what the common language happens to be. I'm not a linguistic chauvinist, although I do happen to like Germanic languages aesthetically. It's analogous to programming languages. Some are rather cumbersome for certain tasks, but in principle you could accomplish any job with any programming language if you are fluent in it and willing to put the time in (more time for some languages than others for a given task). Through accidents of history, the common language happens to be English in the United States. That might not always be true, and it could even change to Spanish in my life time. I'm fine with that. I would then fully admit that it is MY deficiency in not knowing the common language.

    The statistics you cite aren't so much xenophobia as a systemic defunding of education by the political right. We just don't value it as much here as other countries. And when budgets are tightened the first things to go are "frivolous" subjects like music, arts, and languages.

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  • (Score: 2) by c0lo on Thursday October 16 2014, @02:44PM

    by c0lo (156) on Thursday October 16 2014, @02:44PM (#106639) Journal

    The statistics you cite aren't so much xenophobia

    I didn't say it was.

    as a systemic defunding of education by the political right.

    I don't know about the handedness of the politics that does defund education: looks pretty much like both of the political wings are doing it; perhaps because it seems to serve them well; on the line of: don't forget, citizen, your "country" wants you stupid (cheaper to manipulate you this way).

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    • (Score: 0) by Anonymous Coward on Thursday October 16 2014, @05:09PM

      by Anonymous Coward on Thursday October 16 2014, @05:09PM (#106703)

      keplr here, can't log in.

      Practically anything that happens politically in the USA is done by a right wing party because both the Democrats and Republicans are right wing. Democrats are centre-right with some secular leanings, Republicans are far-right with evangelical-Christian social conservatism. Actual leftist parties like the Green Party, Social Democrats, Socialists, what Europe calls "Labour"; these parties have no power in the USA, or don't even exist. Everything in the USA is skewed to the right of the center line.