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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 iwoloschin on Thursday October 16 2014, @02:18PM

    by iwoloschin (3863) on Thursday October 16 2014, @02:18PM (#106630)

    I took Spanish for 4 or 5 years in middle school and high school. I picked it figuring it might be the most useful. 10+ years later I remember a smattering of Spanish, enough to, I think politely, ask if someone speaks English. I remember disliking the classes, not because I disliked the language, I just simply didn't really get it. English made sense to me, Spanish was, well, a foreign thing that never felt "right" to me.

    On the flip side, I *get* physics. I used that understand to get a degree in Electrical Engineering. I taught myself a bunch of programming languages, ranging the gamut from PPC Assembly to Python, and they all tend to *make sense* to me (with the exception of Perl...that will never make sense to me). I spend my days designing circuit schematics and laying out PCBs, and while sometimes it's hard, it feels "right" to my brain.

    I think it's haphazard to say Americans don't have any inclination to understand other cultures. I've travelled a bit in Europe, primarily England, but also Germany, Austria, Switzerland, and France. Everyone was incredibly kind (well, except the French, they were kind of assholes, which was an unfortunate stereotype to uphold), and I learned a lot about the Germanic cultures which was genuinely interesting. But try as I might, I will never be able to speak more than a few canned phrases of another language, simply because my brain was not built that way. Likewise, an excellent translator is probably not doing engineering as a hobby, simply because they look at engineering and go, "Nope, that doesn't make any sense, it's magic!" Kind of the same way I look at a translator and go, "Ok, where'd this guy find a real Babel Fish?"

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  • (Score: 2) by c0lo on Thursday October 16 2014, @03:01PM

    by c0lo (156) on Thursday October 16 2014, @03:01PM (#106645) Journal

    I think it's haphazard to say Americans don't have any inclination to understand other cultures.

    woloschin... sounds like a very traditional deep-history-rooted anglo-saxon nick that you chose. You sure you are representative for a typical American from, say, Texas? (I picked Texas just because some nucular shrubs hailed from there up to DC, not because I know too much about Texas; except perhaps everybody seems to call Houston when in trouble, so there need to be dam' good engineers too nesting in Texas).