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Issue #103: The languages of science

02 May 2022

Issue #103: The languages of science

Written by Nobel Laureate Professor Peter Doherty.

Early on (#17) we discussed some of the nomenclature and language in my discipline of immunology which is, because of the complexity of our host response (to pathogens like SARS-CoV-2), perhaps the most challenging – some would also say the most awful - in science. Obviously, we understand the world around us via both our senses and through language. For aspiring professionals, one of the challenges is to learn the relevant terminology.            

The era of modern science kicked off in the 17th century with the application of the rule that ‘natural philosophers’ (the term ‘scientist’ didn’t come into general use till the 19th century) must look at ‘the thing itself’, make measurements and perhaps do experiments, rather than simply arrive at some conclusion by deep thought and reflection. In England, this view was first put forward by former Lord Chancellor of England and philosopher, Francis Bacon (1562-1626), who published his views in books that, like Novum Organum (1620) were written in Latin. That’s hardly surprising. When it came to reading, Latin remained the international language of the European ‘learned classes’ well into the 18th century.

Bacon’s philosophy was central to the 1642 founding of the first National Academy of Science, the Royal Society of London which, with the Latin motto Nullius in Verba (nothing by words alone) added the requirement that results must be presented and discussed in some readily available format for all to read and evaluate. That led to the founding of the world’s first scientific journal, the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society (of London). First appearing in 1665 and still published (as a review journal) today, The Phil Trans can be accessed online from volume 1: the language is archaic, but it is clearly English.       

What happened back then in England re the culture of enquiry was part of a general movement through what we now regard as Western Europe, particularly France and Italy, with Scandinavia and Germany not far behind. Physician William Harvey, for example, learned Latin at school in Folkestone, graduated in Arts from Caius College, Cambridge, then travelled to Padua where he qualified (1604) in medicine. His seminal work (1628) on the circulation of the blood, Exercitatio Anatomica de Motu Cordis et Sanguinis in Animalibus, commonly called De Motu Cordis is, of course in Latin. Why didn’t those early Fellows of the Royal Society publish their new journal in the international language of Latin?

Perhaps this reflected the bitter fight to translate the Christian Bible from the Latin, that was largely understood by a corrupt and manipulative priesthood, to the language of the common people. William Tyndale published the first printed English Bible around 1522 and, for his troubles, was executed (1536) in Belgium as a heretic. But Tyndale’s text influenced further English translations, culminating in the 1604 King James version that remained the predominant version in Australian protestant churches till the 1960s. Science has, of course, no use for a dogmatic ‘priesthood’, though the increasing specialisation of scientific language can give that impression. Part of the job for science communicators is to ensure that language does not get in the way of general understanding.  

Through to and, a bit after, the Second World War, substantial scientific papers were still being published in English, French and German. A few journals would accept papers submitted in any of these three languages. One feature that I recall for such publications is that those writing the summary section of a research paper in French or German were allocated half as many words again (150 versus 100) as allowed for an English summary. With a strong mix from Anglo Saxon, German, Latin and French, English just has a greater spectrum of words that provide a very specific description. That’s one of the reasons why English has become the language of science globally.

Even so, a lot of great science (especially chemistry) was formerly published in German with, as late as the 1950’s, research students in some Australian universities still being required to take a subject called ‘Science German’. Then, under De Gaulle there was, for a time in the 1970’s, a requirement that any conference proceedings from a scientific meeting in France had to be published in French. Not reading the instructions before speaking at a meeting in Paris, I sent in a brief chapter in English. It was no loss, but it never appeared in print.

All through the history of modern science and continuing today, Latin has remained the key language of classification for some fields. The Linnaen binomials of genus, then species: Homo sapiens, Felis cati, Banksia serrata for example, are still central to the classification of plants and animals, and for bacterial pathogens like Bacillus anthracis or Leptospira pomona, but this never caught on for the later discovered viruses. And, as every anatomy student is all too aware, the muscles still have Latin names, like extensor indicus proprius or latissimus dorsi. Until the 1950s, at least two years of Latin, then taught in only about 25% of Australian schools, was an essential prerequisite for admission to many Australian Medical and Law schools. It still helps to have some Latin, but English is the primary language of science.

Setting it Straight by Laureate Professor Peter Doherty Archive