How English beat German as the language of science

Friday, May 24th, 2019

Reading Blitzed reminded me of a throwaway comment that my high school chemistry teacher made, about how a chemistry degree used to require German-language proficiency. So, how did English beat German as the language of science?

“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. 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,” says Princeton University’s Rosengarten professor of modern and contemporary history Michael Gordin.

Gordin’s upcoming book, Scientific Babel, explores the history of language and science. He says that English was far from the dominant scientific language in 1900. The dominant language was German.

“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,” Gordin says.

You may think of Latin as the dominant language of science. And for many, many years it was the universal means of communication in Western Europe — from the late medieval period to the mid-17th Century. Then it began to fracture. Latin became one of many languages in which science was done.

The first person to publish extensively in his native language, according to Gordin, was Galileo. Galileo wrote in Italian and was then translated to Latin so that more scientists might read his work.

Fast forward to the 20th Century. How did English come to dominate German in the realm of science?

“The first major shock to the system of basically having a third of science published in English, a third in French and a third in German – although it fluctuated based on field, and Latin still held out in some places – was World War One, which had two major impacts,” Gordin says.

After World War One, Belgian, French and British scientists organised 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,” Gordin explains.

It’s that moment in history, he adds, when international organisations to govern science, such as the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry, were established. And those newly established organisations begin to function in English and French. German, which was the dominant language of chemistry, was written out.

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.

“At this moment something that’s often hard to keep in mind is that large portions of the US still speak German,” Gordin says.

In Ohio, Wisconsin and Minnesota there were many, many German speakers. World War One changed all that.

“German is criminalised 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,” Gordin explains.

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.

“In 1915 Americans were teaching foreign languages and learning foreign languages about the same level as Europeans were,” Gordin says. “After these laws go into effect, foreign language education drops massively. Isolationism kicks in in the 1920s, even after the laws are overturned, and that means people don’t think they need to pay attention to what happens in French or in German.”


“And you have a set of people who don’t speak foreign languages,” said Gordin, “They’re comfortable in English, they read English, they can get by in English because the most exciting stuff in their mind is happening in English. So you end up with a very American-centric, and therefore very English-centric, community of science after World War Two.”

I’m reminded of Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s point that the most intolerant wins.

Oxygen has an interesting history:

The term was born in the 1770s, as French chemists are developing a new theory of burning. In their scientific experiments, they needed a new term for a new notion of an element they were constructing.

“They pick the term ‘oxygen’ from Greek for ‘acid’ and ‘maker’ because they have a theory that oxygen is the substance that makes up acids. They’re wrong about that, but the word acid-maker is what they create, and they create it from Greek. That tells you that French scientists and European scientists of that period would have a good classical education,” Gordin says.

The English adopted the word “oxygen” wholesale from the French. But the Germans didn’t. Instead they made up their own version of the word by translating each part of the word into “Sauerstoff”, or acid substance.

“So you can see how at a certain moments, certain words get formed, and the tendency was for Germans, in particular, to take French and English terms and translate them. Now that’s not true. Now terms like online, transistor, microchip, that stuff is just brought over in English as a whole. So you see different fashions about how people feel about the productive capacity of their own language versus borrowing a term wholesale from another,” Gordin says.

And that reminds me of uncleftish beholding.


  1. I have a work colleague a bit older than myself who still studied German in order to complete his chemistry degree, but he was just about on the tail end of when that was really required.

  2. Graham says:

    Interesting. Sourstuff also immediately reminded me of Uncleftish Beholding. That essay is painful to read but one can just see how it would have worked, and it probably would have worked fine for those to whom the words were not alien. Like doing arithmetic in Roman numerals without mentally turning them into Hindu-Arabic ones, because the latter never turned up.

    I am reminded that John Derbyshire once wrote that, to take an undergraduate degree in maths at University College London circa the 60s, one had to study either French, German or Russian.

    Tangent: Supposedly Bismarck was asked what would be the salient geopolitical fact of the 20th century and he replied the fact that the North Americans speak English.

    Tangent 2: I too easily forget how the publics [stirred up by their leaders] so wildly overreacted to Germany in the first war. Arguably more so than in the second, when it really should have been the other way around. Liberty Cabbage, for sauerkraut, was emblematic of a kind of patriotic reaction not seen again until freedom fries. At least the Germans were the enemy, but it was still juvenile.

    Tangent 3: That contained a fascinating thesis about Americans’ having been keeping up with Europe in foreign language learning before WW1, which surprises me on one level if only because it would still have been less immediately useful in American life, but perhaps it was mainly at the elite level, where American upper class education still emphasized it, and presumably mostly French. If this thesis includes the teaching of other languages to children by immigrant communities, then perhaps America was even ahead of Europe, whose working classes weren’t that mobile then. America just included representatives of all those nations.

    I am struck by the idea that the brief ban on teaching German, which I had not heard of and is far more ludicrous than fads like liberty cabbage, would have had follow-on effects on the teaching of other languages, such that Americans would so largely abandon the whole thing instead of just banning German. That’s a pretty strong argument to make.

  3. Bill says:

    I just wanted to point out that the quoted comment about the book “Scientific Babel” was made in 2014, and that the book is now available on Kindle.

    It looks like a terrific book.

  4. Roy in Nipomo says:

    When I was a chemistry major in the early ’70s, German (at least the reading of it) was almost mandatory due to the Beilstein Handbook (500+ volumes) on organic chemistry. It was suggested that it was so voluminous (and ongoing) that it would never be translated. It tried to be comprehensive in how to produce any known organic chemical.

  5. Graham says:

    Here I am on a bus midway through HP Lovecraft’s The Dunwich Horror on my phone, at the point Wilbur Whately is comparing his worm eaten copy of the John Dee English translation of The Necronomicon with the Latin copy held At Miskatonic U.

    It occurs, with a goal like thw writers have set out, that the Beilstein Handbook would make a good throwaway reference in fiction.

    I was unaware of it before. What a resource of chemical knowledge that must be. Is it still a standard resource in chemistry?

  6. Roy in Nipomo says:

    Graham, my career went into another direction, but I believe it is still valid.

  7. Graham says:

    Interesting. That’s the Germans for you. in scholarship as everything, do it big, thorough and precise.

  8. Graham says:

    Apparently it has been digitized.

    The commercial information systems industry continues to impress by its scale and coverage.

  9. Bob Sykes says:

    Evidently, Gordin never heard of the Solvay Conferences nor or Einstein, Shroedinger, Heisenberg, Born, …

    He might want to look at the classic photograph from the 1927 Solvay Conference held at Brussels:

  10. Kirk says:

    It’s interesting to note, too, that precisely none of the Wilson-sourced crap over German and Germany is mentioned in this–They treat it as though it was something that “just happened”, and that all the secret police and propaganda BS that the Wilson Administration brought into being never existed.

    Which is how you tell that this is either historical revisionism, or outright willful ignorance. You can’t discuss the abolition of German in America without discussing the crap that the Wilson Democrats got up to–It was, to my mind, a revenge committed by Wilson and his ilk for what the German-American community had done during the Civil War, which was to be staunchly anti-slavery and Union-supportive. The record for what happened to the German settlements in Texas ain’t at all pretty, when you look at it.

    I think it’s an interesting juxtaposition, to look at what the Wilsonian Democrats did to the German-American community, and what later was done to the Jews. I recall reading some of the stuff that came out about then, and it was full of equivalencies between the Germans, the Jews, and the blacks. The position was that white Anglo-Saxon civilization was under attack, and that all three parties were threats. Germans didn’t just make the English nervous; the US had issues with the whole “Rise of Wilhelmine Germany”, as well.

    Human stupidity and cupidity at its finest. I think we would have done well to stay the hell out of WWI, and let the Germans achieve the victory that they’d earned, as well as the post-WWI economic collapse that would have followed, almost inevitably. It would have been a salutary lesson in hubris and greed.

    One does wonder how things would have turned out, had we and the UK stayed the hell out. Germany would have almost certainly torn off a huge chunk of Russia, and the Wilhelmine post-war plans looked nothing like what the Nazis had in mind. In all likelihood, it would have been better for places like the Ukraine than what happened under Lenin and Stalin…

  11. Graham says:

    I’m torn. Still a British Empire guy. But looking at the values of the Milner circle in those days I’m less gung ho about its eventual implications for Britain, the old Dominions, and the world. Plus, the empire fell anyway so the idea that German victory on the continent would undercut it seems a pointless matter now.

    So I’m torn about how necessary it was for Britain to go to war, let alone pay such a catastrophic price that the empire was holed below the waterline and in hock to the US anyway, to prevent Germany dominating Europe. [No, Germany doesn't really dominate it now or with the same attitude it had then. This Germany isn't that Germany.] In retrospect, it seems lose-lose for Britain, although in 1920 it looked as though the empire might be salvageable and so it might have looked worth it to some.

    But I’m more sympathetic to the stay out schools of thought than I once was. All of Western civilization paid a huge price we’re still paying.

    I wouldn’t say German plans for Europe were wholly different from those of Hitler. The Mitteleuropa concept already envisioned some moderate direct annexations and a set of tightly controlled German vassal states, a notion that Brest-Litovsk extended into the former Russian Empire. Plus a European economic community that would bind the other continental power closely to Germany for commercial, industrial, and resource allocation purposes. And in the east, at least, Slav peasants could probably look forward to ongoing being abused peasants with no prospects.

    Still, it was colonization and Germanization lite. And if they probably hoped for demographics to favour German settlement in the east with a little gentle nudging, they were not likely to accomplish that with wholesale massacre. So in important ways it would have been much better for Ukrainians, in particular, then any of the options they were actually given.

    What a hell of a time and place to have been born.

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