Why is English the language of science?

Published on 24/10/2022

Albert Einstein's first article on molecular interaction was published in German, Marie Curie's work was brought to the world in French, Isaac Newton's Philosophiæ naturalis principia mathematica was written in Latin. Have you ever wondered why scientific papers are mostly published in English today?

It is obvious that the pillars of science is the sum of the efforts of the scientific community. The great pyramid of knowledge is built from the bricks created by researchers around the world, and joined together when research results are shared.

However, this does not explain why we use English as the language for science. It is very easy to say that the only reason is that it is a universal language (although it does have great importance) because we saw earlier that there have been very important publications in other languages. Many scientific texts from just 100 years ago were written in Russian, Japanese or Chinese. The subject is much broader than that, but let's start at the beginning.

1. The language war

Michael Gordin, a historian at Princeton University, reports that in the 1950s English accounted for about 50% of scientific texts. The next closest language is Russian, but with only 20% in comparison. In just 20 years, English took off as the language of science and pushed away French and Chinese in almost all scientific texts.

To get to this point, historically we could sum up the following:

Around 1880, English, French and German were of equal importance in science. It was at the beginning of the 20th century that we began to see a slight decline of French, a small rise of English and an almost overwhelming spread of German. The question here is rather: what happened to the German language?

2. A boycott against German academics?

The First World War was the reason and origin of powerful nationalist antagonisms. The French, Belgians, Americans and British joined forces to push back the influence of German and Austrian academics.

The blow on German was devastating: fewer people published in German journals if they weren’t native Germans, while also fewer people chose to read the publications.

Everything seemed to be trending towards recovery, even the German currency had gradually stabilised. But the Nazi regime was established in 1933 and the whole situation went back to war.

Jewish scientists, socialists and those who were against the new regime emigrated from the country to end up in the US or the UK, where they adopted English as their main language. The new German regime brought up significant restrictions on visas that slowed down the arrival of new students, not to mention the thorough control of publications.

A huge breakdown in the communication networks of academics, especially among German-speaking academics took place during that time. Those were re-established but rather than in German locations, academics preferred cities such as Princeton, San Francisco and Boston, which replaced Frankfurt, Cologne and Vienna.

3. The disadvantages of English as the language of science

We know that there are great benefits to having a single language for scientific publications, with about 90% of major publications now being in English. We have already mentioned that communication between scientists is the cornerstone of progress, but what are the other consequences?

Perhaps the biggest consequence is that the richness and variety of records is lost. A person who does not write in his or her native language does not have the same ability to describe and record his or her ideas, and native speakers have to make their texts easier and streamline them for the sake of communication for a non-native speaker. In this case we trading communication at the cost of accuracy.

On the other hand, people with great potential for science are relegated to the background (or even excluded) of their careers because they are not fluent in English. This is a drawback to scientific progress.

4. Conclusion

English as the universal language of science is a relatively recent development, and caught a lot of attention due to political and military reasons. It is these kinds of factors that determine the relevance of one language over another. Without these two wars, we would maybe be publishing in German.
On the other hand, it is good to have a common language in science, but is it worth the price? It’s an impossible calculation.

It’s obvious that languages evolve, and if you need a translation of your scientific article in English, you can simply contact AbroadLink. We are happy to help you!

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Virginia Pacheco's picture
Virginia Pacheco

Blog writer and Community Manager interested in multiculturality and linguistic diversity. From her native Venuzuela, she has travelled and lived for many years in France, Germany, Cameroon and Spain, passing on her passion for writing and her intercultural experiences.

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