How science propelled the dominance of English

August 10, 2018

Ever wondered why English is such a widespread #language? When I studied abroad, the chosen language amongst the #international students was always English. In #Belgium, it is normal that students are taught #Dutch, #French and #German, since those are the three national languages (yes, a tiny country like Belgium has as much as three national languages). But every high school in the country also teaches English. Why? Because it is useful, you can say, it is spoken everywhere. Yes, but how come? Another answer could be that it is the common language most used in scientific publications. True, but why English? Why not Chinese, Hindu, or Arabic, all of which can easily compete with English when it comes to the number of native speakers?

 

David Bellos offers an interesting insight on the matter in his book “Is that a fish in your ear?” which I’m currently reading, and which I also mentioned in my previous blog post. He points out that throughout history, the rise in popularity of a certain language was often related to scientific progress. From ancient times until the Middle Ages the dominant languages were Chinese, Sanskrit, Greek, Syriac, Latin and Arabic. #Italian and #French became popular during the #renaissance, and even Swedish knew an uprising between 1760 and 1840 thanks to Bergman’s and Jacob Berzelius’ foundational work in organic chemistry. Then all of the sudden #German became immensely popular because of scientists’ like Liebig, followed by #Russian thanks to Mendeleev, whom we all know for his periodic table. Over time however, the #popularity of some of those languages declined, until English remained as the vehicle language used by the #international #scientific #community, and gradually, the rest of the world. According to Bellos, the reason behind this is not necessarily that English is better suited for science, but simply that because of a strange course of history nothing happened to knock it out, as opposed to the fate of other languages.

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