Saturday 26 March 2011

The language of science

Science doesn’t have a language, of course. People have languages. Since people socialise in specific groups, from which they get their linguistic uses, mindsets and other behavioural habits, doing science in different languages may sometimes look like doing different sciences.

I should perhaps explain what I mean by science. Common meanings of this word have it as synonymous with natural science or hard science (interesting qualifiers, these two, especially when we think of what their antonyms might evoke). That is, the word refers to a particular object of study. To me, science is a how, not a what: it is the art of looking for patterns, and for ways of explaining them – have a look at Chapter 1 of The Language of Language, for more on this. 

Science is not the domain of the unintelligible either. Some of us do choose to sound obscure in order to sound learned, which is quite useful to send readerships and/or audiences to instant sleep, so no one can tell the difference. To me, using language clearly is the best evidence that you know what you’re talking about.

Nor does science need to be conveyed in printed form. Our ancestors were scientific in the ways they went about their business, long before they decided to invent printed language. So are our contemporaries who have no idea that literacy matters, and so are small children. Cooking dinner is doing science, because it involves a theory and empirical verification, and so is taking toys apart to see how they work.

Since science draws on research questions, findings, analyses and argumentation expressed in particular languages, two things follow. First, science reflects the resources available to the language in which we talk about it. I’ve offered a few thoughts on our understanding of science through language, on the one hand, and through languages, on the other, in a review of Roy Harris’s book The Semantics of Science that deals with precisely this topic.

Second, whoever commands a language that happens to be used to talk about science calls the shots of science-talk. Any language can be used for this purpose, of course, because users of any language can do what users of successive “languages of science”, Arabic, Greek, Latin, French, English, have done to make their languages fit their needs: borrow, adapt and invent whatever linguistic resources come in handy for science-talk. The reason why so few languages, out of several thousand, have historically acquired recognition as “languages of science” is the same that has businessmen looking like carbon copies of one another (or photocopies of one another, for those born a little later than me) wherever we turn to, out of richly diverse, and certainly more comfortable, dress codes out there: human beings love to have codes to abide by.

Abiding by the current code of using English to talk about science is sometimes misinterpreted to mean that the only science that matters speaks English. Believing that this is so, and that English-bound ways of doing science are the only respectable ways of doing it, can have regrettable effects, as Frans de Waal vividly reports in Seeing Through Cultural Bias in Science. The articles collected in the 2008 AILA Review retell similar stories of Linguistic inequality in scientific communication today.

The issue is not just that, here too, we’re facing an uneven playing field akin to the one that Viv Edwards described in a previous post. It’s principally that the unevenness cuts both ways: those of us who cannot access the current language of science lose as much as those of us who cannot access science but through it.

Global languages, however, like the ones we may use to deal with science – or business, or finance –, are not all-purpose languages, for most of their users: they serve specific global(ising) purposes. For most of us, a global language is an adopted language. And when we human beings adopt something, we adapt it: we may love following codes, but we absolutely adore breaking them. My next post has a few thoughts about why I find it difficult to envisage a one-language-fits-all global future.

© MCF 2011

Next post: Going global, full monolingualism ahead? Saturday 2nd April 2011.

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