Tag: History of Languages

Monoglot Empire: Tracing the Journey from Scientific Babel to Global English with Michael Gordin

If you can read this, you read English. That might not seem like such a big accomplishment–perhaps English is your mother tongue, or maybe as a consumer of historical scholarship you merely took it for granted that developing an excellent level of English comprehension was a requirement for the job. Seen in historical perspective, however, the linguistic landscape that makes it common sense for you to read this blog post–and not, say, one in Portuguese or Persian–is quite unusual. We live in a monoglot world of science and scholarship today, but for much of the historical record, the case was the opposite, as Russians struggled to learn French and Englishmen apologized for their poor German, even as a functional command of three or four languages was necessary merely to access everything published.


Michael Gordin’s latest book, “Scientific Babel: How Science Was Done Before and After Global English”

Making things more bewildering, however, we have lived in a monoglot world before–one, however, dominated by Latin and not the West Germanic language so many of us now call our own. Not only that, the English that has succeeded as the uniform standard has, as any non-native speaker can tell you, plenty of confusing features: phonemic polyvocality (“stiff,” “stuff,” and “staff” denote very different things), and plenty of irregular verbs (“freeze” in the past is “froze,” not “freezed,” for example). So why didn’t something more logical and, perhaps more importantly, not ethnic–something not already spoken by the English–win out? Why didn’t a more accessible constructed language, like Esperanto, succeed? How did this tectonic shift happen? How did we move from linguistic chaos to seemingly greater uniformity?

These are some of the questions taken up by Michael Gordin, Rosengarten Professor of Modern and Contemporary History at Princeton University, in his latest book, Scientific Babel: How Science Was Done Before and After Global English, published earlier this year by the University of Chicago Press. While Gordin’s first monograph concerned itself with Dmitry Mendeleev (inventor of the periodic table), readers may also be familiar with his two books on the history of the of the atomic bomb, or his more recent volume on self-proclaimed cosmologist Immanuel Velikovsky and twentieth-century debates over standards of science and pseudoscience. In Scientific Babel, Gordin shows off his ability not only to digest complex scientific prose–in Russian, German, and French, in addition to his native English–but also to connect issues in the history of science with global trends in the modern period. That makes his work one of the most exciting things going in scholarship on the history of science today. It also makes him our guest in this, our first science-directed edition of the Global History Forum.…