The slow demise of polyglotty

Ever abreast of breaking news, it has recently come to my attention that not everybody who matters speaks English. This was only mild surprise to me, of course -some of my teachers in school spoke with an accent, and many of my professors at University were unintelligible. But anyway, all of my text books and extra-curricular materials were in English, and although I often decided to hide many of the magazines in the closet, I don’t think the captions on the pictures were in any other language… Okay, I don’t actually remember.

At the time, however, I remember thinking that publishing stuff in English was a good idea because it allowed me and my friends a chance to keep abreast of current affairs, and sports scores. Surely, I thought, it couldn’t just be a coincidence that printed words were almost always in a language I could understand, and the few exceptions were likely just chimeras caught in the middle of their inevitable metamorphosis into sensible English.

That was before the internet, of course, and Winnipeg in those days was before a lot of things -sophistication, for example. Only later in my career did I stop to wonder if retrospective falsification might have corrupted some of my memory modules. I had moved from Winnipeg, and endured a long list of other cities as part of my father’s tour of duty in the railway bureaucracy, and yet I still look back on those proto-maturational days with fond, albeit naïve Anglophonic recollections.

It’s true there was a rumour that, just across the river from the rather eponymous Riverview district where I lived, French was spoken in St. Boniface, but we never went over there, so it only lived a shadowy existence as unsubstantiated gossip. And besides, if they ever did come over to our side, nobody would understand them, so they’d go back across again, none the wiser. Anyway whatever French we learned in school soon withered from lack of meaningful exercise. Spanish developed no muscles whatsoever in those early days, and many Tagalog, Hindi, or Mandarin speakers who ran the corner stores, always switched to English when they saw us school kids come in. Sometimes we tried to catch them unawares, but I now realize that was probably mean. They were all our friends -even the grown-ups- so we didn’t really care; catching them in flagrante was just a game to us.

But I digress. I meant to catalogue my recent discovery of the Sea of Anglophilia in which I have long been forced swim. Somehow, I stumbled over an essay buried deep in the bowels of an app on my phone:

Its author, Michael D Gordin, a professor of history at Princeton University, may have suffered from the same prairie upbringing as me, because his first sentence is ‘If you can read this sentence, you can talk with a scientist.’ See? I’m not the only one… ‘The overwhelming majority of communication in the natural sciences today – physics, chemistry, biology, geology – takes place in English; in print and at conferences, in emails and in Skype-mediated collaborations, confirmable by wandering through the halls of any scientific research facility in Kuala Lumpur or Montevideo or Haifa. Contemporary science is Anglophone.’

It was also a balm to fluently monoglottal students like me that most of our books had lots of pictures. ‘[We] can observe two basic linguistic regimes in Western science: the polyglot and the monoglot. The latter is quite new, emerging just in the 1920s and vanquishing the centuries-old multilingual regime only in the 1970s.’

In fact, natural philosophy (Science) went through a multitude of changes before settling (for now at least) on English: ‘As any good Renaissance humanist or scholastic of the Late Middle Ages knew, natural philosophy in Latin enjoyed a history going back to the glory days of Rome. (Cicero and Seneca both wrote significant works in the field.) But those same humanists and scholastics also knew that the dominant language of scholarship in antiquity down to the final sack of Rome was not Latin but Hellenistic Greek. They knew that, in the centuries before them, more natural philosophy was done in Arabic than in either classical language.’ But, of course, ‘Aside from the rare oddball with overzealous parents (Montaigne claimed to be one), no one learned Latin as a first language and few used it orally. Latin was for written scholarship…  [it] was a vehicular language, used to bridge linguistic communities, and it was understood as more or less neutral.’ In fact, ‘since Latin was no specific nation’s native tongue, and scholars all across European and Arabic societies could make equal use of it, no one ‘owned’ the language. For these reasons, Latin became a fitting vehicle for claims about universal nature. But everyone in this conversation was polyglot, choosing the language to suit the audience.’

But around the 17th century, this started to break down. People like me, who only studied Latin until the end of high school found it tedious, I suppose. Anyway, as a result, ‘Around 1850, the scientific languages began to compress to English, French and German, each occupying roughly equal proportions of total production.’ Of course, that still excluded people from Winnipeg, I think. And, then the first world war and the United States entry therein soon put paid to German in scientific publications; Hitler and WWII nailed the lid. There were minor burps, to be sure –‘In the 1950s and ’60s, with about 25 per cent of world publication, Russian became the second most dominant scientific language… The American inability – or refusal – to learn Russian, let alone other foreign languages, in order to conduct their science, combined with the export of an Americanised science system across the Atlantic to Anglophone and non-Anglophone countries alike, further propelled the Anglicisation of science. The willingness of Europeans, Latin Americans and others to accede to this new monolingual regime also played a role. Since they wanted to be cited by the leaders of the field, the Dutch, Scandinavians and Iberians ceased publishing in French or German and switched to English.’ Around the same time, and not wishing to be left out of the loop, I also found myself writing all my university assignments in English. Unfortunately, I was never cited.

Maybe somebody found those magazines in the closet…


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