How English became the language of physics

During Michael Gordin’s childhood, his mother—who grew up speaking French and Moroccan Arabic—mostly conversed with his father in his father’s native Hebrew. But both of Gordin’s parents spoke to Gordin and his brothers in English, even though Gordin’s father was less nimble in the language.

“It wasn’t until much later that I came to realize what a sacrifice that was for them, to not feel quite at ease when speaking to their kids,” Gordin says, “because they wanted their kids to have the opportunities that came with speaking a language” that more people spoke. 

As Gordin got older, he became more and more interested in languages: specifically, in how people choose which languages to use, and how sometimes a more widespread language is favored over a less common one for the sake of greater opportunity and access.

Gordin is now a professor at Princeton University who specializes in the history of the modern physical sciences, particularly in Russia and the Soviet Union. In 2010, he began to write a book about how, in the mid-20th century, Russian became one of the significant languages of science. But he quickly ran into a problem.

“You can’t just write about one language; it’s an ecology, where all the languages of science are interacting,” he says. “So I decided to just devote myself entirely to exploring the issue of the friction that happens when people have to use a different language” that is not their native tongue.

In 2015, he published Scientific Babel: How Science Was Done Before and After Global English, an account of how languages have waxed and waned in popularity among the scientific community since the Renaissance—and how English became the dominant language of science. 

Read more: symmetry

The US island that speaks Elizabethan English

I’d never been called a dingbatter until I went to Ocracoke for the first time. I’ve spent a good part of my life in North Carolina, but I’m still learning how to speak the ‘Hoi Toider’ brogue. The people here just have their own way of speaking: it’s like someone took Elizabethan English, sprinkled in some Irish tones and 1700s Scottish accents, then mixed it all up with pirate slang. But the Hoi Toider dialect is more than a dialect. It’s also a culture, one that’s slowly fading away. With each generation, fewer people play meehonkey, cook the traditional foods or know what it is to be mommucked.

Located 34 miles from the North Carolina mainland, Ocracoke Island is fairly isolated. You can’t drive there as there are no bridges, and most people can’t fly either as there are no commercial flights. If you want to go there, it has to be by boat. In the early 1700s, that meant Ocracoke was a perfect spot for pirates to hide, as no soldiers were going to search 16 miles of remote beaches and forests for wanted men.

William Howard was one of those outlaws, serving as quartermaster on Blackbeard’s ship Queen Anne’s Revenge. Leaving before Blackbeard’s final battle in 1718, Howard made his way to Virginia, eventually taking the general pardon offered by King George I to all pirates. But unlike some, Howard had a plan. For several decades, he dropped out of sight, only to reappear in 1759 when he bought Ocracoke Island for £105 from a man named Richard Sanderson, a justice and later a General Assembly member in mainland North Carolina.

Howard settled down along with some other ex-pirates and started building a community with boat pilots who had been stationed on the island to help guide merchant ships around sandbars in the area. A mainland North Carolina Native American tribe also interacted with the early settlers. The Woccon tribe had set up fishing and hunting outposts on the island, which they called Woccocock. Through misspellings and mispronunciations, it became Wokokon, Oakacock and Okercock, before finally arriving at the current version of Ocracoke in the mid-1700s. So at this point, there were Native Americans, English sailors and pirates from a variety of places all in one location. And that isolated community of just under 200 started blending words and dialects, and eventually building its own way of speaking.

“It’s the only American dialect that is not identified as American,” said Dr Walt Wolfram, a North Carolina State University professor who studied the Ocracoke dialect for more than 20 years and currently works as the director of NC State’s Language and Life Project. “That’s fascinating to me. You can find pronunciation, grammar structures and vocabulary on Ocracoke that are not found anywhere else in North America.”

Read more: BBC

Is the English language too powerful?

In 2016 I published the “Power Language Index”, a research note on the efficacy of languages. It was a systematic data-driven analysis using 20 indicators to compare the clout of the world’s languages. It tried to answer the question: which language best serves a person to engage in life from a global perspective?

The index was designed as a cardinal measure, meaning that the output – a number that ranges from zero (least powerful) to one (most powerful) – not only ranks the languages, but also indicates the magnitude with which they are more or less influential vis-à-vis another.

Not surprisingly, the index showed that English, with a score of 0.889, is most powerful. It is the world’s lingua franca. In second place is Mandarin at 0.411. So not only is English the most powerful language, it is more than twice as powerful as its closest rival.

However, even with such a dominant score, the index likely underestimated the power of Shakespeare’s tongue. For one, official data often do not pick up the fact that English is almost universally the second language in most countries. In today’s society, “bilingual” is usually taken to mean fluency in the home language and English.

Thus when strangers from different countries meet for the first time, the instinct is to ask the other party if they speak English. Similarly, English is often the medium used to teach a second language to a diverse group of foreigners. Moreover, English is a Latin script language, which makes it easier to learn for a majority of the world.

In some follow-up work on the efficacy of languages, the dominance of English is confirmed to be more prominent than first demonstrated. Indeed, when I set out to create the index, there were many significant challenges in constructing it, as often there is an imperfect mapping between languages and the indicators of the index.

For example, universities (which are part of the index) may operate in a language other than in the home language(s). This is especially true of global and research-intensive institutions. Universities may also offer programmes or degrees in English to attract an international student body. Wholly English language universities can even be found in non-Anglo countries.

In fact, given the dominance of English as the language of science, business and research, it is common in many settings for the home language to be used for “kitchen” conversations while professional interactions are in English.

Read more: World Economic Forum

Can the language of the Vikings fight off the invasion of English?

“Coffee and kleina,” reads a large sign at a roadside coffee shop by one of the main roads in Reykjavik. Not so many years ago, such a billboard would simply have read: “Kaffi og kleina” – in the language of the Vikings, the official language of Iceland.

It is a privilege of the few to be able to read and write Icelandic, a language understood by only around 400,000 people worldwide. Icelandic, in which the historic Sagas were written in the 13th and 14th centuries, has changed so little since then on our small and isolated island, that we can still more or less read them as they were first written.

But Iceland is not so isolated anymore, and there are signs its language is facing challenges never seen before. Following the economic crash of 2008, and the subsequent collapse of the Icelandic currency (making Iceland a much cheaper destination than before), tourism has emerged as the largest industry in Iceland, with 2.5 million tourists expected to visit a country of 350,000 people this year alone.

And everyone is catering to the tourists in English, of course. At restaurants and coffee shops, people are frequently greeted in English rather than Icelandic, and often Icelandic will get you nowhere if you want to order food or drink. Companies use English names or are rebranding themselves in English. The importance of tourists to the economy is rapidly making English not only a second language in the service industry, but almost the first language. (The irony of this article being written in English is certainly not lost on me.)

There are other warning signs. Icelanders have always been very proud of their literary heritage, boasting that we write and read a lot of books. However, Icelanders bought 47% fewer books in 2017 than they did in 2010, a very sharp decrease in a matter of only six years. In a recent poll in Iceland, 13.5% of those who responded had not read a single book in 2017, compared to 7% in 2010.

Read more: The Guardian

‘Untranslatable’ words tell us more about English speakers than other cultures

When the word “hygge” became popular outside Denmark a few years ago, it seemed the perfect way to express the feeling of wrapping yourself up in a crocheted blanket with a cosy jumper, a cup of tea and back-to-back episodes of The Bridge. But is it really only the Danes, with their cold Scandinavian evenings, who could have come up with a word for such a specific concept? And is it only the Swedes who could have needed the verb “fika” to describe chatting over a coffee?

The internet abounds with words that lack a single-word English equivalent. In order to be really lacking an English equivalent, it must be a single, indivisible unit of meaning, as phrases are infinitely productive and can be created on demand by combining different words. Take, for example, the claim by Adam Jacot de Boinod in I Never Knew There Was A Word For It, that Malay has a word for the gap between the teeth that English lacks: “gigi rongak”. Well, this appears to be a phrase, and it translates literally as the perfectly cromulent English phrase “tooth gap”.

In fact, English even has a single-word technical term for a gap between the teeth: “diastema”. Okay, that’s actually a Greek word, but it’s in use in English, so it’s also an English word. Does that matter?

Where we get our words from tells us something about our history. Take, for instance, Quechua – the language spoken by people indigenous to the Andes and the South American highlands. The Quechuan word for “book” is “liwru”, which comes from the Spanish word “libro”, because Spanish colonisers introduced written forms of language to the people they conquered. In fact, English does now have a word for “hygge” – it’s “hygge”.

Read more: The Conversation

Where Australians can’t understand English

Traveller’s Rest, the dusty farm where I spent a month climbing, lies 260km north of Cape Town in the bosom of South Africa’s rugged Cederberg ranges. The mountains tower majestically above fertile citrus farmland, forming a wall that keeps the rain – and most of the tourists – to the south. Beyond the barrier of peaks is an almost Martian landscape scattered with orange, wind-sculpted boulders and roamed by leopards and baboons. They call this place Rocklands.

My partner and I came from Australia for the rocks. We spent most of our days climbing, but one morning the sky was a giant bruise, flinging the odd fat raindrop at the dusty red earth. Instead, picking up maps of the renowned Sevilla Trail at Traveller’s Rest’s farm stall – a restaurant and corner shop catering to visitors – we wound our way among painted boulders admiring San (Bushman) rock art, some dating back 8,000 years.

Today, this is Afrikaner heartland; many of the farms in the area were first tilled in the 1740s by Trekboers, the Dutch ‘wandering farmers’ of Calvinist faith later known simply as Boers. Their descendants are called Afrikaners; their language, Afrikaans.

After our walk, we returned to the farm stall for lunch. “How are you people?” Frida, the waitress asked as we arrived. ‘You people’ is a common address in South Africa, but until I learned that it was a direct translation from the Afrikaans, ‘julle mense’, it left me feeling like a schoolgirl in trouble.

The history of South African English is inextricably linked to that of Afrikaans, the language that South Africa is known for, which is a modern-day iteration of 17th-Century Dutch. As I set out to tell the story of one, the other kept cropping up, demanding attention, dispensing context. But here, English and Afrikaans are also inseparable from Africa itself. Just as they draw words from each-other, and from the migrants and slaves brought by the colonists, the languages also draw much of their character from the people who were here first. In that regard, language is like the culture in Africa’s southernmost country: rich beyond comprehension, a patchwork of worlds.

Read more: BBC Travel

It’s Important to Know Your ‘False Friends’ in English and French

People learning a second language might have heard of the expression “false friend.” This term is used to describe words in different languages that look alike, but have different meanings.

Last month, we looked at examples of false friends in two languages, English and Spanish. Today we will tell you about another language — French — that has a lot of false friends, the French words faux amis, in English.

A history of faux amis

You may be surprised to learn that English gets 30 to 45 percent of its words from French. The reason goes back to the year 1066, when Norman forces invaded what is now Britain. The Normans were from northern France and spoke French. During the Norman occupation, French became the language of England’s rulers and wealthy class. This lasted for more than 300 years. Other people in England continued to speak English during this period.

Over time, the two languages combined and shared words. Some researchers believe that about 10,000 French words eventually entered the English language.

​However, although English took many French words, their meanings have not always stayed the same. Sometimes the differences in meanings can be very important, and lead to funny or strange situations if the words are used the wrong way.

Take, for example, the French word collège. In English, college can often be used in place of the word university, or sometimes as a school within a university. However, in French, collège actually means “middle school,” or the level of schooling for students in grades five or six through eight.

Read more: Voice of America

OED looks for words used worldwide to reflect global nature of English

English has been spoken across the world for hundreds of years.

And now the Oxford English Dictionary has launched a campaign to make sure its contents reflects the language’s global nature.

The dictionary is looking to expand its entries by including more words from Anglophone countries outside the UK.

Eleanor Maier, associate editor of the OED, said it had “always been a global dictionary” but its expertise was slanted towards Britain and America because it was based in the two countries.

“A lot of the English we’re exposed to tends to be from the UK or America and when it comes to regional words – British words or American words – we also have our own knowledge, being from that area.

“It’s just brilliant to increase our coverage and cover English all around the world because English isn’t just spoken in the UK and America, it’s spoken everywhere, and as a dictionary we need to cover the types of English that people are speaking.

“It’s just a really good opportunity to increase our knowledge.

“We need to reflect the English that’s spoken and written – it’s spoken in South Africa, the Philippines, India, Singapore, Hong Kong – so we need to reflect those varieties.”

Read more: The Telegraph

The Rise and Fall of the English Sentence

An iconic sentence, this. But how did it ever make its way into the world? At 71 words, it is composed of eight separate clauses, each anchored by its own verb, nested within one another in various arrangements. The main clause (a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires …) hangs suspended above a 50-word subordinate clause that must first be unfurled. Like an intricate equation, the sentence exudes a mathematical sophistication, turning its face toward infinitude.

To some linguists, Noam Chomsky among them, sentences like these illustrate an essential property of human language. These scientists have argued that recursion, a technique that allows chunks of language such as sentences to be embedded inside each other (with no hard limit on the number of nestings) is a universal human ability, perhaps even the one uniquely human ability that supports language. It’s what allows us to create—literally—an infinite variety of novel sentences out of a limited inventory of words.

But that leads to a curious puzzle: Complex sentences are not ubiquitous among the world’s languages. Many languages have little use for them. They prefer to string together simple clauses. They may even lack certain words such as relative pronouns that and which or connectors like if, despite, and although—these words make it possible to link clauses together into larger sentences. Allegedly, the Pirahã language along the Maici River of Brazil lacks recursion altogether. According to linguist Dan Everett, Pirahã speakers avoid linguistic nesting of all kinds, even in structures such as John’s brother’s house. (Instead, they would say something like: Brother’s house. John has a brother. It is the same one.

This can’t be pinned on biological evolution. All evidence suggests that humans around the world are born with more or less the same brains. Abundant childhood exposure to a language with layered sentences practically guarantees their mastery. Even adult Pirahã speakers, who have remained unusually isolated from European languages, pick up the trick of complex syntax, provided that they spend enough time interacting with speakers of Brazilian Portuguese, a language that offers an adequate diet of embedded structures.)

Read more: Nautilus

The Randomness of Language Evolution

Joshua Plotkin’s dive into the evolution of language began with clarity—and also a lack of it.

Today, if you wanted to talk about something that’s clear, you’d say that it has clarity. But if you were around in 1890, you would almost certainly have talked about its clearness.

Plotkin first noticed this linguistic change while playing with Google’s Ngram Viewer, a search engine that charts the frequencies of words across millions of books. The viewer shows that a century ago, clearness dominated clarity. Now the opposite is true, which is strange because clarity isn’t even a regular form. If you wanted to create a noun from clear, clearness would be a more obvious choice. “Why would there be this big upswing in clarity?,” Plotkin wondered. “Is there a force promoting clarity in writing?”

It wasn’t clear. But as an evolutionary biologist, Plotkin knew how to find out.

The histories of linguistics and evolutionary biology have been braided together for as long as the latter has existed. Many of the earliest defenders of Darwinism were linguists who saw similarities between the evolution of languages and of species. Darwin himself wrote about these “curious parallels” in The Descent of Man. New words and grammatical rules are continually cropping up, fighting for existence against established forms, and sometimes driving those old forms extinct. “The survival … of certain favored words in the struggle for existence is natural selection,” Darwin wrote.

Read more: The Atlantic

On Living, and Thinking, in Two Languages at Once

People ask me whether I think in French or in English now that I’ve lived in the US a while. I lie when I answer this. I say it depends on what I’m thinking about—English for work, French for family and curse words. This answer is usually welcomed as logical: a language for the intellect, another for the feelings. Of course. The truth is I have no idea what language I think in, and because I’m a hypochondriac, I worry that this might mean I have a brain tumor. I end up wondering if I ever actually think of anything. In my head, it’s mostly blurry images, or blocks of sense memories colliding with whatever I’m presently seeing. Rarely a fully formed thought—unless I’m actively trying to make sense of something, the way I am doing right now. In conversation, though, some words come to me in English and others in French, and I have to pause for a second to find the correct translation.

I did this the other day, on the phone with my sister. She was having a hard time and needed to vent, and we acknowledged the fact that she was venting, except I’d forgotten the proper French phrase for venting and so I used a literal translation of the English word before the French expression finally found its way back to me. The way you say you’re venting in French is you’re “emptying your bag.” Unpacking. I love both the images. The bag and the vent. They work. I kind of don’t want to choose between them.

My mother and her three brothers, when together, have always spoken a mix of French and Spanish, with an accent that is neither one or the other—because they all, as children, spoke both languages perfectly and with no accent whatsoever, they were able to devise unique intonations for their Franish. Very few things make me more happy than hearing them speak their language. They pick the best version of each word in each language, conjugate old-timey French verbs the Spanish way… after 50-something years of existence, their language is still being invented as they go. It has its own logic that is one of constantly choosing what sounds best, or is the most funny, except it seems entirely effortless. It always flows perfectly. As a child I often wondered what made them decide between French and Spanish for such and such words, and I realize now that it was just another version of the question “What language do you think in?” Now I know they don’t think about it when they elect to say “La copa esta plena” instead of “la coupe est llena,” each one a different combination of French and Spanish. They’re just talking. They’re entertaining each other.

Read more: Literary Hub

How the once-ridiculed word “finalize” slipped into mainstream American English

“I found the class really impactful.” “I have no bandwidth for this conversation.” “Can you ping me when you’re leaving the house?”

Lovers of the English language cringe when they hear corporate speak seep into everyday conversation. But the jargon-ization of language, it seems, is inevitable.

In the 1960s, the gatekeepers of American English worked themselves into a frenzy over what they deemed a new blight on the language: the word “finalize.” “Finalize” was the “incentivize,” “impactful,” or “leverage” (as verb) of the 1960s, a piece of bureaucratic jargon and source of deep chagrin for language purists. “It’s business-letter English, meaning acceptable and undesirable,” sports writer Red Smith said of such jargon in 1969.

“Finalize” was a new verb that meant agreeing on the final terms of something, without actually finishing it. If two people “finalized” a divorce, it didn’t actually mean the divorce was over. “We finalized the vacation” didn’t mean a trip had taken place. In the 1960s, use of the neologism seemed to create dramatic eye rolls in pedants, the way “-ify” (“Can we list-ify this?”) or the construction “the x for y” (“Tinder for dogs”) might today.

Read more: Quartz