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. 

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Understanding Languages with Physics and Math

A husband and wife scientist duo from Poland has developed a computer model that simulates how vocabulary exchanges occur between settlers and nomads. According to their results, published in the journal Physical Review E, the nomadic groups are more likely to adopt words from settlers than the other way around.

The new model provides a tool that can help sociolinguists understand how migration and intercultural interactions can influence the evolution of a language. While linguists tend to express careful skepticism about the significance of this and similar predictive computational models, these studies contribute to the growing interest of studying social behaviors with computational methods.

“For this study, we developed a model using a method that has been around for 20 years or so,” said Adam Lipowski, a physicist from Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań, Poland. He is referring to the Naming Game, which simulates the exchange of information between individuals during face-to-face interactions.

The model divides individuals into two groups, each with their own language. During the simulation, the group that represents the settlers stays put, while individuals from the nomadic group move around. Over time, the model shows that the nomads are more likely to pick up new words than the settlers, even when everything else, such as the vocabulary size or the population size of the groups, were kept equal. This result came as a bit of a surprise to Lipowski and his co-author, Dorota Lipowska.

Read more: Inside Science