[Humanist] 29.678 the language matters a lot

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Wed Feb 3 09:31:04 CET 2016

                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 29, No. 678.
            Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

        Date: Tue, 2 Feb 2016 08:44:26 +0000
        From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>
        Subject: the language matters a lot

Many here, I suspect, will profit from reading Steven Shapin's 
"Confusion of tongues", a review of Michael Gordin's Scientific Babel: 
The Language of Science from the Fall of Latin to the Rise of English 
(2015), in the London Review of Books 37.23 for 3 December 2015. Here is 
a particularly interesting bit from Shapin's review:

> Does it matter that science is now conducted overwhelmingly in
> English? Here Gordin makes a distinction between ‘communication’ and
> ‘identity’.... By ‘identity’, Gordin means something like the ability
> confidently to express meaning, feeling, nuance – something that’s
> very hard to do in a language you didn’t learn as a child and in
> which you don’t function every day. In a monolingual English world,
> identity and communication are the same thing for a native
> English-speaker but quite different for those who have to learn the
> language at school and from textbooks. As a result, ‘birthright’
> English-speakers have a big advantage: they give the impression ‘of
> being – more or less – at home everywhere’, while non-native
> English-speakers feel themselves tourists almost everywhere. This is
> the point at which the problem of scientific Babel can’t be
> disengaged from the problem of what science is.
> If you conceive of science as an information system, as an
> accumulation of data and logical relations between data, then you
> will probably feel that the efficiencies of English monolingualism
> outweigh its disadvantages. But Gordin also (and too briefly)
> introduces a different conception of science, not much taken up by
> philosophers, which emphasises the importance of metaphorical
> extension in scientific change. Scientific notions like wave, force,
> law, heredity and fact have different semantics when expressed in
> different languages: as metaphors imported from everyday life, they
> have different resonances and affiliations in different cultures and
> languages, and therefore different bearings on the resources
> scientists have to extend their meanings through research and theory.
> (Science itself is such a notion: its semantics in English are not
> exactly the same as les sciences, Wissenschaft, наука or επιστήμη.)
> So, depending on whether you think of science solely as an
> information system or as encompassing the dynamic exploration of
> metaphors, you come to different conclusions about the significance
> of monolingualism. If metaphor is central to science, then the
> language in which science happens matters a lot.



Willard McCarty (www.mccarty.org.uk/), Professor, Department of Digital
Humanities, King's College London, and Digital Humanities Research
Group, Western Sydney University

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