[Humanist] 29.683 the language matters a lot

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Thu Feb 4 07:05:05 CET 2016

                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 29, No. 683.
            Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

        Date: Wed, 3 Feb 2016 12:10:29 +0100
        From: Tim Smithers <tim.smithers at cantab.net>
        Subject: Re:  29.678 the language matters a lot
        In-Reply-To: <20160203083104.AD7417E80 at digitalhumanities.org>

Dear Willard,

This being only a part of Shapin's review, and, being a
review, only an indirect contact with what Gordin says, I may
well have an inadequate knowledge and understanding of what
both Gordin and Shapin mean.  However, there is, I think, a
simplification here that undermines Shapin's, and thus perhaps
Gordin's, answer to the question

  Does it matter that science is now conducted overwhelmingly
  in English?

Just as with all widely spoken (and written) language, there
isn't just one English.  So, I would say, there isn't one
identify that goes with it.  Reduced comprehension (of the
communication part) and appreciation (of the full-meaning
part, let me call it) doesn't just happen between a native
English speaker and a non-native English speaker, as Shapin
and Gordin (?)  appear to suggest here.  This happens, to
varying degrees between native speakers as well: we native
English speakers don't natively speak the same English.

There seems to be further simplifications here too.  Unlike
Castellano (Spanish)--adopted (which is used to mean imposed
here) as the main language of many South American countries,
but now different in each--English is different in the places
in the world that use it as their language--old Empire
countries, mostly--and English is different in the many more
places where English is now used as the working language ...
often to do science.  

These two ways of being different result in different ways in
which communication and full-meaning may not work as intended.
In the first, naturally occurring divergence over the years
reduces a common familiarity with terms and meanings.  In the
second, all sorts of things happen, in my experience.  [I work
(mostly) in English in a place where Basque (which I know only
a little), Castellano (which I know quite well), some French
(rather rusty), and occasionally German (which I mostly have
to guess at) are also used in the work.  It's also worth
remarking that the different Spanishes spoken in different
South American countries, when brought together in one
conversation, can result in hilarious and sometimes rude even
insulting misunderstandings.  In English too, though less, I
think ...  where's the Rest Room?, we lean to say when in the
US of A.]

When English is the working language it is seldom the only
language used by the people doing the work.  Often there are
several other natively spoken languages used too, albethem in
minor roles.  And if, as is often the case, the English (as a
second language, or third, or fourth, etc) spoken by these
workers has been learned in different places, they are
different Englishes.

In a conversation, while doing some science, say, in which
Englishes are in use, even if you don't know, understand, and
use one or more of the other languages (natively spoken by
others) that also get used in this kind of situation, you
still develop some comprehension and an appreciation for what
is being said and meant in this Babel.  And more.  Attempts
made to translate or convey metaphors, similes, sayings,
notions, concepts, meanings from natively spoken languages to
an English, with more or less success or failure, often result
in the origination of new metaphors, meanings, notions, and

To speak of a monolingual English world seems to me to be a
conceit born of ignorance.  Have, I wonder, Shapin or Gordin
ever worked (doing anything) in the kinds of multi-lingual
situations in which Englishes are the "working language," but,
in reality, not the only ones used?

But, as I said, I may well not have my understanding well
enough founded here to press this complaint with any fairness.
Still, I think Shapin's question should be

  Does it matter that science is now conducted overwhelmingly
  in Englishes?

To which I would reply, probably not, for the simple reason
that together with all these Englishes lots of other languages
get used.  More than would be if all this work was done in
just one these languages.  It's messy, but still better for
the science we do.  It helps to keep everybody reminded that
nonbody speaks the same language, so we must all work to
communicate and mean well with all the available languages and
our varying capacities to use them.

God didn't make this Babel.  We did.  It's more productive and
more fun this way.

Best regards,


> On 03 Feb 2016, at 09:31, Humanist Discussion Group <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk> wrote:
>                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 29, No. 678.
>            Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
>                       www.digitalhumanities.org/humanist
>                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.
> Comments?
> Yours,
> WM
> -- 
> 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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