One World Scientific Language?

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Science  28 May 2004:
Vol. 304, Issue 5675, pp. 1243
DOI: 10.1126/science.304.5675.1243d

Two separate articles in the Evolution of Language Special Section (27 Feb., pp. 1315-1335), when read together, contain an implicit caution for scientists. In his Viewpoint “Of towers, walls, and fields: perspectives on language in science” (p. 1333), S. Montgomery describes the emergence of English as the lingua franca of science. In “From heofonum to heavens” (News, p. 1326), Y. Bhattacharjee points out that English “mandates a verb-object order for all constructions…”

Language often leads thought. What will we be losing when all scientists write and think in a language that hems the descriptions of facts and theories into a single Subject-Verb-Object (SVO) order? I do not think that one universal SVO language in science, to the exclusion of others, should be underestimated in its potential for severely skewing how scientists look at the world, time, space, and causality, perhaps unconsciously closing off areas of investigation in a way that even the most pervasive Kuhnian paradigm does not. At the very least, it is dangerous to assume, without further study, that the effects of such a rigid grammar will be trivial or benign.

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