How did English become the language of science?


Science was once multilingual, but today, most scientists write articles, publish books, and conduct conferences in English. How and when this happened, we will tell in the article.

The ancient times

In antiquity and until the collapse of the Roman Empire, the primary language of literature, philosophy, and science were ancient Greek. Socrates, Plato, Archimedes, Aeschylus, and many others wrote on it. Then, Greek was replaced by Latin, whose primacy was entrenched in medieval philosophers, theologians, and scientists of the Renaissance.

And translations of the works of Arabic authors into Latin contributed to the revival of scholarship in Europe. However, few people spoke Latin in everyday life; it was used as the language of educated elites, connecting scientists from the West and the East.

Amid the Scientific Revolution of the 17th century, scientists first began to publish works in the languages ​​of their countries. Thus, the Italian physicist, mathematician, astronomer, and philosopher Galileo Galilei published his prominent treatises in Italian, which earned him patronage among influential compatriots.

And the English scientist Isaac Newton wrote a treatise "Optics" in English and only then was the text translated into Latin.

By the end of the 18th century, works on chemistry, physics, physiology, and botany began to appear more often in English, French, German, and other European languages. However, until the first third of the 19th century, some scientists preferred to write in Latin, for example, the German mathematician Karl Friedrich Gauss.

Nationalism swept across Europe at the same time as industrialization flourished. Throughout the European continent, poets and intellectuals cultivated local languages. In the second half of the 19th century, Hungarian, Czech, Italian, Jewish, Polish, and other literature flourished.

However, in science, only the Russian language became remarkable. Thanks to such scientists as Dmitry Mendeleev, Sofya Kovalevskaya, Alexander Popov, and others. At this time, the idea of ​​creating Esperanto, a universal language that could be used by scientists and diplomats alike, was born. However, the idea was soon considered utopian.

At World War I, German scientists and intellectuals began to praise Germany's military goals. The French and British took this into account, and after the victory of the Entente countries, they created new international institutions to which the Germans were denied access.

Germanophobia swept the world: the British royal family with German roots was renamed from Saxe-Coburg-Gotha to Windsor, and in the American states of Iowa, Ohio, and Nebraska, it was forbidden to speak German, and this even though it was the second language in the United States. The German scientific elite strengthened their commitment to their native language in response.

In 1933, Adolf Hitler unceremoniously fired non-Aryan and leftist scholars. As a result, the German scientific elite, such as Albert Einstein, emigrated to the United States and Great Britain and published in English. Also, in the 1930s, Hitler closed most of the visas for international students, which finally excluded German from the main languages ​​of science.

After World War II, Soviet scientists and engineers began to conquer the scientific world, thanks to whom in the 50s and 60s, a quarter of the world's scientific works were published in Russian, and 60% in English.

But during the Cold War, publications in Russian began to be perceived as political statements, so by the 70s, the spread of Russian-language scientific works had declined. And by the early 1980s, English began to occupy more than 80% of the world's natural science publications. English won the final victory after the appearance and spread of the Internet.

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Science for everyone

Scientific journals first appeared in the 17th century. At first, publications were focused on scientists themselves: on the pages of journals, they exchanged experiences, shared discoveries, and put forward hypotheses. Sometime later, the editors of the publications drew attention to a broader public, fascinated by incredible inventions, mysterious genetics, and space programs.

Scientific American is an American magazine published since 1845. It featured articles by science journalists and experts, including more than two hundred Nobel laureates. Scientific American celebrated its 175th anniversary in 2020.

Data journalists analyzed the archive of publications and chose the most popular word for each year, 175 words in total. Infographics give an idea about how science has changed and how the world has changed, the perception and attitude of people towards different things.


Notoriously the English language has become a standard in today's scientific publications. But, of course, we can go even deeper in this chapter and discuss the geopolitical consequences of the widespread use of English. Still, we have to recognize that the English language has become the norm for scientific writing.