On a YouTube video about the origins of English, they said that replacing Latin with English in science was beneficial to the field; scientists were thus able to easily discuss and understand the matters on hand.

Said video passed through this very quickly — in less than 10 seconds — and didn't say much about the subject.

My research was a bit disappointing as I couldn't get hold on sufficient details.

My question is: did the move towards English in science really help scientific research, and science in general, flourish? Are there any resources documenting this trend?

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    But that only occurred in England, while the rest of Europe moved from Latin to predominantly French about the turn of the 18th century (as witness for example Leibniz;s publication record: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gottfried_Wilhelm_Leibniz#Selected_works) and then to predominantly German in the late 19th century. Only in the mid-20th century, with the ascendance of American research and engineering (possibly led by the Manhattan project and its spin-offs), does English become the lingua franca of science. Jan 25, 2016 at 22:19
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    @PieterGeerkens my question here is not about the English being the lingua franca of science. Rather, it's about how going from a literary language (generally considered more 'noble') to a native one (generally associated with the populace) helped accelerating the widespread of knowledge.
    – ahmed
    Jan 25, 2016 at 22:28
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    You should make more precise whether you are talking about science or school education. In the question you seem to ask about science but in your comments mostly talk about school education. There are two very different things.
    – Alex
    Jan 26, 2016 at 21:34
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    Your question seems off. As I read your comments, I think what you want to know is actually if switching to native language helped education, not science. For elementary education the answer is historically obvious; not so for scientific method which really happens at universities and later.
    – kubanczyk
    Jan 28, 2016 at 21:14

4 Answers 4


This question has no definite answer because there was no alternative. In the period between 17th and 19th century all science everywhere in Europe switched from the Latin to the native languages. This process was inevitable with the raise of nation-states. The argument that you cite is not valid, because before that time all educated people learned Latin. In fact ability to speak, write and read in Latin was the foundation of any education. This changed for the reasons which are independent of development of science, so science had to follow this general trend.

This trend had both positive and negative sides. Positive was that less education was required to learn science written in your native language. This made science accessible to more people. This is important, because many craftsmen who had no formal education obtained some access to scientific results. Negative was that communication between scientists of various countries became more difficult. This negative effect can be also demonstrated. Science in many countries (including England) became more isolated, and sometimes it took long time for important scientific results to spread across the boundaries.

Nowadays we have again the universal language of science (English) and we are essentially returning to the situation of 17th century when all science was written in one language. (The universality of English varies between various scientific disciplines). It is typical for a Russian and French scientist to correspond in English, like in 17th century, an English and a German scientist corresponded in Latin.

It is probably untrue that at the present time, the dominance of English has a negative effect on the development of science. (But again, we have no alternative history for comparison). Therefore one may conclude by comparison that switching from Latin to many languages had mixed overall effect.

EDIT. Of course one can say that English speakers have an advantage because their native language became international. The situation in the Middle Age was more fair:-) On the other hand, learning a foreign language seems to be beneficial to any child. Freeman Dyson once wrote that certain decline in English mathematics in 20th century can be attributed to the fact that students are not required anymore to learn Latin at school:-)

  • I don't know who you are, but I suppose you learned everything in your native language (English?). Or maybe not. But here's my first hand experience: not being able to learn in your native language sucks. In my country, we learn almost everything in a foreign language. I witnessed a lot of my friends struggle because they couldn't deal with the language, which became a real obstacle for most of them. As a nation, we suck at science and literature, both taught in foreign languages.
    – ahmed
    Jan 25, 2016 at 23:11
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    I am a Ukrainian. I learned everything in Russian at school, in Ukrainian at the university, and in English, Russian and French from reading. Many books that I read in my youth were translated from English to Russian. The reason I read then is not that I did not know English but that English books were not available in my country.
    – Alex
    Jan 25, 2016 at 23:17
  • But at the time when I got my education, English was not dominating as much as it is now. On my opinion, the elementary education has to be done in the native language. But for higher levels, it is much better to have one universal language of science.
    – Alex
    Jan 25, 2016 at 23:19
  • @ahmed: learning foreign languages is a very good training for your brain. People who cannot do this in their childhood probably will not be very successful in science as well:-)
    – Alex
    Jan 25, 2016 at 23:25
  • It's a bit more complicated here (Tunisia) where we learn our "native" language at school. I don't if I can explain it here, but it's more like speaking French at home, but forced to learn everything in Latin. Not only that, but people refuse to acknowledge that they're speaking French and insist on calling it Latin. It frustrates me to see my people unable to access basic knowledge because of them being self-forced into a sea a foreign languages.
    – ahmed
    Jan 25, 2016 at 23:29

This is kind of a matter of opinion, but for what its worth, I don't think the change was particularly significant. First of all, it happened very gradually and during the time when most books were written in Latin, most anyone with even a basic education could read Latin. So, it was just not that big of a deal.

I think part of the problem is that the modern person thinks of "science" as this abstruse and formal course of studies and institutions based in universities. This is not the way science was practiced in the old days.

  • "most anyone with even a basic education could read Latin. So, it was just not that big of a deal." From first hand experience, this is NOT true. In my country, most of the scientific books are in French, for historic and colonial reasons. But, MOST of the people struggle with the language even when writing a classified ad, let alone use it to learn math, physics or philosophy.
    – ahmed
    Jan 26, 2016 at 1:58
  • Well, should I assume your country is not England? I thought you were asking about England. Your question says "In England" right in the title. Jan 26, 2016 at 4:40
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    @ahmed Latin was replaced by local languages sometime before the expansion of the great colonial empires, so to the colonies only arrived books already written in the modern languages. That does not forbid that, for a long time, almost everyone who could perform science had a classic education and that Latin was the "scientific" language (a language to use for science so almost any other scientific in Europe would be able to read it). You can check Newton works, for example.
    – SJuan76
    Jan 26, 2016 at 8:30
  • Dear @ahmed, most of the people in your country struggle with French - but most of the people in your country also have virtually zero chance to contribute to science. The point is that there is a very strong correlation between one's ability to learn things like the "de facto lingua franca of current science" and "science" itself. It's true in your country - and it was also true in England. Newton was not obsessed with humanities in any way but he still knew Latin to write his texts in it. When folks who'll be scientists need to study texts, they simply learn whatever language they need. Jan 26, 2016 at 9:40

Maybe - but the link is tenuous, at best, I'd say - and may not even be causal.

The other answers correctly point out that, historically, science was the province of educated men, and these men would have learnt Latin and thus been able to read and communicate ideas (think Isaac Newton).

However, many of the technological advances of the English Industrial Revolution were not necessarily made by classically educated men - for example, Arkwright (water and steam powered mills), Stephenson (steam powered trains), Hargeaves (the spinning jenny). It is more likely that this profusion of non-classical engineers that spurred the transition away from Latin in science in general.

I'm not able to find definite evidence on, but I'm pretty sure that it was physics, mathematics and chemistry that transitioned away from Latin before biology and philosophy - showing how engineering brought English language into English science.


Something too long for a comment, and perhaps deserving of more than the potentially-ephemeral state of "comments":

First, specifically, in the late 1960s and through the 1970s, at least, for mathematics, a hugely significant fraction of important papers and textbooks were not in English. They were in French or German, and many things were in Russian, but the American Math Society translated some of them, with a year-or-two time lag.

When I was in grad school, it was absolutely essential to be able to read mathematical German and French (and Russian would have been good, but this was never available in high schools, and rarely in colleges/universities, but/and was luckily supplemented by AMS's translations).

That is, in those decades, there was no "Latin" for mathematics, at least.

But that was not a serious issue!

But, yes, then and now, less-devoted scholars, and "outsiders", will not have earlier anticipated the "need" to learn suitable languages... so, yes, certainly, coercing publications into a single vernacular language will make things more accessible.

That is, to recap, although multi-lingual science was never a serious obstacle for substantive professionals, it obviously could have been, and be so still, for people needing information that does not require comprehension of languages beyond their native one.

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