I'm always amazed by the the apparent amount of foreign languages that scientists in the 18th and 19th centuries seem to have possessed. With the end of Latin as the main scholarly language, researchers started to write in their mother tongue. I'm aware that sometimes papers got translated when they were reprinted in a foreign journal, which was pretty common back then (the reprinting, not the translation as far as I know…), but it seems obvious for example in the field of botany in Germany, that people had to have a command (at least to the level of a reading comprehension) of at least Latin, French, and English in order to participate in scholarly discourse.

I was wondering where and how scientists acquired those skills, or if this is a case where there is a nowadays unknown army of translators that facilitated the discourse and bridged the gap in that way.

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    It was common then to learn several languages in school. In fact in some parts of the world it still is. Most children in better schools (I mean, not the village school where little peasants learned their letters) would have learned French, German, English, maybe Italian, and always Latin. The clever ones got to learn ancient Greek as well.
    – RedSonja
    May 17, 2017 at 13:48
  • I'm assuming something like that as well. It would make sense, since the study of language and the history of languages was very important back then. Still: Somebody must know of a good paper or book or something that elaborates on these general notions - maybe they know themselves.
    – openmedi
    May 17, 2017 at 14:10
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    I know German was required for the Physics major at my (American) university through the 1970's
    – antlersoft
    May 17, 2017 at 15:26
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    In my experience, acquiring a reading comprehension of a language isn't all that difficult, especially when it's limited to the formalized subset used in technical writing. Actually speaking & comprehending the spoken language is an order of magnitude more difficult.
    – jamesqf
    May 17, 2017 at 17:18
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    Most scholars in those times were from wealthy families, with nannies (often foreign to teach language), tutors and formal schools. Learning Greek and Latin was standard, so was French, German... Also, before nation states emerged average people both in towns and villages used to speak more languages, and bilingualism or trilingualism were pretty common in continental Europe, due to the high mobility of people between different countries.
    – Greg
    May 19, 2017 at 2:00

2 Answers 2


Most of them learned languages at school. Or more precisely in a lyceum or gymnasium as these schools were called in French and German/Russian, respectively. They gave a strong training in languages (and also in history, geography and mathematics). The languages normally taught included Latin (everywhere, until 20 century), Greek (ancient, of course), sometimes Hebrew, and "Modern Languages" (English, German, French). This was considered a normal education until the early 20th century, and was called "classic education". In many countries gymnasium was a necessary prerequisite to be admitted to a university. In some countries (Germany) Latin is a common subject even now.

One of my relatives, for example, born in 1910 in an educated lower middle class family in Ukraine would normally go to a gymnasium. His father was a worker (a typesetter) and his mother a housewife. Because the normal way of life was interrupted in Ukraine in 1917, the parents would hire private teachers (mostly students). As a result, he was fluent in English, German, French, Latin, and Hebrew, let alone his "native languages" normally spoken in Ukraine at that time (Russian, Ukrainian and Yiddish). He became a scientist, in medicine. As I understand this was a standard for an well-educated person, especially a scientist (except Hebrew and Yiddish). After that time, the standards in language education sharply declined. Most Soviet scientists whom I knew and who were born in the later epochs knew at most one foreign language.

If you read Tolstoy, War and Peace, (the action happens in the beginning of 19th century) you notice that the personages (Russian nobles) speak between themselves in French and German most of the time, sometimes in English. They all had "classic education".

All education of Julien Sorel (Stendal, Le Rouge et le Noir) consisted of memorizing a Gospel in Latin. This alone allowed him to feel himself a gentleman, to be treated as one, and to qualify for a suitable job (early 19th century).

Before the middle of 19th century, the primary education was mostly Latin (the native languages were not taught at schools!) An educated person in Europe was first of all distinguished by the knowledge of Latin. Greek and other foreign languages were taught later.

ADDED. As promised in my comment I made a little poll in a German university math department. I asked 9 professors and one secretary about themselves and their children. All but one had Latin and English at school, but Latin was not mandatory in most schools. One had just to choose any 2 foreign languages. In some schools Latin was mandatory and this depended on the Land (state in Germany) and of particular school. So I was wrong and corrected my statement.

  • In Germany Latin is not mandatory in schools. In some fields of study at university you may need Latin (Latinum), so it is offered at the Gymnasium (Especially at the Humanistische Gymnasium, but again, it's not mandatory.
    – knut
    May 17, 2017 at 19:24
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    All my German friends who are mostly of the age 30-60 had Latin at school, and say it was required. They are all mathematicians. My son (who went to school in the US) had Latin, French and Spanish at school (all were elective, but some languages were required).
    – Alex
    May 17, 2017 at 19:30
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    In the nineteenth century, in France to earn a doctorate, the candidate had to write two theses, one in French and one in Latin, Latin being learned in the lycée, the equivalent of High School and first year of University now in the USA.
    – MasB
    May 17, 2017 at 23:26
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    @knut, the question is about learning these languages in the 18th and 19th century.
    – MasB
    May 17, 2017 at 23:27
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    It is mandatory to learn two foreign languages in a German Gymnasium, and optional to learn three or more. The school decides which languages they can offer and the student then selects from the choices. English is almost universally available, French, Spanish and Latin are strong, other languages are available as a third language or in the border regions (Polish, Danish, Dutch, Italian, Russian, ...). Some specialized schools offer more uncommon languages or bilingual lessions in non-language subjects. At some schools, Latin is mandatory. To avoid it one has to go to another school.
    – o.m.
    May 20, 2017 at 10:43

If these scientists were nobles or came from a wealthy family, they would have a done a big trip around Europe, when they are starting to become adults. This trip was called "Grand Tour" and was supposed to open the young minds to arts, sciences and languages.

Other than that, if these scientists were reknowned or were in societies (e.g. the Royal Society, l'Académie des Sciences, etc), they were frequently corresponding to other societies or to some monarchs (e.g. like the correspondance between Descartes and Kristina av Sverige).

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