Simanaitis Says

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TODAY, ENGLISH is the language of science for much of the world. Why is that?

Lynn K. Nyhart offers insights on this in “Speaking of science,” in the April 10, 2015, issue of Science. Nyhart’s article is a review of Scientific Babel, a new book on the topic by Michael D. Gordin.


Scientific Babel: How Science Was Done Before and After Global English, by Michael D. Gordin, University of Chicago Press, 2015.

Reading the Science article got me researching several of the scientific lingos Nyhart mentions, including Volapük, Ido and Weltdeutsch. Here’s what I gleaned.

In the old, old days, all learned proceedings were in Latin. England’s Magna Carta was written in this language in 1215. Sir Isaac Newton’s Principia Mathematica, 1687, was published in Latin, though he composed the work in English and translated it, phrase by phrase.

For a while there, French was the language of diplomacy. Through the 19th century, however, scientific communications flourished in all three of English, French and German. Author Gordin cites pitfalls of translation as complicating these matters.


Dmitri Ivanovich Mendeleev, 1834 – 1907, Russian chemist, inventor and formulator of the Periodic Law of Elements.

When Russian chemist Dmitri Mendeleev proposed his periodic arrangement of elements in 1871, a translation from Russian to German incorrectly used the word “phased” for “periodic,” thus missing an important point of his work.

Carl Friedrich Gauss, known as the Prince of Mathematics, avoided this problem by publishing his works in Latin well into the 19th century. Mathematics, on its own, is a universal language. Nevertheless, its descriptive bits profit from linguistic amplification.

In the late 19th century, several constructed languages were proposed, not only for scientific communication but for general use as well.


Johann Martin Schleyer, 1831 – 1912, German Catholic priest and linguist.

For example, Volapük was introduced 1879 – 1880 by Johann Martin Schleyer, a Roman Catholic priest in Baden, Germany. One source says his idea for an international language arose from a parishioner’s wish to communicate with a relative in the U.S. (where, apparently, the Post Office couldn’t read German script). Another suggests that God came to Father Schleyer in a dream and told him to invent an international language.

Volapük had brief fame in the late 1800s, including a writeup in The Times-Richmond, 1898: “Its great merit lies in its simplicity, which causes it to be very quickly learned….”


Volapük is celebrated on the wall of a German parsonage. In German and Volapük, the inscription reads “One Mankind–One Language.” Image by FB78.

There’s no pleasing everyone, however. A Milwaukee Sentinel of the era poked fun of the language’s many umlauts; “Volapük,” for example, deriving from “World Speak.” The newspaper’s limerick: “A charming young student of Grük/Once tried to acquire Volapük/But it sounded so bad/That her friends called her mad/And she quit it in less than a wük.”

To this day, Danes have a saying “Det er det rene volapyk for mig,” their version of the English “It’s Greek to me.”

Esperanto has been rather more successful. This constructed language dating from 1887 is now spoken by more than 2 million people around the world.


Esperanto made it onto the silver screen—at least twice. The shop sign in this scene from Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator, 1940, reads “Used Clothes.”

There was even a William Shatner horror flick, Incubus, 1966, entirely scripted in Esperanto. Its director gave strict instructions that it not be dubbed into any other language.


An offshoot language, Ido, was proposed in 1907 as a reformation of perceived flaws in Esperanto. French mathematician Louis Couturat helped in Ido’s foundation. Alas, he died in a car accident in 1914. Ido has survived into the Internet age; there’s even a Wikipedio in Ido.

Weltdeutsch, World German, was proposed by Wilheim Ostwald as a simplification of German in 1915. This constructed language arose in part from an earlier dispute that Nobel-prize-winning chemist Ostwald had with mathematician Couturat over Ido.

The success of Weltdeutsch was more or less predicated on a German victory in World War I. We know how that played out. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2015

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