Considerations on the Introduction of an International Language into Science



IF we take up a book or a paper dealing with mathematics (especially analysis) printed in a language, such as Japanese, which is quite unintelligible to us, we shall, nevertheless, soon succeed in finding out what it is about and often in understanding its main contents. The reason of this is, of course, that the mathematical formulae consist of symbols which are intelligible to us because they are used in the same manner by all civilised nations. The same thing holds good in physics, and especially in chemistry; chemical formulae contain at the present day such detailed information concerning the relationships of the substances symbolised, that one might conceive the possibility of writing a chemical paper with formulae alone.

In the case of the descriptive natural sciences, the Latin names of the genera and species, the Latin nomenclature of anatomy and other similar groups, form a common international possession. Physiology, biology, sociology, as well as history and ancient philology, possess as yet, however, no system of internationally intelligible terms. In modern philology (phonetics) practical endeavours have already been made to construct an international system of sound symbols. All these sciences possess naturally the designation of numbers by means of numerals which have a perfectly international character. Since in mathematics not only the quantities, but also the operations, are denoted by universally understood symbols, it is already possible, with comparatively few additions, to express long trains of mathematical thought in a manner which is internationally intelligible, that is, intelligible to those who are acquainted with the science and its symbols. For a considerable time Professor Peano, in Turin, has been publishing works written in this manner. We perceive here the realisation of the ideal of a purely ideographic language, which can be read by the specialist without his requiring to translate it into the words of any particular form of speech.

To quote a similar example from chemistry, J. H. van't Hoff, in one of the publications of his youth, avoided assigning names to the chemical substances with which he dealt, considering that his meaning would be much better conveyed by the corresponding structural formulae. Such a text would be quite intelligible to a trained chemist without the formula calling up in his mind any particular words, indeed without any such words existing at all.

These well-known facts show that the problem of an international language has already been partly solved in science. In so far as definite and fairly stable concepts have been formed in science, they may be designated by arbitrary symbols, which may if necessary be universally accepted and understood. Hitherto such symbols have been mainly employed for reading, that is to say intended for the eye, and not for the voice and ear. For example, in different languages quite different sounds are assigned to the numerals, so that, whilst the written symbols are universally intelligible, the spoken ones are not.

However, there are a considerable number of exceptions to this statement. The word integral is quite as international as the symbol [integral symbol unobtainable in HTML] and the chemical symbol Tl is pronounced everywhere thallium, or something very like it. On looking through the table of the chemical elements one finds that more than two-thirds of the names possess similar sounds in the chief languages. Differences occur only in the case of the well-known elements, where the words employed in daily life have found their way into science, whilst the newly discovered elements all possess international names. It follows from this that the further problem of assigning an international system of sounds to scientific concepts has been in certain departments of science already approximately solved. It is true that the sound is still somewhat dependent on the speech basis of the particular nation, so that, for example, not inconsiderable deviations may occur in English. But, as the written and printed word is always simultaneously known, the recognition of a name as pronounced by a foreigner does not cause any very great difficulty.

There exists here a field of work for those who are interested in the idea of an artificial language which is as fertile as it is interesting. As is well known, we scientific men suffer a good deal from the fact that the same words are frequently employed for the vague ideas of daily life as well as for the perfectly definite concepts of science. This is indeed one of the most important reasons why new designations for scientific concepts should, as far as possible, be taken from the dead languages, such designations being thereby already international. It ought therefore to be a comparatively easy task to devise by means of this international material and the linguistic rules of the language of the Delegation a system of international names for the clearly defined concepts of the different sciences.

Such a system possesses a double purpose. In the first place, it could, I think, be used in our present natural languages. Certain English expressions occurring in electrotechnics, such as shunt, extra current, are employed in German and French just as if they were national words. The international names in their international form might be employed in every case where a precise scientific terminology was required, without doing much violence to our natural languages. The inflow of foreign words through the channels of technology and science as well as those of commerce and music has already shown itself to be irresistible, so that a strict carrying out of the principle of "purity" in our national languages has been a practical impossibility. In literature properly so called one will endeavour nevertheless to adhere to this principle, but where the chief question is one of precision of concepts, as in science, language must be regarded as a handmaiden, whose first duty is to obey. For language stands only in a secondary relationship to the independently developed and determined concepts of science, which have been already fixed by the symbols assigned to them, just in the same way that language has fixed the concepts of daily life.

Independent of the above application, which one may or may not consider practical, is the internationalisation of scientific publications by means of a universally understood auxiliary language, which is becoming every day more urgently necessary.

This problem, too, cannot be attacked until the concepts of all the sciences in question have received their proper designations. The existing dictionaries of international auxiliary languages contain mostly the expressions of daily life, so that at present these languages are mainly applicable only for such communications. Some success can indeed be obtained in the expression of the higher trains of thought of philosophical reasoning, but here already considerable uncertainty exists. It is clear, for instance, that a paper in organic chemistry can only be successfully written in the international language after the translations of the different names for substances occurring in different languages have been mutually agreed upon.

Consequently the working out of the concepts of the different sciences and the determination of their international designations is the very first task which must be performed before the further objects, international literature and international oral intercourse in science, can be considered. It is the duty therefore of the representatives of science who have joined the Uniono di l'Amiki di la Linguo Internaciona to apply themselves in the first place to this problem, since the further success of the whole question depends entirely on its at least provisional solution.

The first principle which must guide this work is undoubtedly the general principle of maximum internationality, which has been used in the construction of the auxiliary language. Its application is rendered easy by the fact that, owing to the use of Greek and Latin roots for the designation of scientific concepts, there is already present a far-reaching internationality, which must naturally be retained.

In the second place, it will not always be possible to employ in science the same expressions that are used in ordinary speech, because the effect of the latter is to produce a blunting of the precise connotation of concepts; whilst science, on the other hand, requires clearly defined concepts, to which must correspond equally distinct expressions.

In the third place, those words which occur frequently in combinations must be chosen as short as possible. Here I would not shrink from a very considerable mutilation of the most international forms. Such long names as wasserstoff or "hydrogen" cannot be permitted, and must be reduced to monosyllabic forms. Every chemical author must have been times without number annoyed by the terms of three and four syllables for the commonest elements, and this defect is common to all languages. The objection against such an artificial abbreviation, which is valid for the language of daily life, namely, that it increases the difficulty of the language for those of little education, does not hold in the case of science, since it is a matter of indifference to the beginner whether he learns the new name oxygen or oxo (or any other similar abbreviation), because in any case he must learn it by heart. Such a procedure satisfies also the second condition, as it facilitates most easily the giving of a special form to scientific terms, which is different from that of ordinary life.

In the fourth place, it will be advisable in cases where universally known symbols exist, which consist of letters or have been derived from these (such as certain mathematical symbols), to choose the name so that it begins with the same letter. For example, the constant of gravitation is now universally denoted by g, and the corresponding international word should therefore begin with G. It appears to me doubtful, however, whether this principle can be generally carried out. I have examined the names of the chemical elements with this intent, and have arrived at the conclusion that it would not work without doing considerable violence to general usage. For example, it would be scarcely possible to find an international name for chlor (chlorine) which, corresponding to the chemical symbol Cl, would begin with C, for the latter letter is pronounced ts, whilst the word chlor (with corresponding terminations) is international, and, according to its sound, must be written like kloro or in some similar way.

These are the formal suggestions which I should like to make with reference to the problem in hand; they are only intended to indicate how one might proceed, and are not to be regarded as either exhaustive or infallible. There arises now the second question as to how such work is to be organised.

As the same concepts occur in several related sciences, and must receive the same designations, it would not be practicable to entrust the construction of the vocabularies to special commissions for each particular science. It would be more advisable to appoint a certain number of persons to collect the material and to make out lists of the concepts for which terms are required, and then to appoint commissions representing a whole group of sciences to discuss the necessary principles, after which the details could be worked out and finally subjected to the examination and approval of the whole body. To make matters at once more definite, I think the exact sciences ought to be first taken into consideration, for in their case the fixation of concepts is most highly developed. There is no need for a replacement of the well-known Latin nomenclature employed in the descriptive sciences, nor would any attempt in this direction have any likelihood of success. We must look rather to the distant future, when all other sciences will have already adapted themselves to the international idiom for the translation of the Latin names into the forms of the international language (retaining the stems, however) in order to produce for aesthetic reasons a uniform system throughout the whole of science.

On the other hand, I consider it absolutely necessary to subject the concepts of logic and the theory of cognition to the same process of scientific delimitation and fixation. In the first place, these sciences belong, at least theoretically, to the exact sciences; and, in the second place, work in these departments of knowledge is rendered extraordinarily difficult by the fact that their concepts are expressed in the terms used in daily life, whose elastic nature constantly frustrates exact work.

Conversely, this great process of purification cannot fail to bring to light much that is of value for the theory and systematisation of scientific concepts. For one must be quite clear on a subject oneself before one can make it clear to others. Indeed, even a simple classified list of possibilities, in which one has earnestly sought to omit nothing of importance, constitutes in itself a scientific advance, which is rendered all the more desirable by the fact that in general people have troubled very little about questions of this sort. It may be already foreseen, and indeed with pleasure, that such problems are not to be solved offhand - and will probably require for their final settlement an international congress, at which the final decisions will be made. For this congress will probably be the first scientific gathering at which, instead of three, four, or five languages, only one, and that the international auxiliary language, will be spoken.


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James Chandler 29-Nov-97.