"English Language Bias" stymies science

Discussion in 'Linguistics' started by ElectricFetus, Jan 3, 2017.

  1. ElectricFetus Sanity going, going, gone Valued Senior Member

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  3. sweetpea Valued Senior Member

    Let's go back to latin.
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  5. Fraggle Rocker Staff Member

    I learned Esperanto 60 years ago. I have pen pals in foreign countries, and I have even visited them and spoke the language for several days.

    But I would not recommend Esperanto for any academic usage. The biggest problem is that the words are way too long. They're built from components, and this make the language very easy to learn and understand, but it's impossible to speak quickly.

    I've often said (from my own examination) that Chinese is the most economical language, as measured by the number of syllables needed to express an idea.

    From my own amateur research (for whatever it's worth) a sentence that requires 10 syllables in English will require:
    7 syllables in Chinese
    10 syllables in French
    13 syllables in German or Russian
    15 syllables in Spanish or Italian
    17 syllables in Japanese or Esperanto
    20 syllables in Hawaiian
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  7. ElectricFetus Sanity going, going, gone Valued Senior Member

  8. rpenner Fully Wired Valued Senior Member

    But they are fat syllables in that Mandarin has tones that distinguish ~1300 syllables that otherwise would be ~400 (ignoring tone). In addition, I believe Mandarin has still many more homophones per syllable requiring education and context to disambiguate. Technical fields in Chinese have their own special (logo-)syllabary for jargon which due to politics and history means that Mandarin has two technical words for silicon which are not (in modern usage) homophones (硅 矽).

    English's considerable homophone issue weakens to less than 300 when words are considered (not counting proper names or contrived examples of regional accents). On the other hand, common English has words like "strengths" and "angsts" which most non-English speakers would consider an unfortunate number of consonants to cluster about a single vowel, while the American English "squirreled" has unusual orthography for a word of a single syllable.

  9. iceaura Valued Senior Member

    People who time poetry have found that the standard line length for the major long form(s) - 2.5 seconds iirc - is pretty much the same for all languages, regardless of the number of syllables. So communication of meaning vs time appears to be about the same in all languages, and seems to be rooted in features of human mental processing more fundamental than the various structural details of human mind supported languages.

    That's verbal. In written form, key for scientific communication, English seems to have some advantages over most other languages besides (or because of?) its no doubt largely accidental preeminence on the world economic stage:
    It's an alphabet rendering sounds, allowing expansion of vocabulary and dictionary compilation without great awkwardness.
    It's written left to right and up to down, which for some reason apparently works better with regard to scientific thinking and communication.
    It has little in the way of gender or status designation, and handles the double negative in alignment with formal logic - clear advantages in the scientific fields.
    It has a moderate number of structural complications regarding time, writer and reader identity, number agreement, etc, - not a great many but enough to allow on the one side some independence of word order and emphasis, on the other easy adoption of words, phrases, even entire techniques, from other languages. This Goldilocks level of grammatical hassle also allows reasonable entree and communication by newcomers - their native word order and random inflections and so forth will usually make sense somehow in English, works Yoda speak does, that kind of thing - while enabling efficient precision and subtlety by the more familiar.
    It has a profound and extensive literature of all forms (except possibly epic poetry), rewarding the learner beyond their instrumental needs to whatever extent they wish to avail themselves.

    And so forth. It's not a bad choice of lingua franca, in other words - it would be difficult to improve on.
  10. ElectricFetus Sanity going, going, gone Valued Senior Member

    Pleace cite that study, Fraggle has refused to believe mine.

    And this is why despite China becoming the worlds largest economy they are in no hurry to try to make their language the global lingua franca.
  11. iceaura Valued Senior Member

    I first ran into the factoid many years ago in an essay in "Poetry" magazine (this issue: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/browse?volume=143&issue=6), which was an odd place to run into such a report - it was actual stopwatch research. It was called "The Neural Lyre: Poetic Meter, the Brain, and Time". One of the authors has a link posted on his website:
    website http://frederickturnerpoet.com/?page_id=14
    link: http://www.cosmoetica.com/B22-FT2.htm
    It's a bit thick in the philosophical or literary sense, but does make an actual case or argument - sample:
    Note that my memory misled - the peak measured was between 2.5 and 3.5 seconds, with 2.5 being the low end of a range, and the common long form lines clustering close to 3.

    But many studies since have explored the question - that old essay was far from the last word in the matter.
  12. Fraggle Rocker Staff Member

    I'm not sure what you mean. The average Mandarin syllable begins with a consonant, which is followed by a vowel or a diphthong. The vowel may be followed by "N" or "NG," which easily attach to the end of any vowel. And of course, in Mandarin, S, Z, SH and ZH count as vowels, but they are never followed by N or NG.

    I'd like to see the study you cite. Even though I learned Spanish many years before Mandarin, and even though I've had much more opportunity to converse in Spanish than in Mandarin, I still find it easier to understand Mandarin than Spanish.
    Please forgive me. I don't always keep up with this subforum because it doesn't get a lot of traffic. So I'm sure that occasionally I miss something important.
    That may be ONE reason, but a better one is that the phonemes of Mandarin are more difficult for foreigners to learn than those of the Indo-European languages. The phoneme represented as X, for example, is a big challenge for Anglophones, and even more so in the diphthong XW (which is not transcribed that way). The tonal structure is also a headache for our people, because in English (and virtually all other Indo-European languages, as well as many other families) tone is used to express emotion, rather than information.
    Last edited: Jan 9, 2017
  13. ElectricFetus Sanity going, going, gone Valued Senior Member

    We been over this it was a year ago, I provided the link then as well.

    But yes mandarin is a harder language to learn than English for speakers who are not starter off with a related tonal language.
    Last edited: Jan 4, 2017
  14. Yazata Valued Senior Member

    At least it doesn't get as widely known. German, French and Russian are scientific languages as well, with scientific publishing. But if you publish in one of those languages, your pool of potential readers will be much smaller. Most of the top journals that everyone in a particular field pays attention to are English-language journals.

    German would probably have been the leading language of scholarship in general. That's because the research university with its doctoral degrees and dissertations was a 19th century German invention. The unpleasant events of the early 1940's ended that leadership and gave English its big opportunity.

    I don't see how publishing in a language that virtually no one understands would increase the circulation of one's papers.

    Yeah, that's a big wildcard. If it develops to the point where it can translate scientific papers accurately (probably an easier task than translating everyday speech) then it might become the new standard for scientific publishing. No matter what language it was written in, everyone could download your paper in the language they are most comfortable with.

    It's interesting to speculate about the future of Mandarin Chinese as a scientific language. There are something like 1.3 billion people who can at least potentially read it (if they are literate), so it comes with a large readership built in. Unfortunately, I get the impression that Chinese is still playing catch-up in terms of technical vocabulary, sometimes adopting English language technical jargon to their pronunciation and script.

    A big problem for Chinese is that despite its huge number of native speakers, it isn't truly a global language, being restricted to China, Taiwan and a few places like Singapore. So I can kind of imagine a situation where China becomes its own scientific world, with Chinese scientists writing in Chinese for Chinese readers, while the rest of the world scientific community still tends to operate in English. Of course there will be people in both China and elsewhere who do understand the other's language and will be watching for interesting publications, which will quickly circulate in translation. This is where machine translation potentially becomes very important.
    Last edited: Jan 5, 2017
  15. ElectricFetus Sanity going, going, gone Valued Senior Member


    Esperanto is in its heyday a hundred years ago too. I would think amongst scientist that it makes sense to switch to a easier to learn artificial language that is not national. Science use Latin and Ancient Greek over native terminology for a reason.

    Esperanto gathered a pretty good following out of nothing simply because of the imperalist headache of learning someone else's language: it is more fair if two people have to learn an easy to learn language than one person having to learn the others language.

    I work with a lot of Chinese academics in chemical engineering and it seems the opposite is happening, but I that is just my perception and I could be wrong.
  16. rpenner Fully Wired Valued Senior Member

    Ditto: Used to show agreement with what another person has said.
    Dido: The founder and first queen of Carthage, primarily known from the account given by the Roman poet Virgil in his epic, Aeneid.
  17. ElectricFetus Sanity going, going, gone Valued Senior Member

  18. Fraggle Rocker Staff Member

    But it had to compete with French, which was the language of general academic use, and even more important: of diplomacy.
    Yes, they can read it, but only about half of the population can understand spoken Mandarin, and an even smaller number can speak it. Guangdong Chinese (still called "Cantonese" by many foreigners) and Shanghai Chinese (as well as several other versions of the language used in other regions) are considerably different from Mandarin in pronunciation, although the vocabulary and syntax are about 99% identical, which is why they can all read each other's writing.
    This is true, but I think you're exaggerating a little. It's very difficult to borrow a word from English because the phonetics are incompatible. The scientific word that my Chinese teacher used to explain this was "vitamin," one of very few borrowings. It comes out as wei ta ming, which means, literally, "only this gives life." Most other words are neither phonetic transcriptions nor clumsy translations. "Bicycle," for example, is jiao ta che, "foot stride vehicle." Telephone is dian hua, "lightning speech"--"lightning" is universally used for "electricity."
    Sure, but as possibly the only person here who has actually studied the language and can carry on a simple conversation, the phonetics are just as big a problem--especially learning to use tones as phonemes rather than expressions of feelings.
    The Chinese are not dummies. Virtually all university-educated people have studied English. Restricting their reading to scientific journals, this serves them very well. Of course, they aren't nearly as adept at writing English, but I'm often surprised to see an unedited composition that I can understand just about as well as the writing of many Americans!
    As I noted earlier, I can speak, understand, read and write Esperanto, and I would not recommend it for anything important because the sentences are about twice as long.
    It's basically a matter of habit. The Greeks and Romans built the first enduring empires in Europe, and therefore their people were the first major population of scholars. Read any technical article and note the proportion of words with Greek and Roman roots. The French, who for a while were Europe's academic leaders, rather easily adopted Latin words because French descended from Latin, so many of the words already existed in their language, in more modern phonetic form.
    Last edited: Jan 9, 2017
  19. Ophiolite Valued Senior Member

    But is this not achieved by means of the tonal character of the language? This certainly confers efficiency in terms of concision, but creates difficulties for non-native speakers seeking to learn the language.
  20. Fraggle Rocker Staff Member

    No. It's because the speakers of Chinese, over the millennia, have realized that a lot of words are unimportant, and stopped using them except when they are useful in a particular situation.
  21. Walter L. Wagner Cosmic Truth Seeker Valued Senior Member

    think, thank, thunk; not thunked (for those seeking to emphasize grammatical inconsistencies in English). Who would have thunk it. Thunked makes it doubly redundant.
  22. ElectricFetus Sanity going, going, gone Valued Senior Member

    but it is fun to say "thunked"
  23. iceaura Valued Senior Member

    The concision disappears in the spoken language, if the measure is time necessary to communicate. The syllables take longer to pronounce.
    From my experience with friends fluent in Chinese and translations of Chinese texts:

    By "unimportant" is meant "are replaced by context, attitude, reference, etc". One of the contexts is word order, which therefore becomes rigid and useless for emphasis, tone, etc. Another is the exact surroundings that obtain, so that written Chinese texts too far removed from their context apparently (in my experience watching the struggle) can be very difficult to decipher even if every word in them is clear and non-metaphorical - at least, difficult to translate with confidence. To remove this ambiguity seems to require a lot of words other languages compact into inflections and tenses and the like.

    To appreciate what can happen, compare different English translations of old Chinese texts - Tao Te Ching, Sun Tzu's Art of War, anything from before the steam engine and modern context.

    There seem to be some real advantages in some ways of thinking, to have a language that is not too specifically constraining - Descartes probably would not have made the the mistake of thinking that the presence of thought necessarily implied a thinker, in Chinese. But there's a price paid.

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