Technical language

When I was an undergraduate working in the lab, my former boss was Spanish but was very strict about everyone using English and only English in his lab, which I can understand.  Research is a collaborative effort and it doesn’t help anyone if you’re alienating other members of the lab by using a language they don’t understand.

Most of the scientists I worked with last quarter are Chinese and converse mostly in Chinese with each other and, everyday, I’m amazed that they can talk science in practically 100% Chinese.  It’s funny and interesting at the same time to hear things like “Something something something TRANSGENIC MICE something something BIOTINYLATED something….”  It makes me wonder how flexible a language is about “inventing” new words as science and technology evolve.

Japanese, for example, seems to be pretty generous about adapting English words (considering that they have an entire alphabet for foreign words).  On the other hand, I remember being highly amused when my mother said that a language institution? organization? of some sort actually invented Tamil words (not just “Indianified” pronunciations of the English words but actual words) for “computer,” “e-mail,” and “television.”  Ha!

Oddly enough, though, there do seem to be foreign word equivalents even for technical scientific words.  For example, both Korean and Japanese have words that mean “gel electrophoresis” – a molecular biology technique that uses electricity to separate fragments of DNA by size.  It’s especially fun to look at the Kanji for this word because the characters that comprise it pretty much tell you the meaning.

gel electrophoresis = ゲル電気泳動 (ゲルでんきえいどう)

  • ゲル  = gel
  • 電気 (でんき) = electricity
  • 泳 (エイ) = swimming
  • 動 (ドウ) = movement 

Gel electrophoresis has been around since 1975 but I wonder how long it took to actually coin the Japanese equivalent for this word.  Was there a transition period of time during which just the English was used  (with Katakana, perhaps) before the appropriate Kanji were selected?  Or was it immediate?  Who came up with the word, scientists or linguists?

Is society moving toward more or less homogenized language?  Personally, I think the global pressure of English will soon force inventors and scientists from non-English speaking countries to use Latin roots to coin new words; it’s only a matter of time before we see the breakdown of native “invented” technical words, especially in science and technology where international collaboration and the necessity to be understood is so key.

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