Recently, I read an interesting article about how English replaced German as the language in which scientists communicate. But how did German become the leading language in the first place? In the early years of what we could call modern science, around the time when Galileo worked, I would expect latin to dominate the scientific discussion. What happened that scientists switched to German?

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    $\begingroup$ Maybe you should write a definition of what "language of the science" is. Most articles written in that language? Then maybe it is Chinese. Most Nobel Prizes? Then Latin never was. If the definition is "the language one must know to perform scientific activities", I think the "metric" should be non-native scientists who must learn the language in order to keep doing science. And German never was it, except perhaps for Chemistry. $\endgroup$
    – SJuan76
    Commented Nov 11, 2014 at 0:16
  • $\begingroup$ @SJuan76, one quick fix, most scientific articles published in china (and most of asia for that matter) are written in English, not in chinese. $\endgroup$
    – Cicero
    Commented Jun 29, 2015 at 14:24
  • $\begingroup$ My impression was that it was Göttingen that did it. $\endgroup$
    – tox123
    Commented Mar 14, 2016 at 20:43
  • $\begingroup$ See: Jungnickel & McCormmach's Second Physicist: On the History of Theoretical Physics in Germany (2017). $\endgroup$
    – Geremia
    Commented Jun 12, 2017 at 15:14
  • $\begingroup$ To say 'X is/was the language of science' is to say that there is/was no other: did you really mean that? -- because I'd say it is clearly not so: it's easy to find sources to show that at least since the 17th-c. there has always been more than one widely-used (arguably principal) language of science. Maybe you really meant to ask how did German become one of the principal languages of science?? $\endgroup$
    – terry-s
    Commented Jul 7, 2017 at 15:33

6 Answers 6


My impression is that German never was "THE language of science" in the same sense as English in now. After the switch from Latin to modern languages, there was no single dominating language of science. Up to the middle 20-s century there were at least 4 common languages of science: French, German, English and Italian.

Let me state more precisely what I mean: French scientists wrote in French (not in German), English/American wrote in English (not in German, not in French). And so on. Scientists of other nations had an option: to write in their native language or in one of these 4 "languages of science". For example Russians wrote in Russian, English, German and French.

This multilingual situation prevailed in Mathematics until 1970-s. Since the end of 70-s very few Germans write mathematics in German. There are still many French mathematicians writing in French, but a talk in French in an international conference is really rare.

But it is incorrect to say that German (or French) ever was THE "language of science". Until 1970-s the Germans wrote in German, the English wrote in English and the French wrote in French. These languages were "one of the languages of science" each.

EDIT. It seems to be true, however that in terms of VOLUME of published scientific works German was on the first place in the 19th and early 20th century. (I can confirm this by some statistics I made myself). But still English, French and Italian scientists wrote in their own languages. Nowadays the situation is very different: most scientists of any nation write in English.

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    $\begingroup$ Actually, many French thesis in mathematics are now mixing English and French. $\endgroup$
    – VicAche
    Commented Nov 2, 2014 at 20:39
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    $\begingroup$ According to the article cited by the OP, German was the primary language of science in 1900, and World War I was the event that ended that. $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 17, 2015 at 13:50
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    $\begingroup$ I disagree that WWI ended that. German's role as the language of science declined only when Hitler came to power. $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 20, 2015 at 5:20
  • $\begingroup$ 5 "languages of science", not 4: you forgot (drumbeat ...) Russian. :-) $\endgroup$
    – Michael
    Commented Aug 21, 2017 at 15:29
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    $\begingroup$ It is WWII, not WWI that ended German's role as the language of science. Russian only publish their major works in Russian after mid 1930s. I don't think Chinese publish their major works in Chinese nowadays. $\endgroup$ Commented Sep 7, 2018 at 0:34

One reason is geography: German is spoken in the middle of Europe and contains - or is close to - many eminent academic cities. Germany was not a homogeneous country (like e.g. France) before 1871, but a collection of small dynastic states, which were culturally quite diverse. The protestant part of Germany had a strict work ethic and there was also a substantial Jewish population, all of which contributed to the development of mathematics and science.

The age of Enlightenment ('Aufklärung') and the romantic period played an important role in Germany and lead to a surge of interest in topics such as nature, philosophy, and also science and math. Traces of this period are still visible in the classical curriculum of some high schools ('humanistisches Gymnasium').

Finally, the German language is good at creating new composites: for example 'Eigenwert' (eigenvalue), 'Nullsummenspiel' (a game without favorable outcome), 'Gedankenexperiment' (thought experiment) and so on. This is a very convenient thing in scientific discourse, and many of these terms have been borrowed or translated into English.

  • $\begingroup$ You cite that the presence of a substantial jewish population as a contribution. How did they contribute? $\endgroup$
    – Paul
    Commented Jan 6, 2015 at 16:22
  • $\begingroup$ Well it's striking how strongly they contributed not only to science but culture in general: music, literature, chess, journalism... the names in HD22686's list illustrate this fact nicely by the way. The reason for this is probably worth a question on its own. $\endgroup$
    – Felix
    Commented Jan 6, 2015 at 17:10
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    $\begingroup$ Besides Germany, German is also spoken in much of Switzerland, a country which is not irrelevant to scientific developments of the time. $\endgroup$
    – Superbest
    Commented Jun 12, 2015 at 2:10
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    $\begingroup$ @FranzLemmermeyer Euclid lived in Alexandria in Ptolemaic egypt in the 4th-3rd century before christ antiquity, which had similar geographic advantages as Germany did in the early modern era, being in the crossroads of major trading languages. $\endgroup$
    – Cicero
    Commented Jun 29, 2015 at 14:27
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    $\begingroup$ German was spoken in what is today Germany, in Austria-Hungary (there are many, many important Hungarian mathematicians who wrote in German, that being the language of upper class) and in large parts of Switzerland. $\endgroup$
    – vonbrand
    Commented Mar 13, 2016 at 16:09

The change from Latin to German wasn't instantaneous. True, Galileo was one of the first to break the mold and write in his native language, but he used Italian, not German. Newton, too, used English (though, admittedly, also a lot of Latin). There doesn't appear to be a sudden shift to German around this time period. The change was gradual. As the article you mentioned says,

Then it [Latin] began to fracture. Latin became one of many languages in which science was done.

Why the change? I found that this put it best:

But researchers began to move away from Latin in the 17th century. Galileo, Newton, and others started writing papers in their native tongues in part to make their work more accessible and in part as a reaction to the Protestant Reformation and the declining influence of the Catholic Church.

After all, how many people in the 17th century were fluent in Latin?

I'd say that German became the language of science sometime in the late 19th century, growing until the late part of the early half of the 20th century. Physics exemplifies this. Look at this list of physicists:

  • Max Planck
  • Albert Einstein
  • Werner Heisenberg
  • Emmy Noether
  • Heinrich Hertz
  • Wilhelm Rontgen

There were also many Austrians in physics:

  • Erwin Schrodinger
  • Wolfgang Pauli
  • Ernst Mach

Also, Germany was strong in mathematics:

  • Bernhard Riemann
  • David Hilbert
  • Felix Klein
  • Hermann Weyl
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    $\begingroup$ Noether is more mathematician than physicist. $\endgroup$
    – Ab_Sh
    Commented Jun 30, 2015 at 20:50
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    $\begingroup$ @2000 You can't ignore Noether's theorem. $\endgroup$
    – HDE 226868
    Commented Jun 30, 2015 at 20:52
  • $\begingroup$ It's true but you can't ignore Noetherian ring and she's work in commutative algebra and topology and she's doctoral students... $\endgroup$
    – Ab_Sh
    Commented Jun 30, 2015 at 21:01
  • $\begingroup$ @2000 I know, I'm just saying that you can't treat her work in physics as negligible. $\endgroup$
    – HDE 226868
    Commented Jun 30, 2015 at 21:02
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    $\begingroup$ Of course. But usually people knows she as an mathematician, like hilbert,poincare,riemann,gauss,... they have many worthy works in physics. $\endgroup$
    – Ab_Sh
    Commented Jun 30, 2015 at 21:08

Related question: "What is the history of scientific Latin?" This answer to that question has a very nice quote by Gauss discussing his Latin:

From G. Waldo Dunnington's 2004 biography of Gauss, Carl Friedrich Gauss: Titan of Science, p. 37-8:

… Of unusual interest is the part which Meyerhoff⁶ took in this book [sc. Gauss's most important mathematical work: the Disquisitiones arithmeticæ]—the correction of the Latin.

⁶Johann Heinrich Jakob Meyerhoff (1770-1812) became in 1794 collaborator, and in 1802 director, of the gymnasium in Holzminden. He was thoroughly grounded and trained in the ancient and modern languages. As a Göttingen student he had won a golden prize medal for a Latin dissertationon the Phoenicians. Yet mathematics was rather foreign to him.

The above is striking enough, if one considers how little Gauss needed to mistrust his own proficiency in this respect. According to Moritz Cantor, Gauss wrote a classical Latin, giving rise to the expression that Cicero, if he could understand the mathematics of it, would have censured nothing in the Gaussian Latinity, except perhaps several customary incorrect modes of expression which Gauss used purposely. But it was Latin just the same and therefore attractive and stimulating to only a narrow circle of readers. Referring to Meyerhoff's work, Gauss wrote:

Of course I understand that it cannot be an especially attractive work for Mr. Meyerhoff, since he does not seem to be sufficiently acquainted with mathematics, in order to look on it just as reading. Thus the word algorithmus was unknown to him. Only on a single point must I take the liberty of disagreeing with him. I well know that si with the subjunctive is not good Latin; but modern mathematicians seem to have made for themselves the rule of constantly using the subjunctive in hypotheses and definitions; I do not remember an example of the opposite, and in Huyghens, who according to my notion writes the most elegant Latin and whom I purposely, therefore, have imitated, I find the subjunctive continually in these cases. I open at random and find Opera, p. 156, Quodsi fuerit; p. 157, Si sit, si fiat, si agitetur; p. 158, si suspendatur; pp. 188 seqq. are examples by the dozen. Therefore, since in this instance the desire to be a genuine Roman would be only purism (which as far as I am concerned would be less allowable, because I am well minded not to be so in any case) and the thing is not at all absurd in itself, I went with the current. I hope Mr. M. will not take offense at me. What was incomprehensible to him in the accedere possunt, p. 5, I have not been able able to guess; I have therefore let it stand. The passage p. 7, which previously ran thus: Si numeri decadice expressi figuræ singulæ sine respectu loci quem occupant addantur, Mr. M. misunderstood, because he probably didn't know that figuræ means numbers; he took numeri for the nominative plural and figuræ for the dative singular and on that account suggested to me that singulus is not wrong; but just for this reason a mathematician will probably not construe it incorrectly, chiefly because it doesn't make sense; nevertheless I have now arranged the words somewhat differently by this time.

Thus, Gauss seems to have worked with a mathematical Latin based on classical Latin. Gauss also wasn't afraid to innovate the Latin. It seemed to be a truly living language to him.

Gauss's Dictionary of Scientific Biography entry says:

He published in Latin not from internationalist sentiments but at the demands of his publishers.

Thus, it seems that the publishers played a role in phasing out Latin and thus allowing the adoption of German.

Wilhelm Weber, Gauss's student, never wrote any scientific Latin, to my knowledge. His famous works are in German.


A brief nubbin of an answer, but I think neglected by other answers: Bismarck's big centralized push to subsidize science and industry, in order to overtake Britain in such, in particular (and perhaps also France, et al).

This is similar to the U.S.'s NSF-and-other strong federal subsidization of "hard science" after WWII, both because "the bomb won the war" (not to mention crypto...), and to keep ahead of the main competitor, the Russians (who did acquire "the bomb", and, on top of everything, orbited Sputnick first, etc.)

So, at the very least, there was another "golden period" of U.S. mathematics, namely, post-WWII until perhaps the collapse of the former Soviet Union c. 1990. Well-funded, high-esteem. This tended to promote English as "the language of science" in and after that period...


German physics and the Journal "Poggendorff's Annalen" contributed to German becoming a scientific language in circa 1840s.

From Jungnickel & McCormmach's Second Physicist: On the History of Theoretical Physics in Germany (2017), "Chapter 6: Physics Research in “Poggendorff’s Annalen” in the 1840s," "§6.1 Foreign Recognition of German Physics," pp. 137-8:

In an important respect, Poggendorff’s Annalen in the middle of the nineteenth century was a different journal than the one he began editing twenty some years before. New foreign physics in translations and reports still had a prominent place in it, but the German physics appearing there was no longer in its shadow. The Annalen now regularly published work by German physicists that equaled, and occasionally surpassed, the best work by foreign physicists. At the same time, German work was gaining recognition abroad. This was a greater achievement than one might think, particularly in France. Humboldt had found in his many years abroad that the German language did not “flourish excessively in the great Babel,” and that at the Institut de France “almost everything is lost that is sent in in German without excerpt and explanation.”1 Even a paper by Gauss might get lost, the reason why Humboldt translated his paper on absolute measures before submitting it. The Journal de mathématiques pures et appliquées published no German mathematical physics at all in the early years following its founding by Joseph Liouville in 1836. Through the 1830s, the Comptes rendus and the Annales de chemie et physique together published only about a dozen papers on German physics. In the 1840s these journals added nearly a dozen new German names, mainly those of experimentalists though including the mathematical physicists Neumann and his student Kirchhoff. It was not until the 1850s that German physics came to be published in the Annales as copiously as foreign physics had long been published in the German Annalen. Twenty-five German physicists and well over 100 of their papers appeared in the Annales between 1850 and 1863, and German mathematical physics now received almost as much attention as German experimental physics. Experimentalists such as Magnus, Plücker, and Buff were represented by more papers than before, and the mathematical physicist Clausius appeared eight times and Kirchhoff thirteen. Liouville’s Journal, however, continued to publish very little German mathematical physics: of the new physicists, only Clausius appeared there with a single paper on the mechanical theory of heat in 1855.2

In Britain in the 1830s and 1840s, German physics papers appeared very occasionally in the Philosophical Magazine and the Edinburgh New Philosophical Journal, but frequently in Taylor’s Scientific Memoirs. The Memoirs published the work of experimentalists, Magnus again, H. W. Dove, and Hermann Knoblauch, and also a good many theoretical works. The volume for 1841 contained a translation of Ohm’s 1827 theory, Galvanic Circuit, as well as of ten other, more recent German physics papers, mainly those by Gauss and Weber dealing with Earth magnetism. The volume for 1853 was devoted almost entirely to German work, including Helmholtz’s memoir on the conservation of force and many papers by Clausius. This being the last volume of the Memoirs, from then on the Philosophical Magazine assumed the responsibility of frequently publishing German physics papers. By the 1850s the work of German physicists could be read in translation in Britain about as regularly as the work of British physicists could be read by German physicists in the Annalen.


  1. A. v. Humboldt to Gauss, 17 February 1833, in Alexander von Humboldt, Briefe zwischen A. v. Humboldt und Gauss. Zum hunderjährigen Geburtstage von Gauss am 30. April 1877, ed. Karl Bruhns (Leipzig, 1977), 23.

  2. Our account of German physics in foreign publications is based on our survey of the journals mentioned. The work by German physicists appearing in the Comptes rendus of the Paris Academy of Sciences constituted a minute fraction of the journal’s contents. The German physicists who published there in the 1840s were Dove (2 papers), Holtzmann (1), Kirchhoff (2), G. Karsten (1), Magnus (2), J. R. Mayer (3), Moser (2), Plücker (3), Poggendorff (2), Reich (2), and Wiedemann (1). In the 1840s Liouville’s Journal published only three papers on mathematical physics by Germans: by Gauss (1) and Neumann (2). In the same decade, the Annales published papers by Buff (1), Dove (2), Magnus (3), Moser (1), Poggendorff (4), and A. Seebeck (1). In the subsequent period, 1850–63, the Annales published work by many more German physicists: Beer (2 and 1 with Plücker) Beetz (2), Buff (9 and 1 with Wöhler), Clausius (8), Dove (2), Eisenlohr (2), Hankel (1), Helmholtz (8 including some on physiology), Holtzmann (1), Kirchhoff (13), Knoblauch (6) R. Kohlrausch (3), Magnus (13), J. R. Mayer (1), J. Müller (2), Neumann (1), J. F. Pfaff (2), Plücker (8), Poggendorff (4), Quincke (7), Reich (3), Riess (6), Weber (1 with Kohlrausch), Wiedemann (11), and Wüllner (3); Gauss appeared with a paper on mathematical physics.

  3. The survey of the Annalen for these years, on which the figures and discussions of the research published there are based, is our own. In 1840–1845, the ordinary professors of physics publishing in the Annalen were Buff (1 paper, 13 pages), Dove (8, 151), Fechner (6, 127), Magnus (4, 77), Moser (7, 143), J. Müller (1, 10), Muncke (1, 1), Neumann (1, 28), Osann (1, 25), C. H. Pfaff (4, 93), Pohl (1, 24), and Weber (5, 90). German physicists publishing there who later became ordinary professors were: Beetz (1, 18), Feilitzsch (3, 58), Hankel (6, 121), G. Karsten (2, 33), Kirchhoff (1, 18), Knoblauch (1, 12), Ohm (5, 98), and A. Seebeck (8, 169). Physicists at the Berlin Academy were: Poggendorff (18, 355) and Riess (10, 194).


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