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I'm always amazed by the the apparent amount of foreign languages that scientists in the 18th and 19th centuries seem to have possessed. With the end of Latin as the main scholarly language, researchers started to write in their mother tongue. I'm aware that sometimes papers got translated when they were reprinted in a foreign journal, which was pretty common back then (the reprinting, not the translation as far as I know…), but it seems obvious for example in the field of botany in Germany, that people had to have a command (at least to the level of a reading comprehension) of at least Latin, French, and English in order to participate in scholarly discourse.

I was wondering where and how scientists acquired those skills, or if this is a case where there is a nowadays unknown army of translators that facilitated the discourse and bridged the gap in that way.

P.S.: I asked this question on the history SE as well.

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  • $\begingroup$ Gymnasia; home tutors; self-study. $\endgroup$ – Moishe Kohan Aug 9 '17 at 11:49
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A typcial gymnasium in Germany in the 19th century would offer courses in Latin, Ancient Greek and French, as well as in Hebrew (probably only for Jewish students). If you wanted to learn other languages (Gauss started learning Russian when he was quite old already) you needed a tutor. For scientific purposes, Latin, French and German covered more than 90 % of the important literature during much of the 19th century. In mathematics, there exist several translations of German texts into French, but I am not aware of a single translation of a French text into German during the 19th century.

Another way of learning languages was the "grand tour", which was fashionable up to the early 18th century.

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I can think of several reasons.

First of all, in the 18th and 19th centuries, most science was conducted in Europe, within a fairly narrow (though linguistically diverse) area. People of the time that were wealthy and educated enough to be scientists traveled enough, or at least received enough travelers from nearby countries, to have a lot of it "rub" off on them.

Second, the scope of scientific vocabulary is much narrower, and has much more in common with each other from one language to another than everyday language. That is, an intensive "scientific English" or "scientific German" course can teach most people what they need to know within a few hundred hours.

I have read anecdotally that when e.g. Albert Einstein first came to the U.S., he had little trouble with "scientific" English, but a lot of trouble going down to the corner grocery store, the kind of thing every ten year old native speaker knows. I have personally had the same issues with non-English languages.

In botany, a lot of the terminology has Latin roots and most educated people in the 18th and 19th centuries studied Latin as well as their native language. They may or may not be so good at the "English" or "French" part of the discipline (if that wasn't their native tongue).Even so, a study of Latin would help with French, and a knowledge of German or English would help with the other.

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In the 18th century, the main characteristic was not to be a scientist but to be a scholar which means to be literate and be able to write latim and read latim, greek, hebrew and arabic.

Of course for your day to day life where you also supposed to speak the language (or languages) of the country in which you lived, as well as the language of the court you were part of.

Add that people were traveling a lot more than today, and that traveling was implying much longer stops of a month or two, between cities with different local dialect. At the time there was not a one German or an Italian but hundreds of dialects.

To live in country with 3-4 languages did not seams to bother people very much, and to master 10-12 languages was certainly a distinctive mark of education.

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