Message 2001-12-0012: Re: languages in PhyloCode

Sat, 17 Nov 2001 16:48:55 +0100

[Previous by date - Re: Fw: languages in PhyloCode]
[Next by date - Re: Fw: languages in PhyloCode]
[Previous by subject - Re: languages in PhyloCode]
[Next by subject - Re: on universaliy of Phylocode]

Date: Sat, 17 Nov 2001 16:48:55 +0100
From: David Marjanovic <>
To: PhyloCode mailing list <>
Subject: Re: languages in PhyloCode

> On the other hand, I strongly oppose Pete Buchholz's
> proposal (above), seconded by David Marjanovic.  These six languages
> have presumably been chosen as the official languages of the UN
> because they are the most widely spoken.  However, the key question
> for us is what proportion of the world's systematic biologists (or
> perhaps biologists in general) CAN'T read a particular language.
> Scientific publications should be written in a language that a
> maximal number of the likely readers can understand, even if it isn't
> their first language.  Is there any doubt that English is the
> language that is most widely understood (in writing) by the world's
> scientists?

No. And I'm sure 99 % of all diagnoses, definitions etc. would be written in
English whether the proposal were implemented or not.

> I suspect that the proportion of the
> world's scientists who can read Arabic is very low.

By far most biologists who would write a paper in Arabic would use English
as the second language, and the rest would certainly use French.

> Ditto for Chinese and Russian.

There are incredible lots of Chinese scientists. When I look at papers in
Nature and Science, not necessarily Chinese journals as Vertebrata
PalAsiatica or Palaeontologia Sinica, I think they get their "fair share" in
accord with China's proportion of the world population.

>  In other words, it is far more likely that a
> scientist whose native language is Arabic, Chinese, or Russian can
> read English than the reverse.

True. Hence 2 languages and not 1.

> Doesn't the UN provide translators at its sessions?  If a delegate
> speaks in Arabic, for example, isn't this translated into all of the
> other official languages as needed by other delegates?

I think a large part of biological journals would _continue_ to translate
their abstracts into at least one other language.
I have two papers lying in front of me which represent the results of the
Sino-Belgian expedition to Inner Mongolia and describe new basal mammals and
dinosaurs. They have 3 abstracts each, in English, French and Chinese
(interestingly not in Dutch/Flamish).
All German paleontological journals I know, where by far most papers are
written in English, have English and German abstracts, and French or Spanish
ones occur likewise. At least one German journal has a rule that all _cited
article titles_ must be accompanied by English translations!

> In contrast,
> if a qualifying clause or a diagnosis were written in Arabic, who
> would translate it for the many biologists who can't read this
> language?

How many biologists are there (at the moment) who speak Arabic at all, and
how many of these wouldn't use English or French (alone or not) to write
scientific papers? Under the above proposal, how many of the rest -- if it
exists -- wouldn't use English or French as the second language?

> Requiring that definitions or diagnoses be written in two
> of the six languages

(an important part of the proposal)

> makes it more likely that one of them will be
> understood, but it will be as much of a nuisance for the authors of
> systematic papers as the botanical requirement for a Latin diagnosis
> is.

It certainly can't be worse than the current situation under ICZN (which is
in theory "everything goes" and in practice that at least the abstract and
the figure captions are translated into English; usually the whole paper is
in English, and the abstract & captions are translated into the native
languages of the journal editors).

It may be a nuisance for US scientists, a disproportionately large amount of
whom traditionally doesn't speak any foreign language. I don't want to start
a thread on politics, whether it may be better that way (encouraging
everyone to learn languages) or such.

> And what if the two languages chosen are Chinese and Russian?

1. _very_ unlikely
2. today it seems to occur that Chinese alone is used in obscure journals
and books
3. you'll rather find someone who can read _any one_ of these than any
_specific one_ of them

> I think this rule would be a huge impediment to communication.

I think it might be a slight improvement over the present situation. The
real impediment today is that many journals are very difficult to find.

> Any of the following four options is fine with me:
> 1) Phylogenetic definitions must be in English or Latin (the current
> 2) Phylogenetic definitions must be in English, Latin, or French.
> 3) Phylogenetic definitions must be in English or French.
> 4) Phylogenetic definitions must be in English.  [I think this is
> less desirable for political reasons, but if this proposal is widely
> supported by people who are not native English speakers, I would
> withdraw this objection.]

What about "must be in English and one other official UN language or Latin"?
This would quite closely reproduce the status quo for most journals outside
the USA and UK, as far as I know.

I don't think that misunderstandings are likely to arise between wordings of
definitions in different languages (at least I can't think of a concrete
case). Well, using symbols would restrict all such potential problems to
definitions that include apomorphies. Even then most* technical terms are
the same in most languages (excluding Chinese and Icelandic).

*Amphiplatyan vertebrae are "biplan" in German.


Feedback to <> is welcome!