Edward Sapir and Science Communities

Language has the power to analyze experience into theoretically dissociable elements and to create that world of the potential integrating with the actual which enables human beings to transcend the immediately given in their individual experiences and to join in a larger common understanding.

Edward Sapir

Scientific discovery is worth little if it is not shared, and language is the means by which science must presented both within the discipline of the scientist and to broader audience, whether they be other scientists or the general public. Language is, as Sapir says, “the reduction of experience to familiar form” (p.49). So why does scientific talk seem to be less than familiar to most, and another language to many?  Edward Sapir introduces two concepts of language that help us understand the meaning behind the language of science.

First, scientific paradigms are differentiated as disciplinary cultures. As Thomas Kuhn (1996) made clear, scientific disciplines follow paradigms used to understand the physical world around us. These paradigms are often complex and use a complex symbolic lexicon or vocabulary to reference observations with precision and accuracy. This vocabulary is more than names of objects or even processes specific to the discipline. The vocabulary permit abstraction and modeling of a mental world that formulates the nature of reality according to the paradigm. “Language is primarily a vocal actualization of the tendency to see realities symbolically” (p. 50), and the use of language is essential to the scientific method.

Second, scientists, through language, associate themselves with specific disciplinary cultures. The scientific jargon holds special meaning to those specifically trained in and practicing the paradigm. One scientist meeting another from the same discipline will assume a certain paradigmatic framework of understanding and the vocabulary that comes with it. “The mere fact of a common speech serves as a peculiarly potent symbol of the social solidarity of those who speak the language” (p. 50). Sapir continues:

A great deal of the cultural stock in trade of a primitive society is presented in more or less well defined linguistic form. Proverbs, medicine formulae, standardized payers, folk tales, standardized speeches, song texts, genealogies are some of the more overt forms which language takes as a culture-preserving instrument. (p. 51)

Modern science is anything by primitive, but it is cultural. Like in culture, both primitive and modern, these disciplinary linguistic forms are are used to teach young scientists, detail how the science is enacted, and ensure mutual understanding and sharing of knowledge of the science between disciplinary practitioners. The use of a unique vocabulary, combined with disciplinary specific teaching and  practices, help specify the cultural artifacts that associate a scientific paradigm with a disciplinary culture. These artifacts, through both language and practice, distinguish the discipline from others disciplines and the public.

The common understanding of what defines different languages tends to focus on phonetic differences. But as Sapir points out, language is also how we talk and in what cultural context the talk is constituted. Scientific disciplines demonstrate both unique ways of talking as well as unique cultural artifacts delineated by their paradigms.

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