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My impression is that most math papers (and almost all of the most important ones) are now published in English. Not long ago (historically) publishing in French, German, Russian, etc. were more common. I'm curious when and how this transition occurred, and what it looked like while it was happening.

Of course English is the dominant language for many other areas such as publications in the sciences in general, international business, the internet, etc. Nonetheless I have the impression that the transition occurred later and more slowly in math than in some of these other areas. This may be false; I don't know why I think this.

Perhaps I have this idea because math graduate programs are unique among technical fields in having a language requirement, though that could also be explained by our tendency to read more old papers than say, biologists. But it seems plausible that the transition would occur later in math because math can be more easily undertaken as a solitary activity than the sciences.

My main question is: where would I find data on the representation of different languages in papers in top math journals as, say, a fraction of total papers? Of course I could try to determine what the top journals were at various times and go through their tables of contents for each issue and compile such data myself. But it seems plausible someone may have already done a study of this and in much more depth than I would have time to do by myself.

Secondarily, perhaps there are published anecdotal accounts about how and when this transition occurred? I can imagine there may have been resistance by some. It may have happened at different times in different subfields for different reasons. Perhaps some landmark papers in English paved the way.

I would be grateful for pointers to literature examining any of these issues. Comparisons with other fields such as physics would also be interesting, but I'm primarily interested in math.

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The transition was called the Second World War. –  José Figueroa-O'Farrill Aug 26 '10 at 15:57
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Publishing in French still occurs. For example, Toen writes much in french: arxiv.org/find/math/1/au:+Toen_B/0/1/0/all/0/1 . Most work of Serre is published in French - but this may not really count since he is born before the war. The last famous article in German I am aware of is Faltings' famous Endlichkeitssätze für abelsche Varietäten über Zahlkörpern. –  Lennart Meier Aug 26 '10 at 16:13
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The A.R.M.A. published Clifford Truesdell's paper: Solutio generalis et accurata problematum quamplurimorum de motu corporum elasticorum incomprimibilium in deformationibus valde magnis, Vol. 11 (1962) pp. 106--113. –  Robin Chapman Aug 26 '10 at 18:56
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"When [Shannon] visited Moscow State University, he asked...to arrange a meeting with Kolmogorov...The meeting was very short. Apparently, this was due to the language barrier as well. Kolmogorov was fluent in French and German and read English well, but his spoken English was not very good. Shannon, with some sympathy, expressed his regret that they could not understand each other well. Kolmogorov replied that there were five international languages, he could speak three of them, and, if his interlocutor were also able to speak three languages, then they would have no problems." –  alex Aug 27 '10 at 1:47
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@alex, this should go into the thread about applications of the pigeonhole principle. –  Gerry Myerson Aug 27 '10 at 3:39

4 Answers 4

Now that the texts of all of the Plenary talks at the international congresses of mathematicians is available online, that could serve as a data source for the transition. This year, every plenary talk was in English, and none of the speakers (that I attended) were at all difficult to understand, at least not on account of the language.

Here are some years, and the number of Invited plenary Speakers whose title is in (English, French, German, Russian).

  • 1920: ( 2, 3, 0, 0), in Strasbourg
  • 1932: ( 2, 9, 9, 1), in Zurich
  • 1936: ( 7, 2,12, 0), in Oslo
  • 1950: (19, 2, 1, 0), in Cambridge
  • 1954: (14, 3, 2, 1), in Amsterdam
  • 1958: (13, 3, 2, 1), in Edinburgh
  • 1962: ( 9, 3, 1, 3), in Stockholm
  • 1966: ( 9, 1, 2, 5), in Moscow
  • 1970: (15, 1, 0, 0), in Nice
  • 1974: (15, 2, 0, 0), in Vancouver
  • 1978: (17, 0, 0, 0), in Helsinki
  • 1983: (12, 0, 0, 0), in Warsaw
  • 1986: (13, 0, 1, 1), in Berkeley
  • 1994: (14, 0, 0, 0), in Zurich
  • 1998: (15, 0, 0, 0), in Kyoto
  • 2002: (19, 1, 0, 0), in Beijing
  • 2006: (19, 0, 0, 0), in Madrid

    So the supposition that World War II is the cause isn't supported by this data. Certainly it impacted the use of German, but other languages were common until the 1970s. Something drastic seems to have happened between 1966 and 1970.

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Kevin, there is a huge change for German (your 3rd coordinate) from 1936 to 1950. The war happened in between and is the natural explanation if one takes into account the movement of many top German mathematicians to other countries in the 30s and 40s. Although WWII did not completely eliminate mathematical research articles written in German, it was very much reduced as an effect of the war and the downward trajectory was set. –  KConrad Aug 29 '10 at 17:27
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And taking in geopolitics, it is not hard to see why there were a resurgent of Russian talks in 1962 ad 1966. With only 3 data points pre-war, your data cannot really be used to support anything, especially since the 1950 and 58 meetings were held in English speaking cities. –  Willie Wong Aug 30 '10 at 9:02
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@Willie: I think the reason for Russian talks in 1966 is obvious. –  Gerald Edgar Aug 30 '10 at 13:08

This makes a little bit more precise what has already been said in the comments. This list of emigrants (most of them were forced to leave since they lost their jobs; this applies to Emmy Noether, Richard Brauer, and later to Artin, who had a Jewish wife. Siegel, as far as I know, left because he couldn't stand the situation).

One reason for founding the Mathematical Reviews, by the way, was the pressure on the Zentralblatt put up by German mathematicians (including Hasse) not to let emigrants review articles by Germans.

French and Russian were widely used after World War II because these countries had excellent and very influential mathematicians at the time.

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Russian saw a big decline after the end of the Soviet Union, when many Russian mathematicians moved to the West and they had an incentive to publish in English to reach a broader audience. The French are still fighting their losing battle :-) –  Felipe Voloch Aug 26 '10 at 18:09
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Even before the collapse of the USSR, in what major international journals based outside the Soviet Union were articles regularly published in Russian? I don't think I've ever seen any in Crelle or the Annals. (They did appear in Acta Arithmetica, probably since its home base was in Poland, although nothing of the sort has appeared there since the late 90s acc. to MathSciNet.) –  KConrad Aug 26 '10 at 19:10
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There's a stereotype of the French as being very proud of their language; this may have something to do with why they fight that battle. –  Michael Lugo Aug 26 '10 at 19:27
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@Michael Lugo: I tend to think that a very deep an important paper deserves to be published in the author's mother tongue unless she or he is really fluent in english. Such a paper is susceptible to carry subtle discussions, that need a precise use of the language. It will be read by lots of people, and that increases the need to be well-written. Besides, if it is important enough, it will easily find a translator. –  Benoît Kloeckner Aug 27 '10 at 8:43
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@Benoit: I don't buy your argument at all. Great mathematicians are not necessarily good writers (or speakers, for that matter). Does that mean that we should also get them a writer to polish their paper, before sending it to the translator? The French math literature is filled with really well-written paper, but I see that more as the by-product of the type of education received, that stressed good writing in French and not so much in English. From what I can tell, the upcoming generations have a much easier time with English, and writing in that language will not be a problem. –  Thierry Zell Aug 29 '10 at 18:03

Long comment:

MathSciNet can help you try to compile some rough statistics yourself with a bit less work than reading all the titles in a given journal. Their data include the language (if not English) of each indexed article. I don't think it appears in any of the individually searchable fields, but it is found in an "Anywhere" search. (Unfortunately, this will also catch articles with a "summary" in a non-English language.) So, for example, by searching with "Annals of Mathematics" in the Journal field and "French" in the Anywhere field, I found seven papers written in French published in the Annals of Mathematics in the last five years, the most recent being "Le lemme fondamental pour les groupes unitaires" by Gérard Laumon and Bao Châu Ngô.

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Also: the last German paper in the Annals was in 1989. –  Mark Meckes Aug 26 '10 at 23:55
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In Inventiones the last German paper was published in 1993, and in JAMS (which only started in 1988) there's a unique one and that in 1990. None in Pub. IHES, not surprisingly. In Acta Math. I can't tell because mathscinet has some erroneous information, but I think none after 1982. –  fherzig Aug 27 '10 at 1:17
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I think he likes his names in traditional Vietnamese order (excuse the lack of accents): Ngo Bao Chau . Or is this another author? Gerhard "Ask Me About System Design" Paseman, 2010.08.27 IST –  Gerhard Paseman Aug 27 '10 at 1:44
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For the purposes of accurate quotation, I copied Ngo's name directly from the paper in Annals. I also have heard he writes his name in traditional Vietnamese order, but at least in this case, Annals wrote it as "Bao Châu Ngô". A quick perusal of his other published papers suggests this is the order he always uses in publication. –  Mark Meckes Aug 27 '10 at 11:18
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... or rather more likely, the order forced upon him by the copy editors of certain journals. –  Willie Wong Aug 30 '10 at 9:06

In Physics and in Chemistry, particularly in Organic Chemistry, German was the lingua franca, the bridging language which it was necessary to know how to read and how to publish in, as the leading journals and the leading scientists communicated in German, but that was in the 19th century and the early parts of the 20th century. The mass exodus of scientists from Germany starting immediately prior to the Second World War seems to be a big part of the change, at least in the Physical Sciences.

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I just realized José Figueroa-O'Farrill mentioned the second World War in the comments to the question. I should add also that along with the exodus, there was also the "draw in", as the United States Governmental entities and Universities also pulled in German scientists and foreign graduate students. The perception that the hottest physical science research was being performed in the USA led to many graduate students choosing to come to the USA and to scientists agreeing to emigrate to the USA. –  ABh Aug 30 '10 at 0:21

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