Why do physicists speak English?

That is, why are they more prone to use English terms to describe things (e.g. “black hole”) than biologists or chemists, who generally derive their vocabulary from Latin or Greek roots? Also, is it a preference for English specifically, or just for whatever the local language happens to be (e.g., “agujero negro” in Spain)?


:confused: Physicists use lots of technical terms derived from Latin and Greek: thermodynamics, kinetic energy, relativity, electron, neutron, just to name a few.

Yes, the international language of physics nowadays, insofar as physicists can be described as having one common language, is English. But that’s true for chemistry and biology and other sciences too.

I think what you may be asking is “Are English-speaking physicists more likely than English-speaking biologists or chemists to use Germanic rather than Greek or Latin roots when coining a new technical term in their field?”

If so, I think the answer is probably no. It’s just that the “catchiest” physics technical terms that you happen to hear are ones that use informal ordinary language (possibly with Germanic rather than Greek or Latin roots) like “black hole”, rather than formal academic constructions like “dihedral symmetry”. You remember the term “black hole” and forget “dihedral symmetry”, so the language of physics sounds more “English” to you.

Well, for one thing, chemistry and biology started off by cataloging a whole bunch of stuff at a time when Latin was the language of education - naming conventions for species and elements were influenced a lot by that history. Physics, on the other hand, doesn’t have nearly so many objects (as opposed to processes or what-have-you - thermodynamics, kinematics, etc.) that need naming; there are a bunch of particles, but not as many as species, and while some of them (proton, electron) have Greek or Latin roots, there wasn’t really a naming system in place the way biology and chemistry had. So, you get more recently discovered particles with names like quark, which has fuck-all to do with Greek or Latin. Of course, it has fuck-all to do with English, either, except that it’s now part of the lexicon.

Quark is German.

Black holes are definitely agujeros negros in Spanish, yes. And thermodynamics is termodinámica (or termodinamismo, we even have dialectal variations for the term!), and kinetics is cinética, and …

Other factors affecting why a new term will be coined using latin/greek roots or not are what language you’re in (I’m currently studying something called Translation Studies by most of the English-language schools teaching it, but Translatologie in French, Translatología or Ciencias de la Traducción in Spanish, and sometimes Translatology in articles in English whose writer has English as a second language), whether the new word belongs to a group of words which has traditionally used latin/greek roots or not, and whether the researcher feels a need to prove his importance and that of his field by “sounding scholarly” (the first people working in Translation Studies back in the 50s felt the need to borrow and mangle the Greek word Skopos, because a plain English “scope” didn’t sound scholarly enough; I’m reasonably sure that physicists don’t need to convince people that what they’re doing is science).

Actually, quark is a made-up word. It’s spelling was influenced by a made-up word from Joyce, but Murray Gell-Mann coined it out of the blue.

German and many other languages have borrowed it, but that’s to be expected.

Did you read the link? Quark means “curd” in German.
It has nothing to do with the particle, however, which is called the same, but pronounced with an “oh” sound like in English as opposed to the “ah” sound in the original German word. But as you’d probably expect, most people get the pronounciation wrong.

Why should it be pronounced the same way as a German word that it has no connection with? For the record, Gell-Mann (ne Gellman) took it from Joyce’s line “Three quarks for Muster Mark” and was undoubtedly influenced by the fact that there were three of them (in the first generation and he may not have known about the rest then).

One of my favorite German terms in physics is Bremsstrahlung, but the English translation “braking radiation” is equally as prevalent.

I know that it’s a different word, I said so in my post.
I just commented on the dtilque’s second sentence, which is true in a way, but misleading.

There are some other German terms in Physics from the late 19th and early 20th century, the aforementioned Bremsstrahlung, Eigenvektor, Gedankenexperiment.

My favorite: Zustandssumme. For summing over all possible states in Thermodynamics.

But most pre-WWII physics seems to have names from classical languages, romance languages, or after the name of a famous physicist. Proton and electron are greek, neutrino is Italian, pion, tauon, etc are obviously greek. Entropy, enthalpy, adiabatic and calorie are greek. You get the point.

Its only after WWII, when the centers of physics research moved to the States (and Westerners in general spent less time getting educated in classical langages), that new discoveries tended to have English names.

As is bremsstrahlung (radiation). Many commonly used terms are either eponyms or neologisms, and are (at least in Western literature) typically “in English” because that is the linqua franca of the sciences. However, if you read through the literature in other languages–particularly French and Italian–you’ll find that they have their own terms for many phenomena, and (at least in nuclear physics) the Russians had many independent terms to describe different phenomena. As to why the terms aren’t in Greek, Latin, Aramaic, whatever, it is because they phenomena or objects they describe weren’t discovered until the 19th or 20th century by English-speaking scientists, and published in journals written in English. Whereas many concepts in chemistry and medicine were derived from Aristotelian scholarship (and most Western scientists in the pre-20th century era were well acquainted with the teachings and philosophy of Aristotle), the modern physics of the 20th century developed concepts that were unknown to and often in contravention of that even remotely understood or conceived of by the Greeks. For the same reasons, many terms and names in astronomy are derived from Arabic and Persian.


There’s two types of quark per generation, not three: The three comes from the number of quarks in a nucleon (two of one type and one of the other). And Gell-Mann was also influenced by, of all things, the sound made by a seagull. Murray Gell-Mann was, to say the least, rather eccentric.

Back to the OP, though, even before Gell-Mann gave them the name “quarks”, it was already speculated that protons and neutrons were composed of three smaller particles each, but these then-hypothetical particles were called “partons”, because they were the parts that protons and neutrons were made of. So there you have a physics term which did derive directly from the English word.


“Parton” wasn’t introduced by Feynman until 1968, four years after Gell-Mann introduced “quark”.
The latter is also very clear in the paper which introduced the term that he’s relating the “three quarks” in his reference to Joyce to the fact that his model at the time involved a triplet of particles to be called up, down and strange quarks, rather than there would be three of them in a baryon.

And it was Joyce, not Gell-Mann, who involved the seagulls.


If it is named for “Three quarks for Muster Mark” then shouldn’t it be pronounced with an “ah” to rhyme with “Mark”?

Gell-Mann got it from Joyce, who got it from the German.

It also means quark in German. Which is a completely different, unrelated word that happens to share the same spelling. This is a common situation in English, but I expect it’s probably fairly rare in German.

You could argue all day and write scholarly papers, etc about where and how and under what influences Joyce came up with his various coinages. So I’ll neither agree with nor dispute where this particular one comes from. I’ll just say that it seems unlikely from the context that the German word influenced Joyce in this instance.

But Gell-Mann made very clear when asked that he coined the word out of the blue. He had a pronunciation in mind (which linguists will tell you is the primary form of words) but was uncertain how he wanted to spell it. Then he ran across the line from Joyce and that was it.

I think runcible spoon has the most important answer.

In astronomy, however, which is often accepted as a branch of physics, there are many objects to name. Stars are the best example but of course there are others. Many of these names derive from other languages. I can’t think of many that are known by English names - the Pistol Star, the Ant and Owl Nebulae, the Milky Way, the Southern Cross. Mostly it is names from other languages.

It sure sounded like some of my college physics profs were speaking Greek.

“Milky Way” is just the English translation of the Greek-based “Galaxy” (and in fact, when capitalized, “the Galaxy” does refer specifically to our own Milky Way), and in any context other than amateur stargazing, constellations are almost always referred to by their Latin name (“Crux/Crucis” for the Southern Cross). Non-naked-eye objects, though, are given some boring catalog number, and if they’re named at all, it’s almost always in the native language of their discoverer (often English, nowadays): See also the Dumbbell Nebula, the Eskimo Nebula, the Lagoon Nebula, the Sombrero Galaxy, the Pinwheel Galaxy, etc.