I think this is a very interesting question, though I have no idea for
an objective way of assessing experimentally the scientific efficiency
of a language, and even less for theorizing the results of such an
However the answers already given and their comments are rather
surprising to me as they appear almost exclusively concerned with
Terminology seems to be the easy part. It does matter to
some extent, as science is always in need for new words. For example, it seems that English does not mind too much
creating new words, or assembling them into new expressions. French
(at least in France) seems more reluctant and less flexible.
Neologisms are more awkward. It may be related to a traditionally more
prescriptive view of the language, possibly due to the creation of the
French Academy in the 17th century. It may also be due to even more
centuries of efforts to unify the country (which lead to political
centralisation), and unifying the language was one way to achieve
that (though Language Myths has arguments that may indicate that these considerations were not relevant). Still, France has managed to do reasonably well in the sciences.
Terminology hurdles are somewhat easy to overcome. If a
word is needed, one will be found or created, or borrowed.
I think the issue of suitability for scientific thought has more to do
with morphology (inflexion) and syntax, inasmuch as they are the main
vehicle for expressing relations in the semantics of sentences.
Scientific thought is about establishing and organizing relations (temporal, causal, hypothetical
...) between facts and phenomena, about organizing the world in a net
of relations. If the kind of relation that is needed is not
expressible in the language, it will not be available in the thinking
and the scientific knowledge will not be able to develop.
This connects somewhat to the ideas of Thomas Kuhn regarding
scientific revolutions which, according to him, are based on a
conceptual change of perspective. But to work with new concepts, you
must be able to express them in your language. Progress in the
mathematics has been highly dependent on the development of
mathematical notation (the language of mathematics) to express the
needed concepts (the notation for zero is a classical example).
The significant development of scientific reasonning in ancient Grece
seems directly related to the development of rethorics, the art of
discourse, which goes much beyond a mastery of terminology.
To get back to more direct experience, the difficult part in learning
a new language (say Russian or ancient Greek, for example) is not so much
learning the vocabulary, or even the morphology and syntax rules. It
is to grasp the semantic relations that are expressed with the
morphology and the syntax, and can be significantly different from
other languages (I am thinking for example of verb tenses).
I believe that it is precisely these structures that are essential for
scientific thinking. Now, it would require more knowledge than I have
to assess the suitability of this or that language, or language
feature, for science. It could even be that it depends on the kind of
science or of scientific activity.
Added after comments (June 7, 2013) :
I am adding this to reply to comments. But I feel pushed to the limit
of what I can assert credibly.
I made the assumption that discourse structure and expression of
relations is expressed through syntax more than through
terminology. The assumption is likely to result to some extent from my
ignorance and biases, and it would really require a systematic analysis
in a variety of languages. This analysis itself would demand
knowing/identifying the fundamental semantic concepts and relations
that are essential for science, probably through synchronic and
diachronic, and probably cultural (I am not sure what is the correct
technical term) analysis scientific texts. They might even differ
somewhat according to the scientific areas concerned. I would be
suprised if nothing had been done/published already.
Contrasting it with texts that give non scientific (to be defined,
without anachronisms) explanations of the world might be useful too.
The work of historians of science would probably be an important
Regarding isolation vs inflection, I have little to say. I am not
competent to speak, but my intuitive understanding is that they both have
expressive power for structuring a sentence, which is really
what I was trying to say. For example, if you cannot express clearly
what is implied when you state that all linguists are liars, I am not
sure you will be able to develop modern scientific knowledge and
I am also wondering whether some languages might have a greater affinity
for ambiguity or multiplicity of meanings, and whether it could have
an impact on scientific thinking.
Regarding the tenses of verbs, it was in my personnal experience the
first thing that struck me as capable of impacting systematically the
way some people think of (for lack of a better expression) correlation
of events. How much these variations may affect scientific thinking, I
do not know.
Not totally unrelated reference. There was a SE discussion on programming languages and natural language: Are programming languages becoming more like natural languages?